Monday, September 7, 2015

Westland Is Kicking Butt - Particularly In Recent Single Cask Nation Releases.

Westland single barrel selections vatted to create the
Single Cask Nation Third Jubilee Festival Bottling

Westland, a five year old distillery in Seattle, is producing interesting single-malts that aren't trying to imitate the Scots. Instead, they're taking cues from the American Craft beer movement, using intriguing malts and yeasts from craft brewing.  A creative vatting of the range of flavors they are working with lately deserved to be the third of the adventurous bottlings the Jewish Whisky Company selects for their annual Whisky Jewbilee.

American whiskey production tends to focus on corn and rye.  Malt whisky is more often associated with Scotch, Irish, Japanese, and the new malts emerging in places like Scandinavia, England, Wales, Brittany, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the like.  But American Craft distillers are making single malts too, such as Balcones' Texas Single Malt, St. George Single Malt, Sons of Liberty Uprising, Stranahans, McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt, Lost Spirits, and Hudson, among others.  An interesting aspect of the American single malt movement is that a number of them show signs of emerging from the Craft beer movement.  Some, like Charbay, Corsair Rasputin, Sons of Liberty seasonals, and Pine Barrens (among others) are explicitly hopped, having been distilled from finished beer.  That's not the case here - but signs of evolution out of craft beer brewing are all over Westland's stuff.  They have an interesting story about using complex mash bills which involve a lot of different malts, the kind usually used in craft beer, such as Washington Select Pale Malt, Munich Malt.  Pale Chocolate Malt, Brown Malt, and also Peated Malt.  They further amp the flavor in the mash by using Belgian Saison brewer's yeast - a variety normally used in craft beer.  They claim the yeast produces a lot of esters and creamy flavor compounds.  I was initially skeptical about this claim. However, my early tastings of their standard expressions showed me that the whisky was rich, sweet, dark and musky in a way I really enjoyed.   Given that Westland is choosing to bottle their stuff young, typically 2 to 3 years old, I view this as a minor miracle.  It makes me inclined to believe the story about mash bill and yeast.  How else to explain the richness and apparent maturity in such a young malt?  This stuff is mostly too young to be legally called "whisky" in Scotland, but it drinks a lot like the real deal - and has its own set of flavors which are worth exploring.  

Part of the Anchor Distilling's portfolio - a sweet distribution platform - Westland joins excellent whisky peers like Nikka, BenRiach, Kavalan, GlenDronach, Glenrothes, Glenglassaugh, and Anchor's own Old Potrero.  The urban downtown distillery features a very Scottish looking setup with two substantial pot stills from Vendome for wash and spirit two part distillation (with column tops, although the plates are only used on the spirit still) and a beefy gorgeous spirit safe,  There's clearly some money behind the outfit.

Nima Ansari, spirit buyer at Astor Place Liquors in NYC tweeted this photo of Westland's stills & spirit safe.

Plus, see a great set of photos of Westland here:

I had my first taste of Westland at the June 2014 Whisky Jewbilee in New York, poured by Matt Hoffman, the master distiller and co-founder of Westland. A big bearded man who looks like a lumber jack, he comes off as warm and very knowledgeable with much to say about his production philosophy.. . A few months later, I got to taste some amazing Westland sherried and peated malt whisky barrel samples poured by Single Cask Nation's Josh Hatton with whiskey enthusiast Ari Susskind's crew last fall (later bottled by SCN and reviewed below). So when I heard that Hoffman was leading a master class this year (June 2015) and presenting the third Whiskey Jewbilee bottling, I signed right up. The first two festival bottlings, a 15 year old Heaven Hill single cask Bourbon, at barrel proof; and a custom vatting of rye whiskies and LDI Light whiskies, selected and blended by David Perkins of High West, had quickly attracted a cult following.  

(above: the first and second Jewbilee festival bottlings.  The first, left, a rich and intense Heaven Hill 15 yo single cask, had a young Jewish man sitting on a NY building stoop on the label.  The second, right, was a vatting of LDI rye and light whiskies by David Perkins of High West, has a label depicting the same young man, this time sharing a pour with a beautiful woman.  The bottle they are drinking is the first festival bottling depicted in miniature on the label).  The depiction of the previous bottle labels is now a "thing".

Matt started off by explaining about the Westland production story (the cool rainy Scotland-like climate in Seattle; their use of two large pot stills, full sized barrels; carefully selected woods, the many malts, the yeast, etc...) Then we dove into 6 different selections starting with the base OB expression and then through the single cask components of the Third Jewbilee Festival bottling.

OB Westland Single Malt - 2010 distillation 46% abv.
Barley grown locally: Washington Select Pale Malt
Munich Malt, Extra Special Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, Brown Malt, Belgian Saison yeast.  #3 char air cured barrels by Independent Stave and 24 month maturation.  
Dusky malty and sweet on the nose with cocoa and malt, cocoa and milk chocolate. The palate starts malty and honeyed, like malted milk balls. On the expansion things move to candied citrus fruit and rind.  The turn is moderately oaky and pretty well balanced.  The finish is moderately long, with char and herbal notes.  There is some of the brashness of youth, but there's a whole lot going on and most all of it is good.
**** 84

Left to right: Westland casks 539, 193, 90, and 189

Next we hit the single barrel selections used in the vatting to come. I didn't note their alcohol by volume percentages, but these are all barrel proof - around 62% abv for all of them. These were tasted at the event, so I'm not giving formal tasting notes or scores - but they were outstanding. Each of them were delicious and would crack ***** 90 point (+) territory. The following brief notes were taken at the tasting.

Cask 539 New American Oak Peated

(left in the photo above) 
Amber color
Peated malt. 2 years old.
Nose: bacon or smoked ham. Smoke. Nutty sweet meats.
Sweet elegant opening. Honey candied meat. Smoke.  Addictive.  Delicious.

Cask 90 New American Oak - 6 Malt Mash

(second from the right in the photo above)
Amber with red glints.
Nose Buttery oak. Cream. Untanned skin. Pork fat (procutto) panne cotta.
Palate: intensely fruity (lychee, chardonnay, banana, apricot), creamy, blond leather, soft mouth feel. Clove heat. Finish is lightly fruited, oak tannin,  Water amps the sweet.  

Cask 189 62.6% abv. 39 months old ex bourbon 

(right, in the photo above)
Pale gold.
Nose Sawn oak, fruity, vanilla, malt.
 Palate: honey, herbs, white fudge, and citrus.  Substantial intensity and long finish.

(Note. This barrel is also being bottled as a Single Cask Nation selection:)

Cask 193 pale malt ex bourbon

Same batch as cask 189. Even lighter. Crisp floral honey clover candied citrus oak.

The beautiful lady has returned on the third bottling, happily bearing the previous two bottlings, depicted in miniature, in her hands. 
She is greeting the man from the first two labels.  He is bringing flowers and behind his back a wedding ring and crossed fingers indicating his secret intention to propose marriage.
Then Matt's tasting advanced to the the vatting for the Jewbilee festival bottling itself.  Along the way, Matt described his motivation for the vatting as a marriage story.  He was inspired by the narrative progression of a romance leading to marriage on the bottle labels and chose to marry together peated and unpeated, and new oak and ex-bourbon barrels of Westland to make a marriage of a bunch of Westland's different flavor signatures.    

The redish color is from new oak maturation.

Whisky Jewbilee Third Festival bottling: Westland single malt vatting.  59% abv.  150 bottles.

Color: dark gold with reddish tints.
Nose sawn oak, honey and vanilla.  Then red fruits, mineral and cedar pencils, distant roses, flax seed oil, phenolic notes of young whiskey, animal skins, wood smoke, and smoked meats,
Palate:  sharp and hot and big with young grassy sweetness up front.  Then rich toffee, cocoa, vanilla, musky rich malt with cocoa notes, candied citrus, and also hefty syrupy richness.  The expansion admixes dusky notes of animals with a pointy spiky young oak that I associate with young craft whiskey.  The turn brings char and herbal bitters like an Amaro.  Oak tannins and bitter on the finish which is long but a little dark.  With a teaspoon of water and a good 15-30 minutes of air time some magic happens.  It becomes more open, sunny, honeyed, and rich.  Head to head blind, I'd be hard pressed to differentiate the palate from this one from a lightly peated Highland Scotch, sherry cask matured, and at full cask strength.  Yet, there's something about the oak in the nose that communicates that this is an American Craft spirit.  This is very good stuff, knocking on the door of extraordinary.  I might have preferred some of the components on their own to the vatting together, but there is a lot of complexity here.  This is a significant achievement.

**** 89

Single Cask Nation has other bottlings of Westland too - including a previously released cask strength sherried and peated 2 year old:

Single Cask Nation Westland 2 year old 60% (current edition)  Sherried and peated.

Color: rich medium amber with some coppery tints.  This looks a lot like Bourbon in the glass.  But the nose instantly gives this away: it's a darkly peated malt whisky.  The nose is honeyed and loaded with warm bbq smoke, animal skins, prunes, black raisins, balsamic vinegar then a big load of some very active first fill ex-Olorosso sherry barrel.  The palate is explosive at cask strength - beware.  This is a Churchill ring cigar of a whiskey.  It comes on sweet and malty and dark purple fruity and leathery and rich and then gets aggressively oaky fast.  The turn is a char attack - but char with depth of flavor.  You can taste the red line behind the char here. Caramel and toffee notes in a fierce battle grip with all kinds of dark licorice and black herbal flavors.  Sherry sweetness plays above the very intense and iterated wood.  This is an unbalanced whiskey.  The finish is bitter.  This gives this whiskey a very dark aspect.  It has a spiky quality to the interaction between the young whiskey's hot body and sweet attack, and the smoldering earthy smoke and oak char.  It's strong meat and a lot people will find this a young brash young whiskey a little bit out of control with flavoring aspects (peat, sherry, and oak) that were applied pedal to the metal.  But some will applaud and I'm one of them.  This whiskey is big, insanely rich, and incredibly fully flavored.  It has some of the roughness of youth but, by virtue of tons of rich complexity baked into the flavor up front from the way it's malted, a sinful, pudding like mouth feel and big tannin effect, it exceeds thrillingly.  A big Black Christmas pudding of a dram with extra cloves and nutmeg.  An 85% cacao dark chocolate bar with nibs paired with a slightly oversteeped but very high quality black tea.  This isn't for every day.  But it certainly fits a certain mood: (i.e. wanting a big smoke encounter like having a massive dark leaf cigar).  It is a HUGE sweet, young brash smoke bomb dessert feast that takes a long time to open.  And it's a two year old single malt whiskey.  It definitely pushes the boundaries of complexity of flavor in a young whiskey.  I mean, this kind of thing isn't rare in the worlds of Rhum Agricole, Tequila, or Mezcal.  But it is in the world of malt whiskey.  It mostly suffers sins more commonly seen in old whiskey: (i.e. borderline over oaked). Yet, it's so young that in the UK it can't be defined as whisky at all until it's at least three years old.  So, that this very young whiskey plays so big and sweet and dark is a mammoth achievement.  This stuff is an adventure.  How do you score it?  Who the hell cares?  (I'm going to dock it for being so dark and tannic, but that shouldn't discourage those of you who know you have to have it.  This stuff is among the peaks of the American craft whiskey movement at the moment in my opinion.  It'll all be gone in a heartbeat, of course, but it's more testimony that the Jewish Whisky Company really knows what the hell they're doing.

**** 89

Single Cask Nation bottlings have a very cool bottle closure with a glass stopper.
In conclusion,  Check out Single Cask Nation.  Great palates are making great cask selections.  And Westland is an American craft distiller making young single malts with a surprising and impressive degree of complexity and refinement.  The future of American malt tastes pretty good.

Source disclosure statement:  I bought all bottles reviewed here and paid for all events described, including my own membership in Single Cask Nation.  I'm a consumer of all this stuff purely as a whisky enthusiast and a fan.


  1. Westland has old lumber money behind it.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.