In the world of American single malt whiskey, there’s Westward Whiskey and there’s Westland Whiskey. If you have trouble discerning which is which, there’s an easy way to remember: the distillery that makes Westward Whiskey is the same one that makes the gin for Deadpool.
Christian Krogstad, founder of House Spirits Distillery, which makes Westward Whiskey, would probably prefer that you not remember them by proxy, but he of all people would appreciate anything that helps consumers remember his distillery. He’s one of the advocates behind the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC), and while the category isn’t recognised in an official capacity, Christian is canny enough to know that the commission’s work has already brought the word of American single malt whiskey to the masses.
These days, they have members of the ASMWC in most if not all states and their influence is as such that liquor stores and bars and restaurants are starting to have a section for American single malt whiskey. With bourbon culturally ingrained as whiskey for the longest time, it has been difficult for Americans to see whiskey in any other form.
“People come on tours of our distillery and evitably, half of them will refer to our whiskey as bourbon. In America, when you say whiskey, people think bourbon. Because that’s the dominant whiskey style. The rest of the world, when you say whiskey people think malt whisky. When you mean bourbon, you say bourbon,” says Christian Krogstad of Westward Whiskey.
Christian’s Westward Whiskey story makes for a good starting point for those who are only beginning to venture into the world of American single malts. Many of them, along with Christian, share roots as brewers. Of course, that begs the inevitable question: do brewers have a still so as not waste a bad batch of beer?
“If you distil bad beer, you get bad whisky,” was the emphatic answer.
For Christian, his journey started when restlessness got the better of him after 13 years of brewing. There was much he wished to learn about whisky and at the same time, he saw whisky and beer as two sides of the same coin. In that sense, starting House Spirits was nothing more than a footnote in the natural order of things. When Christian started back in 2004, there were only 35 or so craft distilleries. These days, there are over 2000. When it comes to American single malts, their availability has likewise, grown. As little as three years ago there were only five American single malts but now we’re looking at 30 commercially available with many more products that are only circulated among friends or in very limited areas.
Despite this apparent explosion in popularity, the earliest days were far from easy. “When I started, I was only able to put out 10-20 barrels a year, because it was all out of my personal savings; I borrowed against my house to create the company; I used my credit cards to finance it. It was stupid. But that’s how I got it going.”
But after 15 years, Westward Whiskey can finally move eastward as they’ve managed to scale to point where they are prepared to sell to new markets. This year, the distillery will produce about 1,300 200-litre barrels and will ship about 15,000 9-litre cases. That works out to about half their current production and they are projecting their sales to catch up in about five or six years.
In Asia, Singapore is one of three places alongside Hong Kong and Japan (not counting Australia) that they are starting out. Apart from the fact that Singapore was a natural starting point into the region, his decision was undoubtedly a pragmatic one. “It’s sort of my working vacation,” he laughed. He does not have much time for getaways, so he figured he might as well do both.
The Westward Whiskey Approach
While bourbon uses a mash bill that legally has to have 51% corn, American single malt whiskey is defined by the ASMWA to be entirely malted barley. Although there is no official Standard of Identity for American single malt, there is one for malt whiskey and straight malt whiskey. Malt Whiskey needs to be at least 51% malted barley to be called malt whiskey and aged for at least two years to be called straight malt whiskey.
For all intents and purposes, single malt American whiskey is somewhat similar to its Scotch counterpart, which it unquestionably borrowed from. The all-malted barley spirit is distilled at a single distillery (and matured) on American soil and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. There are effectively no restrictions on the use of wood apart from the fact that it just has to be oak and cannot exceed 700 litres in size. Westward’s story is an apt example of what makes American single malt different: driven by innovation and not giving a toss about what has been done before: using peat to smoke the barley? Hell, why not do it BBQ style (a la Andalusia or Colkegan)?
Although it shares the same ingredients as its Scottish counterparts, the fact that many pioneers of genre were brewers also meant that it is culturally distinct. As craft brewers at heart, it’s not an exaggeration to generalise that they are extremely particular about the fermentation, which is essentially brewing a beer. The Scots, as we know, largely tend to adhere to tradition; at Westward, the distillery does it like they would do if they were making craft beer. That said, chances are there’s probably an American distiller who’d be attempting to do a Scottish or Irish style whisky out there – which is as American as you can get.
All in the Wash
At Westward, the mash is made via a sanitary ferment with American Ale yeast (same as that used in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) for that fruity, floral quality – bananas and pears, jasmine and rose flowers – and cool fermentation to really let the yeast shine. The downside of the yeast, which is used in about 88% of their distillations, is that it typically gives them only about an 8.2% yield. While distiller’s yeast has a higher yield, it also tends to introduce more acetones and acetates. Aside from Sierra Nevada, Westward sometimes uses some Belgian strains, saison, Bavarian Hefeweizen, which gives nice clove and banana notes.
The mash (single-step infusion, like with beer) is done with a single lauter as opposed to the three-times method used in Scottish distilleries. At Westward, the first water at 65 degrees, but as they drain the sugar water off, they start sparging more water and never let the grain get dry because they want to limit its exposure to oxygen, which causes tannins to be extracted.
Another area in which they differ is that they boil their wash to prevent the growth of lactobacilli. According to Christian, lactobacilli play a part in introducing a unique character to Scotch whisky as it matures over the years. This is a topic that whisky writer Dave Broom has also written about recently, raising the question of whether unique strains found in each distillery play a part in determining distillery character. For Westward, these are unpleasant flavours and doesn’t quite work for the way they mature their whiskies. This is compounded by the fact that the bacteria are difficult to control as well. Hence, they will clean out the fermenters and hoses, etc., like they would do if they were producing beer.
Their ferments last about 4.5 days at a fairly cool temperature, then it’s given a diacetyl rest before it is ready for distillation. Christian claims that at this point the mash is good enough to drink, likening it to a strong golden ale like a Duvel. The idea was that by making a delicious beer to start with, they didn’t have to ‘clean it up’ through distillation. They simply wanted to concentrate the liquid. In that respect, this is an entirely different kettle of fish compared to Scotch and Scotch-inspired whiskies.
‘Concentrating a Beer’
And while Scottish stills tend to have tall heads on them, Westward’s stills are very short – “crude, but in a good way”, as Christian describes, explaining that they wanted a minimalist approach where they have very little reflux so that the heavier compounds come through from the pot for more texture, flavour and mouthfeel. They also stop collecting hearts at about 62% as opposed to about 50-55% for Scotch, the purpose being to create a fruit-forward distillate that doesn’t need as much time to mature.
“Actually what happens during fermentation is actually very interesting and we want to preserve that. We want to produce the flavours the yeast produced and if you’re maturing your whisky for 14 years in a barrel, you’re losing that fruit flavours – you’re gaining other flavours – I love a properly aged Scottish or Japanese Malt Whisky, but it doesn’t have that fresh, vibrant fruity-floral character that you get from a proper beer. We’re more focused on the beer, they’re more focused on the maturation,” he explained.
While Portland is not too different from North-Western Europe, the summers tend to be a little warmer and drier while winters are a little colder and more humid. As such, over a five-year maturation period, the proof actually rises in the barrel. The entry proof is typically 62% and cask strength after five years averages out at 65% while the Angel’s share over that period is about 16-17%.
It’s clear that Christian has no intention of emulating the Scots, but not for a lack of respect; rather, he sees no point in trying to be a second-rate pretender to a highly acclaimed style firmly established (in consumers’ minds, especially) as some of the finest spirits in the world. He’s not worried about age statements, or the perception that whisky has to be aged for many years to taste good.
“We’re like the Valpolicella of whiskies – young, fruity; we’re not the Amarone of whiskies. We’re not looking for something that has to age. We’re the Rosso, not the Brunello.”
Big Tent Approach
While the do-anything-you-want approach is such a key ingredient of American single malt whiskey, the ASMWA does have some base guidelines in place for its members to adhere to, which you can find on their website.
Originally structured five years ago by 12 of the members, the definitions were intended to be broad so as to allow for innovation – “a big tent approach,” as he called it. They also wanted to standardise the usage of terms that alcohol regulators understood. In effect, it was sort of like a mash-up of Scottish and American regulations. While there were many familiar guidelines, what they omitted was interesting as well. For example, there is no requirement to distil only with a pot still. Hence, it is ‘legal’ to use a column still, though it cannot exceed 160 proof.
While it would be ideal for American single malt to have a Standards of Identity definition, Christian is more interested in how their efforts can serve as a way to educate consumers and especially retailers what their product was.
“Whether or not the government grants our definition at this point, I almost don’t care. We’ve already achieved our goal of liquor stores and bars to acknowledge that American single malt is not Scotch and it’s not bourbon,” he beams.
Presently, the ASMWA has about 130 members, not all of whom are producing casks in large numbers. Some are more aspirational than full-fledged distillers, but the same could be said for many of the established distilleries when they first started. “Some of those can be delightful whiskies, but you have to go there to get them. Some of them will be really good and some of them will be really bad, and that’s the beauty of it. That’s how we’re getting so much innovation. That’s why some of the most interesting malt whiskies produced today are coming from the American malt whiskey category.”
The deluge of interesting and exciting whiskies is partly why Christian doesn’t necessarily agree wholeheartedly with every point in the current manifesto but he was OK to go along with it.
One particular regulation dictates that the mash has to be made on the same premises as the distillery. Christian had in fact done the same in the past when they first started and could not afford a facility to make their own mash. In fact, they collaborated with breweries in order to make whisky. Closer to home, this is in fact how Brass Lion Distillery went about preparing the spirit that will someday become Singapore’s first whisky.
Also, he would rather not have the definition that only malted barley could be used, as he felt that malted wheat and malted rye were delicious and offer untold possibilities. That said, you could use different varieties of malted barley – Westland Distillery uses a five-malt blend in its whiskey, for example – in a single production.
Given that the American Single Malt category isn’t recognised, Christian has had his share of label woes, having to balance the need to adhere to recognised standards of identity as well as distinguishing his whiskey to stand out from the norm. On occasion, he has had to label his bottles as Straight Malt Whiskey to satisfy the authorities. And while we’re on the subject of labels, if two distilleries blended their malt together, it would be called American Vatted Malt – in fact, two companies are doing that right now, and Westward is participating in one of them. There’s even a blended American whiskey – minimum 20% straight whiskey with any whiskey or neutral grain spirit or both – with bourbon and even one that’s blended with Scotch (Virginia-Highland Whisky).
In fact, any reasonable combination that we could think of was met with a “yes, someone’s already doing that,” where it seems the only limitation is a product’s reach to the outside world.
That said, Christian isn’t really concerned about what he can do or what he cannot do just so to adhere to a piece of paper. And at this point, he pulls out a bottle we had not seen before: it was a blend of 10 per cent malted rye and 90 per cent malted barley. “I don’t have to stick to the category; I don’t have to make American single malt,” he declared, matter-of-factly. Always the optimist, he likes it when people ask him about the odd bottle as it gives him a chance to talk about his work. “The push for the legislation is just as good as the legislation succeeding,” he stressed again.
Driven by Innovation and Curiosity
Ever the tinkerer, Christian has dabbled with making aquavit and amaro, viognier grappa, plum Pálinka, pinot noir brandy that has been sitting in the warehouse for 14 years… you name it, chances are he’s thought about it. Given the time that is needed to make whiskey, it has become somewhat de rigueur to produce other spirits to pay the bills and he is no exception. Of the bunch, Aviation Gin is undoubtedly his most commercially successful product but malt-based alcohol is where his heart is and he finds making them deeply satisfying.
In the standard bottling of Westward Whiskey, we get the essence of Christian’s ideals of an American single malt. On all accounts, there’s nothing harsh about every aspect of the whiskey, which is a genuinely pleasant surprise given its young age. On the nose, we get vanilla and cinnamon with a fruity edge that carries through to the palate, where apples and dried fruit are paired with vanilla and a hint of chocolate and ends with satisfying oak spice that finishes rather clean. It’s rather direct and to the point, but it certainly is easy on the tongue and is unquestionably well made. I can’t imagine that you’ll refuse seconds.
Interestingly, given all Christian’s dabbling, we noted that there aren’t many regular offerings in the Westward portfolio. As it turned out, there have been many experiments in the ‘developmental series’, but to make it to the regular line up, it has to be well-received by the people who matter: consumers who give their approval by buying a bottle. And the process was deceptively simple.
Westward has two tasting rooms – one at the distillery and one at Portland International Airport – and observes which bottles customers actually spend money on. “Focus groups will tell you anything. They’ll tell you what they think you want to hear. But if they’re confronted with the question of like, do you want to spend your money for this thing you just tasted, that’s when you can go, oh, they actually liked it.”
One such offering was the bottle he pulled out earlier: Westward Whiskey American Two Malts, what he calls the American Single Malt Whiskey equivalent of a super Tuscan. Christian was particularly happy about this one as it was excellent proof that you can make young aged whiskey that is compelling on the palate. “It’s fresh, vibrant and young, in fact, it’s truly an anomaly. I probably shouldn’t lead with this.” But led, he did and we were genuinely surprised that it was only two years old. Even Christian himself was initially surprised, as they usually check in on the whiskey only after about three and a half years of maturation.
However, as far as we know, this isn’t coming to Singapore yet, but another project that did make the cut should be heading our way: the Westward Whiskey Oregon Stout Cask. As the name suggests, the whiskey has been aged in Oregon Stout casks sourced from breweries in Oregon. How it came about was a combination of curiosity and happenstance. So the story goes, Migration Brewing in Portland reached out to Westward with an unusual request: They needed a used whiskey barrel for Frankie Claus, which was the brewery’s Imperial Stout.
It was unusual in the sense that typically, empty bourbon barrels are used. Unlike many of the barrels that come from the major bourbon distilleries, they do not have the facilities to steam the barrels to get the last gallon of spirit out of the wood. In essence, their barrels went to Migration ‘wet’. Migration aged their stout for about 18 months in the barrels and was happy with the results. They called back to check in if Westward wanted their barrel back; they did, and just for the heck of it, filled it up with four-year-old whiskey and aged it for another year.
“So we don’t know why – we don’t understand the underlying chemistry – but what we do know is that the stout changed the composition of the wood. What the stout does, it doesn’t make it taste like stout, you definitely get some of the chocolate from the stout. but it dries it out. So now the barrel is drying – it’s taking that sweetness of Westward, dries it out and adds structure and it’s making it much more like a Scottish malt whisky.”
There’s less fruit, but mostly because the butterscotch and milk chocolate notes rush to the fore, and it certainly reminds us of some scotches, especially those that experiment plenty with oak. But unlike many of the other old world and new world producers, Westward works with partners that are closer to home. “It’s very much in keeping with our brewing philosophy, you know? We’re using ingredients and partners that are close to us. We’re not bringing barrels from Jerez. We’re using barrels from a few kilometres away.”
Indeed, there’s plenty to like about this unassuming whiskey: its close ties to the local community; its homegrown style and personality make it a mainstay in a sea of options while remaining eminently accessible. For Christian and Westward Whiskey, the joy is in the process and the journey. And if our time together revealed anything, is that despite Westward’s adventurous experiments, Christian’s pragmatism is the perfect foil: “I’m always trying to make something that when you finish the glass, you immediately want another.”