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Meet Six American Distillers Giving Scotch Some Serious Competition

Although many people hear “single malt” and automatically think “Scotch,” pioneers are bringing the concept to America, often with a few key twists.

Many of these producers use local ingredients. Seattle’s Westland Distillery, for instance, has explored aging Pacific Northwest barley in barrels made from a native species of oak, while Santa Fe Spirits smokes southwestern-grown mesquite wood for vessels that impart sweet, meaty notes reminiscent of barbecue. Others draw on craft-beer culture, working with malted barley in ways rarely seen in Scotland, like roasting malt to various levels for complex layers of flavor.

The growing group of distillers making American single malts also represents an increased awareness of whiskey terroir. Many consider factors like raw and sourced materials, climate and altitude and their effects on how a whiskey drinks and matures.

As the number of American single malts continues to rise, producers want the category to be protected by the U.S. government alongside rye or Bourbon. In 2016, a trade group, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC), was formed, which includes more than 70 distilleries.

“We want those words [single-malt whiskey] to mean something,” says Matt Hofmann, master distiller at Seattle’s Westland Distillery. “We want it to carry some weight.”

The ASMWC has suggested standards to define the category, including that an American single malt must be made exclusively from malted barley and be mashed, distilled and matured in the U.S.

Who are the passionate distillers that are moving the American single-malt category forward? Here’s a look at six of the personalities behind the stills.

Rob Dietrich of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey
Rob Dietrich of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey / Photo by Bryce Boyer

The Artisan

Rob Dietrich, Master Distiller, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, Denver

Ask Dietrich how he got into the distilling business, and his answer is simple: motorcycles.

There’s a bit more to the story. Dietrich met Jake Norris, Stranahan’s former distiller, as he and a friend worked on a diesel motorcycle project. Dietrich had built a bike designed to run off vegetable oil.

“I was very much into alternative fuel,” he says. Norris was attempting to build a motorcycle that would be powered by waste generated by the whiskey stills. The two started to work on hybrid motorcycles at the distillery, but Dietrich’s attention soon turned elsewhere.

“The moment I walked in there and saw that 100-gallon copper still gleaming in the sunlight, I knew I wanted to learn how to make that machine run,” says Dietrich. “I was so intrigued by it.”

Dietrich persuaded founder/owner Jess Graber that Stranahan’s needed a night shift. He joined the distillery in 2006 and adopted the role of “night ninja,” steadily progressing until 2011, when he became master distiller. The operation’s portfolio now includes whiskeys like a bottling finished in Sherry casks and an earthy single malt with a molasses-like finish reminiscent of a Christmas fruitcake.

Originally from Colorado, Dietrich previously spent 10 years in the music business, primarily in San Francisco, and served three years with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, where he embarked on two combat tours in Somalia and went to Haiti for a humanitarian tour concentrating on relief operations.

“I’ve always gone after vocations I was passionate about,” says Dietrich. “Every job I’ve taken has given me a form of education.” Distilling was also a learning experience, he says. He shrugs off the “master” part of his title.

“To me, that just means that it’s your job to keep educating yourself,” he says. “I look at it this way: I am the steward of the whiskey right now. There was a steward before me, and it’s my job to give this legacy to the next steward, so they can take it forward.”

In the meantime, he works at what he calls “whiskey art.”

“It’s a visceral, three-dimensional art,” he says, not unlike building motorcycles.

From left to right: Ian Thomas of Virginia Distillery Company / Marian Cunningham, Assistant Distiller
From left to right: Ian Thomas of Virginia Distillery Company / Marian Cunningham, Assistant Distiller / Photo by Ryan Donnell

The Scientist

Ian Thomas, Distillery Director/Head Distiller, Virginia Distillery Company, Lovingston, VA

Thomas started his career in the lab. After studying biology and fermentation at the University of Tennessee, he worked as a microbiologist for Lallemand, a food production conglomerate, where he bred and tested yeast cultures for bakers, brewers and distillers.

From there, he was approached to help launch Big River Distilling Company in Memphis, a microdistillery focused on vodka production made from heirloom starch sources like local corn and barley. Thomas finally landed at Virginia Distillery Company in 2016 after a brief period spent consulting for other distilleries.

“I’ve always had a great passion for whiskey, single malts, everything whiskey,” says Thomas. “What attracted me to working with whiskey specifically here was the traditional approach that they took, being able to hone in on the processes and getting an opportunity to perform them and work them and teach them to the rest of my staff,” which includes Assistant Distiller Marian Cunningham, pictured with Thomas.

While a microbiologist might focus on the scientific minutiae of whiskey production, it was the barrel-aging process that fascinated Thomas the most.

“There’s something very romantic about whiskey and the time it takes to age,” he says. “You put new-make spirit into a barrel, and you have to be very patient.”

A part of his distillation education was working with Dr. Jim Swan, an influential, Scotland-based consultant who passed away last year. Seen as a whiskey legend, Swan’s expertise in wood management and casks helped shape Thomas’s perspective of its importance in whiskey making.

Now, Virginia Distillery Company is especially progressive when it comes to its finishes, which include annual Chardonnay- and cider-finished bottlings. There’s also a limited-edition whiskey finished in barrels that once soaked in cold brew coffee from Trager Brothers Coffee, a local roaster.

A Port-cask-finished whiskey loaded with dark fruit and spice is the company’s flagship, but Thomas is also at work on a Sherry-finished version that he says will be a blend of whiskeys finished in oloroso, fino and Pedro Ximénez Sherry casks.

Daric Schlesselman and Sarah Ludington of Van Brunt Stillhouse.
Daric Schlesselman and Sarah Ludington of Van Brunt Stillhouse / Photo by Paul Aresu

The Hipsters

Daric Schlesselman, Co-Owner/Head Distiller and Sarah Ludington, Co-Owner/Director of Sales and Marketing, Van Brunt Stillhouse, Brooklyn, NY

In a former factory in Brooklyn, Schlesselman and his wife, Sarah Ludington, make a whiskey that’s honeyed and approachable.

“This was a hobby of mine that I converted into a business six years ago,” says Schlesselman, who previously worked as an editor for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. To relax, he would garden, pick fruit and make cider or beer at home.

“I was very much a maker, a DIY-er, in my free time,” he says. “As years went by, I realized I wanted to do less sitting in front of a computer and be more analog. I wanted to do what I love all the time, which meant getting my hands dirty and making things.”

Whiskey wasn’t his original focus, however.

“I had this crazy idea to buy a still and start making brandy at home,” says Schlesselman. “New Year’s Eve, I was at a party and looking at the back of a bottle of French brandy about the storied family history. That’s when it occurred to me that it could be an artisanal activity.”

Van Brunt Stillhouse opened in 2012, when few other distilleries existed in New York City. At the time, whiskey had re-established itself in NYC cocktail culture, as Old Fashioneds and other like concoctions became vogue. While Schlesselman focused on making the spirits, Ludington, a trained architect, turned her attention toward building out the distillery in a former paint factory near Red Hook’s waterfront and setting up an adjacent tasting room with a rustic lodge-meets-marina aesthetic.

Though Schlesselman experimented with grappa and rum, he ultimately drew on his affection for single-malt Scotch, and began crafting whiskey in small batches.

“I wanted to be a bit more creative and look at production of single malt in a more innovative way,” he says.

Six years after he distilled that first batch, Schlesselman has a message for Scotch producers: Watch your backs.

Christian Krogstad, of House Spirits.
Christian Krogstad, of House Spirits / Photo by Dan Root

The Brewer

Christian Krogstad, Founder, House Spirits Distillery, Portland, OR

Krogstad didn’t set out to become a pioneer of American single-malt whiskey. The Seattle native just wanted to make beer.

“I moved to Portland in 1991 to become a brewer,” says Krogstad. “That was my first vocation, my first calling.”

He had lived in Hawaii for about a year prior to that, a place he still returns to every year. It was there that he took up homebrewing.

“There was no good beer available,” he says.

Impassioned, he began to work at brewpubs and microbreweries. Krogstad then attended the brewing academy at Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago before returning to Portland to work at McMenamins Edgefield brewery and distillery, where he began to taste with the distiller.

“I realized I loved whiskey,” he says. “Every brewer loves whiskey. It’s just concentrated beer, and I decided to make the leap and started a distillery.”

House Spirits opened in 2004, with investors that included Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Montana. The first spirits released didn’t require aging time: Volstead Vodka, Aviation American Gin (sold to Davos Brands in 2016) and Krogstad Aquavit. But Krogstad describes those as “just a side road.” The distillery was launched to make whiskey.

Eventually, Westward American Single Malt Whiskey, a bottling made with American ale yeast and Pacific Northwest-grown two-row barley, came to fruition. It was one of the first American-made single malts on the market, and it was emblematic of Krogstad’s willingness to experiment.

“If you’re a distillery in Jamaica, you’re expected to make rum,” he says. “If you’re a distillery in Scotland, you’re expected to make malt whiskey. But there is no distilling tradition in Portland, so we can make whatever we want.”

Krogstad embraces Portland’s entrenched craft-beer culture with a stout-cask-finished whiskey that offers warm chocolate and toffee notes, and has more beer-barrel-aged whiskey in the works.

“Instead of using Sherry or Port barrels, which is such a Scottish thing to do, we really owe our lineage to beer, so it makes sense for us to use beer barrels,” he says. “And it makes a great whiskey.”

Matt Hofmann of Westland Distillery.
Matt Hofmann of Westland Distillery / Photo by Dan Root

The Locavore

Matt Hofmann, Co-Founder/Master Distiller/Senior Director of Strategy, Westland Distillery, Seattle

“We make American single malt for a reason,” says Hofmann. That reason is corn, required to make Bourbon, America’s signature whiskey, doesn’t grow well in the cool, rainy Pacific Northwest. “But it’s a great place to grow barley,” the sole ingredient in malt whiskey.

Hofmann studied economics at the University of Washington and bought his first still during his freshman year.

“When I started, of course, I was terrible at it,” he says. “Genuinely, I was just interested in the process of making whiskey.”

He went on to earn a Master of Arts degree from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, noted for turning out generations of Scotch makers. Then, in 2010, Hoffman co-founded Westland Distillery with what he describes as “a holistic vision” to produce single-malt expressions.

“We said, ‘What is the most authentic product that we should be making in our home?’” he recalls. “With conditions perfect for barley cultivation, the answer was whiskey. But not just a copy of Scottish whisky in Seattle.”

Talk with Hofmann, and it quickly becomes apparent that he values what local farmers bring to his product, namely, the malted barley.

“Every Scottish malt is made from one of three varietals of malt,” he says. “But like wine [grapes], there’s literally thousands of varieties. How absurd is it that we’re not looking at more?”

His team has worked closely with Skagit Valley Malting, located in Burlington, Washington, to entice farmers to grow a wider range of barleys.

Hofmann has also gained attention for special bottlings that include “Peat Week,” which yields nuanced, smoky flavor from peat harvested at a Washington state bog, and Garryana, a limited release aged in barrels made from Garry oak, a species native to the Pacific Northwest.

“We’re trying to make a pure expression of the place,” says Hoffman.

Becky Harris of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company.
Becky Harris of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company / Photo by Ryan Donnell

The Collaborator

Becky Harris, Founder/Chief Distiller, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, Purcellville, VA

To describe her thrifty approach to American single-malt production, Harris references a winemaker’s quip: “We don’t let the fruit hit the ground.” She’s determined not to let raw materials go to waste. “You try to make something out of it, try to salvage it.”

Harris considers rye to be Catoctin’s signature whiskey style, but when Heritage Brewing Co. approached her with a barrel of Scotch ale that had less-than-perfect clarity, she was game to distill it. She set the ale to age in one of her used rye barrels.
The end result was the “Scotch-like” Kings Mountain single malt. A couple of years later, she collaborated with another local brewer, Adroit Theory, to distill a double stout, which yielded Dia de los Muertos Whisky, a bold single malt.

“It’s been a lot of fun, a cool side project, really,” she says. “It fits with that collaborative spirit that we enjoy as being one of the little guys in the industry.”

For Harris, crafting whiskey was a second career that came after many years as a chemical engineer. The distillery was founded in 2009, and she and her husband, Scott, converted a historic building in their hometown into the distillery and tasting room they’ve been in since 2013. It was the first legal distillery in Loudoun County since before Prohibition, and today, the brewery is also all organic, kosher and vegan.

“I hadn’t been a big fan of spirits before,” she says. “It ended up being that I’m pretty good at this, which is lucky.”

While the first two single malts, both limited editions, are now difficult to find, a number of other brewer collaborations are on the horizon. They include whiskies distilled from a farmhouse pale ale from Beltway Brewing that Harris expects to release in the fall, as well as one made from a black IPA called Midnight Confessions, created by MacDowell Brew Kitchen.

But Harris hasn’t forgotten one of her first partnerships. She has an eye on the last barrel of Dia de los Muertos Whisky, which she hopes to release as a five-year-old single malt in 2019.

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