It’s all about the barley.
In today’s booming market with seemingly endless choices at our disposal, it’s easy to overlook the meaning of the phrase “single malt whisk(e)y”. Taking a step back and exploring these three words in more detail can tell us a lot about this unique spirit. Whisk(e)y is the easy one, of course: a mix of water, grains, and yeast that is fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled. The word single indicates that the product was made at a single distillery as opposed to being a blend from multiple distilleries. That final word in the phrase is the one I’d like to explore in more detail.
The malt in “single malt” means that the whisky was made from a mashbill of 100% malted barley. Compared to blended whiskies and most American whiskey styles, this is a differentiator that results in a unique taste profile compared to what one might find from a mash containing corn, rye, wheat, or a variety of other grains used to make distilled spirits. With no flexibility when it comes to grain types, single malt producers need to rely on other production variables to alter the flavor of their whiskies. Making any whisk(e)y is a complex process with dozens of factors that affect the final result including fermentation time, still type and shape, distillation method and grain varietals to name a few. The one that is often easiest to note is the cask type used to age the whiskey. In fact, this is one of the main variables where single malt producers have some freedom compared to the more rigid barrel requirements bourbon producers adhere to.
Somewhere along the way, though, the single malt consumer base has forgotten about the importance of the distillate itself and too often relies on cask type to determine the measure of a whisk(e)y. I’ve been known to be guilty of this myself and have asked the question “Who doesn’t love a good sherry bomb?” more times than I’d like to admit. Wine cask-matured whisky adds bold flavors to the final product including a ton of sweetness, spice, and “liquid dessert” notes. It’s easy to see why these releases are easily accessible to whisky fans.
As the de facto flag bearer of the American single malt category, Westland is on a mission to remind us all that single malt whisky should be grain-driven above all else. Wine casks, char levels, and oak provenance certainly matter, but the true character of a single malt comes from the barley itself. It’s part of what makes the single malt world so incredibly versatile from one distillery to the next.
With the release of Colere, Westland has created a whiskey made from a six-row winter barley varietal called Alba. This whiskey was aged entirely in used barrels. This ensured that the wood played nothing more than a supporting role in the resulting flavor set while allowing the barley to work its magic. Colere was aged in mostly 2nd fill ISC Cooper’s Reserve barrels along with a smaller percentage of 1st fill ex-bourbon barrels for just over 4 years before being bottled at 50% ABV.
|Nose||Homemade granola, pineapple upside-down cake, floral, malty, buttery croissant, chocolate, almonds, red table grapes. With water, an additional doughiness emerges and the almond flavor shifts from raw to toasted.|
|Taste||A fresh fruit explosion of apple, orange, pear, banana, and coconut. The oak influence is clearly minimal by design. There’s also more of those almonds, a bit of licorice, baking spice, and Frosted Flakes. Water brings down the spirit-driven undertones a bit and brings out a nice creaminess I didn't pick up on earlier.|
|Finish||The finish is delicate yet complex. Ripe melon, orange blossom, a hint of vanilla, sultanas, apple danish. The orchard fruits along with some zesty citrus and just a bit of spice lingers for a good long while. Water brings out more bakery notes but shortens the finish a bit.|
|Overall Thoughts||Point well taken, Westland. There was a lot going on with this whiskey and I’m convinced that most of these notes would have been completely drowned out by new oak or an ex-wine cask. The experiment was a success in my opinion and I look forward to futures releases in this series. There’s a lot of interesting barley out there to play around with and if any American distillery can capture the magic of this very special grain, it’s Westland.|