Questioning Assumptions: Single Malt beyond Scotch
“There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.” – Raymond Chandler
There might be no bad whiskey, but there are many different types and it can be difficult, if not impossible, to keep them straight. After all, pretty much anything made from fermented grain is considered a whiskey. And that’s not very specific!
Enter: Single Malt Scotch
Perhaps one of the better known high-end whiskies, the Single Malt Scotch style means two things:
- It’s a “Single Malt,” which traditionally means it is a whisky produced from only water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills. (Source.)
- It’s a “Scotch Whisky,“ which is protected as a geographical indication in European law, meaning the moniker refers solely to whiskies from Scotland. (Source.)
But while Scotch Whisky must be from Scotland, single malts need not be. Single malt whiskys can be made just about anywhere — and can be just as delicious as (if not better than) their Scottish counterparts.
A Common Misconception
McCarthy’s is just such a single malt, from Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, the first single malt to be produced in the U.S. after Prohibition.
“One of the biggest misconceptions when someone hears ‘single malt’ is that it’s made somewhere else and not domestically,” says Jeanine Racht, National Sales Manager for Clear Creek. “A lot of people still figure that single malt whiskey is scotch.”
Bringing Single Malt Home
Steve McCarthy founded Clear Creek in 1985, a fruit-driven distillery that produces brandies, liqueurs, and grappa using local ingredients and old-world techniques. Everything is made seasonally, which means there are periods where the stills — well, go still.
In an off-season in the early 90s, Steve and his wife Cindy took a hard-earned vacation to Ireland, where they were promptly rained out — or in.
It was during this confinement that Steve found a massive single malt collection in their cottage and (naturally) took it upon himself to taste every bottle. He discovered Islay whisky, a scotch whisky made on Islay, one of the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands located off the west coast of Scotland. (Source.) Lagavulin 16 Year was his favorite.
“How come no one is making this in the U.S.?” Steve asked.
Hiccups and Snags
When he returned to the States, he contacted Kurt Widmer (of Widmer Brothers Brewing) and they came up with a plan: get barley, brew it at the Widmer, distill it at Clear Creek, start a revolution.
He hit a snag almost immediately. Used to hipster farmers who sold him organic raspberries and black currants for his small batches of brandy and liqueurs, Steve went to local grain growers for barley — and had the proverbial door slammed in his face.
“Grain producers were used to people buying in quantity,” explains Racht. “They weren’t going to make a lot of money off him, so they didn’t want to work with him. But one of the reasons why Clear Creek is still around 32 years after they started is because Steve is a very stubborn man.”
He figured out that the barley used in Lagavulin was malted at the Port Ellen Distillery in Islay, and got his from the same place. (Port Ellen has since closed, and while Clear Creek still gets their non-GMO, two-row barley from Scotland, it’s malted at Bairds Malt.)
The first batch of McCarthy’s Single Malt Whiskey was produced in 1995. The Widmer brothers made the wash and Clear Creek distilled it — just once.
“Traditionally scotch is distilled twice, but we distill once,” says Racht. “Whiskey should be drinkable, distilled once, right off the still. That is one of the reasons why our spirits have so much texture.”
A Blend of Global & Local
While Clear Creek uses Scottish barley, they also incorporate influences from around the globe.
Clear Creek uses Holstein pot stills, which are copper stills made in Germany. They also bring down the proof just a bit (“You basically don’t want the spirit to affect the barrel more than the barrel affects the spirit”) and then age it for 3 years in Quercus garryana — Oregon oak.
The barrels are air-dried for a minimum of three years before getting charred with a medium toast.
“Oregon oak was pooh-poohed by the wine industry because it is a little oily and a little funky, but if you’re making a peated single malt — that works pretty well.”
According to Racht, the oak is one of two main influences in taste profile. A lot of scotch is now aged in American oak, because of the bounty of one-use bourbon barrels. Like most American oak, Oregon oak has vanillins “but there’s also hazelnut, a really nice buttery sweetness, and a little bit of earth.”
The other main influence is water. (To make whiskey, water and heat must be added to the malted grain to extract the sugars and make the mash.)
“Our water comes from Bull Run Reservoir,” explains Racht. “There’s no fluoride or chlorine. It’s high quality and delicious. Scottish water will often have hints of peat and iodine from the bogs, whereas we have something — not necessarily neutral — but different.”
Is Single Malt “better” than Blended?
It is often assumed that single malts are “better” than a blend. It’s a perception problem: when single malts and vodka started to push blends out of the market, producers started lowering the price to remain competitive. Blends became seen as not just as cheap in price but cheap in quality while single malts were more expensive and rarer — they simply must be better.
In the case of McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey, the misconception might just be true.
This past April, McCarthy’s won gold at the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It also earned a 97 rating and was awarded the Chairman’s Trophy for being the Best American Single Malt Whiskey at the 2017 Ultimate Beverage Challenge.
It was named one of the ten best American whiskeys by Michael Jackson, author of the Malt Whiskey Companion. And in 2004, 2006 and 2008, Jim Murray of the Whisky Bible named it the Best Small Batch Whiskey in the world.
It has a robust and smoky nose and its taste has hints of dried fruit and plum, and a warm finish of honey and delicate peat.
It “is, unquestionably, the finest bottled whiskey I have tasted anywhere in the world from a small-batch distiller,” said Jim Murray in the 2010 edition of The Whiskey Bible.
“It’s a great representation of everything coming together,” Racht says in close. “European expertise, American expertise — it’s a cool little representation of American distilling in a bottle.”
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