Well over a decade into the craft distilling boom that has swept America, whiskey continues to diversify beyond the familiar bounds of bourbon and rye. American single malt, a rarity even 10 years ago, is now firmly entrenched in the canon, despite having almost no large-scale production. Craft distillers are leading the development and growth of the style, with some, like Seattle-based Westland, now mature enough to evolve their original releases into new flagship products. Others, like Portland, Oregon’s Westward, are stepping up with barrel-proof offerings, while mainstream brands such as Woodford Reserve are but a hair’s breadth away from launching a true single malt.
Riffing on the single malt movement, whiskey distilled from beer is showing signs of growth beyond a few niche distillers. Waco, Texas’s Balcones has partnered for a couple of years with Spoetzl Brewery, the maker of Shiner Beer, to create a unique whiskey from its popular bock. Alameda, California’s St. George Spirits, meanwhile, celebrated its long-running relationship with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. by distilling and maturing its Ruthless Rye IPA and blending it with some of the distillery’s own OG single malt.
Speaking of blending: Once considered a four-letter word in American whiskey circles, the blend has finally assumed a position of respect, and it’s cementing that position by using outstanding component whiskeys, including from the styles cited above. San Jose, California’s 10th Street Distillery makes only single malts, but now offers a blend that loops in sourced light whiskeys from MGP. The Indiana distillery also supplies components for Big Nose Kate, a blend of rye and single malts made by noted distiller and blender Mel Heim, and O.H. Ingram River-Aged Whiskey, which combines bourbon and rye that were aged on a barge in the Mississippi River.
The inventiveness of American whiskey makers is on full display in the list below. These eight bottles represent a taste of the present, and a hint of the future, of American whiskey.
Texans are devoted to their barbecue, their sports teams, and Shiner Bock. The beloved beer, made by Spoetzl Brewery in the town of Shiner, provides the base for this whiskey, using the same mash bill and proprietary yeast strain, while leaving out the hops. Waco-based Balcones first released Texas Bock as a limited edition in 2020 and brought it back in 2021. It’s part of an ongoing collaboration between the two drinks producers that has also seen Spoetzl aging some of its beers in Balcones barrels.
Though whiskeys sporting men’s names are a dime a dozen, it takes some searching to find one named for a woman. This blend of straight rye and American single malt whiskeys honors Mary Katherine Horony Cummings, also known as Big Nose Kate, a Hungarian immigrant who ran with Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers, as just one detail of her larger-than-life story. Veteran whiskey maker Mel Heim created Big Nose Kate at the recently opened Altar Spirits in Santa Fe, founded by distiller Caley Shoemaker.
This blend of bourbon and rye was distilled in Indiana but aged on a barge anchored in the Mississippi River. O.H. Ingram’s “floating rickhouse” takes advantage of the natural rise and fall of the river, which gently agitates the liquid as it matures and benefits from a higher ambient humidity that cuts back on the angels’ share. The brand also has a couple of bourbons and a rye in the lineup, with plans to eventually create a visitor experience at its barge tie-up in Ballard County, Kentucky.
Alameda, California’s St. George Spirits has collaborated with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. since the 1990s; the brewer made the wash for St. George’s single malts back then. This whiskey, distilled in 2013 from Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye IPA and matured in new American oak and used French oak port casks, celebrates that partnership. A small portion of St. George’s very first single malt is blended in as well, neatly closing the circle. Fragrant with cloves, cedar, and dried orange peel, and bursting with hop flavors reined in by oak, the whiskey is a stellar example of the distilled beer style.
In a nondescript warehouse that’s, curiously, located on 4th Street in San Jose, California, Virag Saksena and Vishal Gauri are making some killer American single malt. This whiskey, however, is actually a blend. Combining 10th Street’s STR and Distiller’s Cut single malts with two light whiskeys from Indiana-based MGP, California Coast is an homage to the state’s diverse people and their unique contributions. At 42% ABV, it’s easy enough for session sipping, but serves just as well in Highballs and other cocktails.
Though it had already found success with a trio of single malts—American Oak, Sherry Wood, and Peated—Westland made the bold move to phase those out and focus its attention on a flagship American single malt and the Outpost range, which highlights specific elements of Pacific Northwest terroir. The new flagship uses a base of Washington-grown pale malt, layered with specialty malts to create a complex, grain-led character that’s further enhanced by maturation in a variety of casks. Changing a lineup can be risky, but in this case, the quality of the new expression has only strengthened Westland’s reputation.
This uncut version of Westward’s core single malt, made with ale yeast and locally malted barley, was originally available in Oregon only, but recently became a permanent part of the distillery’s national lineup. Like its sibling whiskeys, Cask Strength is matured in new, lightly charred barrels, which pack a more flavorful punch at full proof. Look for notes of cacao, black pepper, and cigar wrapper, and don’t be shy about adding water to your liking: It unveils more dimension and nuance.
Inspired by stout, Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris worked with five different malts—distillers’ malt, wheat malt, pale chocolate malt, Carafa 1 malt, and kiln coffee malt—to create this experimental whiskey, part of the limited-edition Master’s Collection. Though Woodford offers a straight malt whiskey, made with 51% malt and 47% corn, as part of its regular lineup, the mash bill for this one is much more malt-forward, with 98% malt (the remaining 2% is rye). It delivers on the stout-like notes, with baker’s chocolate and coffee bean prominent in the grain-forward palate.