Over the past decade, American single malt whiskey has truly come into its own. Sure, Scotland still runs the game (with Japan hot on its tail). But the U.S., traditionally best known for bourbon and rye, has finally earned its place in the single malt world.
A quick, basic primer—single malt means that the whiskey is made from malted barley and is produced at one distillery. This definition is not as strictly enforced in the United States as it is in Scotland, but many American distilleries emulate this production process. Still, don’t expect the peaty flavors of Islay scotch, or the light, grassy flavors of the Speyside region. After all, American single malts are made with indigenous grains, water, and good, old-fashioned gumption. But that’s what makes them so intriguing. These days, I much prefer bourbon and rye to single malts, but over the past few weeks that’s started to change.
Here’s a list of some of the best American single malts available right now for longtime imbibers of the brown stuff, or for those just discovering the joys of malted barley.
Stranahan’s Colorado whiskey has a backstory that doesn’t tell you much about the actual spirit, but is kind of interesting nonetheless. A volunteer firefighter responded to a call at George Stranahan’s farm, and after the flames were quelled the two bonded over a mutual love of whiskey. The result is a surprisingly deep single malt, with a thick but not too syrupy tongue feel and a caramel apple flavor that isn’t cloying. I admit, when I first tried this whiskey I didn’t know it was a single malt and was completely put off by the flavor—if you’re expecting a bourbon and get a single malt, it’s a little disconcerting. But since figuring it all out, I’ve really grown to enjoy Stranahan’s, a prime example of just how good American single malts can be. One cool feature—each bottle lists what the workers were listening to while bottling. For mine, it was the Pixies.
Who knew there was a whiskey distillery on Long Island, the home of Billy Joel, Gatsby, and ocean-adjacent strip malls? The Brooklyn micro-distillery boom may have overshadowed it in recent years, but Long Island Distillery has been turning out some fine spirits since 2007. In addition to an almost brandy-like bourbon and an excellent, spicy rye, they have a single malt called Pine Barrens, named after a Suffolk County wetlands area. This is a truly unique single malt, with a floral, piney flavor that almost makes it drink like gin. Like some other American single malts, Pine Barrens has sudsy roots, as it’s distilled using a hoppy barley wine-style beer instead of a traditional mash. Highly recommended.
The team behind North Carolina’s Defiant Whiskey is actually a bunch of salvage divers by trade. Does this matter? They certainly think so, claiming the same spirit of adventure and danger necessary for their day job goes into the production of their whiskey. I’m not so sure about that, but Defiant is a very pleasant and drinkable single malt with a woodsy, malty, caramel flavor and nose. The most fascinating thing about Defiant is how it’s aged… or not aged, really. Instead of sitting in barrels for years, the distillery inserts spirals of white oak into the whiskey, speeding up the process of imparting color and flavor into the spirit to less than six months. Purists might find themselves aghast at this method, but the results are rather tasty.
Alameda, California’s St. George Spirits has been around for three decades, the longest of all of the whiskeys included on this list, and the quality of its single malt attests to their experience. This is an extremely smooth and light whiskey with a hint of cocoa and just the right amount of sweetness—one of the best American single malts that I’ve tried. It reminds me a bit of Glen Grant scotch, but with a much more complex flavor. They lightly smoke some of the barley over alder and beech wood, but this gives it deepness instead of smokiness. They also age the spirit in a variety of casks, including bourbon, port, and sherry, adding to the flavor profile. This single malt might be a bit hard to find, but if you do find a bottle, don’t hesitate to buy one.
Rhode Island’s Sons of Liberty has New England written all over it—literally, with whiskey names like Battle Cry and Uprising. Uprising is a single malt inspired by stout beer. The mash bill is 100% barley, but the distillery uses a darker roast to give the whiskey a coffee and chocolate finish. You can definitely taste the slightly bitter, slightly sweet hints of a good stout. Battle Cry, on the other hand, is inspired by Belgian beer, and uses a yeast strain commonly associated with brewing that type of beer. It’s 20% malted rye, and is lighter than Uprising, with hints of wood and even ginger. All this beer-centric production isn’t surprising since some Scottish distillers refer to their mash as “distiller’s beer.” If you’re in the mood for fall flavors, Sons of Liberty also has a popular Pumpkin Spice Whiskey available.
Seattle’s Westland Distillery offers several different single malts, a style of whiskey that master distiller Mat Hofmann believes the Pacific Northwest climate is more suited for than bourbon. He cites the year-round mild weather and minimal swings in temperature as having a big influence on the whiskey as it barrel-ages in their rack house. The distillery’s American Single Malt is crafted from five different barley malts and Belgian brewer’s yeast – another American single malt with flavor-forward roots in beer brewing. They also have a Peated Malt, which is definitely the closest thing to a scotch than anything else on this list. It’s smoky, but not overpoweringly so, with a mild finish. In addition, they have a variety of single cask whiskies, each with its own unique flavors.