Where There's Smoke, There's American Whiskey?
by Nat Harry
It seems as though more and more whiskey drinkers are venturing over to the land of Islay single malts lately. American palates are changing, especially in the little bubble that we call the Bay Area. Instead of 80 proof sherry-aged Speyside easy-drinking drams, the demand is now for cask strength, stronger flavors, and bitter finishes. And more consumers are drinking mezcal in their Margaritas instead of tequila. That may seem unrelated, but my fascination with mezcal is what turned me into the smoke seeker I am today. Roast agaves in underground pits, covered with wood and stones, and the rustic, savory result is not so unlike the heavy hitting, almost medicinal profiles of the likes of Ardbeg and Laphroaig.
It only makes sense that American distillers would also be influenced by this shift. So when I say you should be looking closer to home to scratch that particular itch, don’t be surprised. Peatheads take note, there are now more ways than Islay to get your smokey whiskey fix. American distillers have started playing with fire, literally. Using a variety of wood types, in addition to peat, distillers across the US are producing some sweet and savory drams to satisfy those cravings. Here are some noteworthy bottlings.
Not one, not two, but THREE types of smoke imparted in this Tennessee crafted whiskey. Pot distilled and aged in new charred American oak, your smoke comes with a wallop of heat and a touch of salinity. With all the bold spice and rich sweet notes of American whiskey, but with a triple dose of savory smoke and an earthy finish. Cherrywood, Beechwood, and traditional Peat make up the this triple threat.
One of the first American single malts to receive proper recognition for its category (and, dare I say, pave the way for others), they certainly seem to be the first of their kind to really grab the attention of old-school single malt drinkers. Using Highland Scottish peat for their Peated expression from the core line, Westland’s also using some Washington peat from a local bog for some upcoming releases. This experiment in terroir is still in barrel so that WA peat won’t be available for some time; stay posted! The climate and quality of Northwestern barley make for ideal single malt production and aging. These guys might just give the Scots a healthy dose of competition.
They said it couldn’t be done. Why? Well, no one had ever done it before, of course! These Kentucky distillers were up for a challenge when they decided to smoke corn, rather than malted barley. These distillers smoke their locally grown, food grade corn using the same process that’s used to cure tobacco leaves. The corn is also smoked in the same style of building that tobacco farmers used. That process, you might have guessed, is called “dark fire.” Low and slow, it takes about a week for the corn to reach its peak smoke level. The whiskey itself is aged in used bourbon barrels, so while it can’t technically be called a bourbon, it’ll certainly please the American whiskey crowd.
This little distillery out of Tucson, AZ is using mesquite wood to smoke their malted barley, and the smell alone will make your mouth water. Sweet and savory, you’ll get barbecue potato chips and baby back ribs, and you might be tempted to chew rather than sip on this dram. Throw a splash in your next wet mop sauce and everyone will wonder what your secret ingredient is!
-Nat Harry, Spirits Buyer