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Sunday, 28 August 2016

Westland American Single Malt Explored & Tasted!

The 'world whisky' scene is certainly growing, with single malt whisky distilleries popping up in many countries all over the world. But if you were to ask a few people to list those countries, I doubt a single one would name the USA. American Whiskey (note the 'e') is most commonly associated with Bourbon or rye whiskey, perhaps even corn or wheat whiskey. But single malt, made from 100% malted barley? Not yet. But that looks set to change!

Westland Distillery is a relatively small 'craft' distillery housed in a 100-year old former crane factory in Seattle, Washington, in the North West of the United States, only a couple of hours drive South from the Canadian border. The cool and relatively stable climate in Seattle presents a bit of a challenge for the distillery, as unlike many 'new world' distilleries, they can't take advantage of natural heat and humidity to help speed up maturation.

They seem to have risen to that challenge though, as all Westland whiskies currently available are only matured for slightly over two years, with two years being the minimum age for American whiskey. This shouldn't scare you off though, plenty of whiskies are aged for similar periods of time which are delicious and certainly aren't under-matured (Starward, Kavalan and some Kilchomans come to mind), and Westland's spirit is helped along by the use of virgin oak casks. The majority of Westland's whisky is matured a few hours away from the distillery on the Western coast of the US, in a small town named Hoquiam, which for a touch of serendipity is located near the city of Aberdeen, Washington!

Westland's Master Distiller, Matthew Hofmann, is certainly not afraid to do things differently. The distillery is currently using five different styles of malted barley in their whiskies, with the majority being the local 'Washington Select Pale Malt', and they're also importing peated malt from Scotland for their peated expression. Yes, that's right, a peated American whiskey! Still a very rare thing, and this'll certainly be my first. There are quite a few smoked American whiskies out there, but the majority are using wood smoke, rather than peat or imported peated malt. The distillery plans to swap the imported Scottish barley with local barley in the future, dried over American peat sourced from the distillery's home state.

Speaking of expressions, the distillery offers three different 'core' whiskies as part of their regular range. All are bottled at 46%, are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and are aged for at least two years. The flagship expression, 'American oak', is matured in virgin American oak, and first-fill ex-bourbon American oak casks. The next, 'Sherry wood', features the same virgin American oak casks, but substitutes the ex-bourbon casks for ex-sherry casks, of both the Oloroso and Pedro Ximinez (PX) varieties. And the third, simply named 'Peated', goes back to the virgin American oak and first-fill ex. bourbon casks, but adds some Scottish 55ppm peated malt into the mix, courtesy of Bairds maltings in Inverness, Scotland. For now, at least. Enough talk, let's try 'em out!

Westland 'American Oak', 46%, non-chill filtered, natural colour. Ex-bourbon and virgin American Oak casks. 
Sweet & fresh on the nose, with cotton candy / candy floss, pot purri (perfumed dried flowers), lemon zest, juicy barley and a little pepper. The palate is unique and seriously delicious, with roasted coffee grounds, dark chocolate, dark burnt caramel and buttered popcorn. Definitely tasting the effects of those five barley varieties!

The nose didn't quite blow me away, and I was worried it would be too sweet, but that's not the case at all. Those dark roasted malts have really made a big difference here and really shine through. Signet who?

Westland 'Sherry Wood', 46%, non-chill filtered, natural colour. Virgin American Oak and Ex-Oloroso and PX sherry casks. 
Richer and fruitier. The nose is syrupy, with stewed fruits and molasses, plus a little spicy oak and some popcorn. The palate still has the coffee grounds and dark chocolate notes, but they're more towards the back of the palate now, up front is fruit syrup and some treacle. A little of that pot purri as well.

Still has that Westland point of difference from the barley, but the sherry casks have added more depth & richness without overpowering anything. Very nicely balanced.

Westland 'Peated', 46%, non-chill filtered, natural colour. Ex-bourbon and virgin American Oak casks. 
More familiar of course, but in a comforting and refreshing way! A lovely fresh & zesty peaty-ness, and it's a sweet and earthy peat. It's not overwhelming though, there's still plenty of character - tropical fruit in syrup, particularly charred pineapple and some juicy peach, some roasted under-ripe banana and roasted nuts. The same warming peaty-ness is there on the palate, plus a hint of that dark roasted malt and a pinch of pepper.

Definitely my favourite of the three expressions, with a good balance of that comforting peat and that unique Westland malt profile. Seriously impressive stuff, and I look forward to trying their locally-peated version when it becomes available!

Overall, all three of these American whiskies have really impressed. Especially considering they're only around two years of age! At no point do they seem rough or under-matured, they're all very drinkable and well balanced. The flagship 'American Oak' really surprised me on the palate, I don't think I've tasted anything like it before, and it's delicious! Westland clearly know what they're doing, and they're definitely a distillery to watch!

Westland American Single Malts are on their way to Australia courtesy of Alba Whisky, the Australian importers and distributors for Amrut, Benromach and Port Askaig, among others, and the Westland range should be available through Australian specialty bottle shops and online stores by late September. While pricing hasn't been confirmed just yet, the RRP is expected to be around $150. I highly recommend trying all three expressions if you can, they're all unique and rather different in their own right, and surprisingly complex & engaging for their age. Great stuff.

Thanks to Alba Whisky for the samples!