Westland Distillery in Seattle produce single malt whiskey with a “grain-forward house style”. The distillery has three whiskies in its core range: American Oak, Peated Malt and Sherry Wood.
In this Q&A Matt Hofmann, the Master Distiller at Westland Distillery, answers my questions about Westland’s “grain forward” American whiskey. Matt kindly provided these answers in August 2016.
AC: Can you tell me more about your ‘grain-forward house style’? Does this imply youthfulness, or are you saying that the strain(s) of barley you use gives the whisky more intense grain flavours that hold up against the wood?
MH: Our grain-forward house style references our belief that our whiskies should always taste like malted barley, again not a common thing right now in Scotland. I’ve even seen a tasting wheel from Scotland that highlights “grain” as a fault! It seems reasonable to ask that a whiskey taste like the thing it’s made from. Using specialty malts allows us to have extensive malt flavor in our three core whiskies, while new barley varietals shows a glimpse of where we’re headed in the future.
AC: You say that your American Oak expression is made from five different barley malts. Can you elaborate?
MH: American Oak is made predominantly with our “five-malt” grain bill, although this grain bill is not exclusive to American Oak as it is woven into most of our other whiskies as well. The grain bill is as follows:
– 70% Pale malt from Washington State
– 10% Munich malt from Washington State
– 12% “Extra Special Malt” from Wisconsin
– 4% Brown malt from the UK
– 4% Pale Chocolate malt from the UK
Each one of these malts adds a slightly different dimension of malt flavor derived from altering the drying procedure. This of course is standard for the beer world when you are making styles like a porter or a stout, but it is rarely done in Scotland. We believe strongly that you should be able to taste the malt in all of our expressions.
We do have two other grain bills, one of 100% pale (standard) malt and one with 100% peated malt. We produce these at different times throughout the year and filled into a variety of casks to give us many options for releasing whiskies down the road.
AC: You say that your whiskey is made from ‘the rich, flavorful barley of Washington State’. What in your opinion would be the difference between barley grown in Washington State as compared with barley grown in Scotland? How does this difference translate into a whisky’s unique flavour?
MH: Washington State has two distinct growing regions that make it one of the best places in the world to grow barley, the Skagit Valley (about 60 miles north of Seattle) and the Palouse (about 250 miles east of Seattle), which roughly correlates to a UK and continental European climate, respectively. As such, there are both similarities and differences between Washington and Scottish barley depending upon where it is sourced.
However, most of the difference is due as much to the people as it is to the climate. Many of the farmers in Washington State operate outside of the commodity system. This allows for these farmers to grow barley varietals that aren’t accepted on the commodity market for whatever reason, no matter how good the flavor can be. What we have here in Washington State is something that you don’t see anywhere else in the world, a system of academics (barley breeders), farmers, maltsters, and distillers who are all comfortable working together outside of the commodities and can focus on new varietals. Westland has already laid down casks with three new varietals of barley that no distiller anywhere in the world ever has before, with many more coming.
Ironically, moving outside of the commodity system also ends up helping the farmers more in the long run as varietals can be implemented in a climate that they are well suited to. What we end up with is better barley flavor, better value-add for the farmers, and minimal environmental impact. It’s fantastic.
For more information please read the blog post below, posted by a spirits buyer here in the US.
AC: Can you tell me a little bit more about the kinds of yeast you use to ferment your wort into wash?
MH: We use nothing but brewer’s yeast, specifically a Belgian saison strain. It gives us an amazing citrus, red fruit, and spice element that balances the malt components quite nicely. We do not plan to experiment with any other strains.
AC: You say that your American Oak expression is ‘matured predominantly in new American oak casks in the steady, cool humidity of our seaside home’. I am interested more in the environment. Why, in your opinion, is the ‘steady cool humidity’ of your ‘seaside home’ important to the eventual flavour of your whisky?
MH: I think the key thing with how our environment relates to our maturation conditions is to note that we accept it. Our casks mature outside of the city of Seattle, in a coastal town called Hoquiam, and we do no artificial maturation of any kind, just standard-sized casks (53 gallons and up) and the ambient climate. Humidity is always high here, and rainfall is prevalent given the proximity to the only temperate rainforests in the continental US. It rarely gets warmer than 23 C and never freezes. While we certainly prefer this style of maturation to any other, with high oxidation reactions and low cask extraction, we believe that using our natural climate is one of many things we do that gives our whiskey a true sense of place.
AC: In relation to your Peated malt, have you measured the PPM?
MH: Our peated malt spec, no matter where it comes from, is targeted at 55 ppm.
AC: Is your peated malt from Scotland or Washington State? Can you provide any more details?
MH: We get peated malt from Scotland at Baird’s Maltings and from Washington State at Skagit Valley Malting. Washington State has many peat bogs and we’ve been working on a local peated malt for years now. Only recently has this been made possible with Skagit Valley Malting. The peat we source for our Washington State peated malt comes from about 60 miles south of Seattle. This is another aspect of our belief that the Pacific Northwest is ideally suited to the production of single malt whiskey.
AC: Why do you combine the peated malt with malt-focused spirits?
MH: We combine the peated malt with malt-focused spirits for our Westland Peated expression because we like to emphasize balance in our whiskies. One of the saddest things in the malt whiskey business right now is that the malted barley flavors in whiskey gets so little attention in Scotland. We want to balance that peat component with the malt to create a whiskey that can highlight both.
AC: I notice your American oak is aged in new oak, and your peated malt in new American oak and 1st-fill used American oak. Do you try to distinguish yourself from “bourbony” wood flavours or do you try to embrace these flavours? Can you tell me a little more about the level of charring used in your barrels?
MH: Again, one of our chief concerns in our whiskies is balance. Even with the most temperate climate in the US and full size casks, we have to be cognizant of too much cask influence on the eventual flavor of the whiskey. We want the wood to be a part of the whiskey but certainly not all of it. Although we use new American oak, we do so to help maintain the balance, not throw it off. I think of a whiskey deriving flavor from three sources: the malt, the yeast/ fermentation, and the cask. We’ve made each dimension a bit bigger with specialty malts, brewer’s yeast, and new oak and therefore the whiskey should remain balanced, just a bit bolder in every dimension.
With the new oak we also take a great deal of care in the sourcing. We fill exclusively into slow-grown, air-dried oak and might be the only distillery, big or small, in the US to do so. With a minimum air-drying period of 18 months, we see more refined oak notes and less bitter and resinous flavors. We want to embrace the flavors that come from the wood but there is certainly such a thing as “too much.”
We have just released a whiskey in the States that highlights the flavor of our local species of white oak, Quercus garryana. This oak only grows in the Pacific Northwest around the cities of Seattle, Vancouver B.C., and Portland. But we found that the best way to highlight the flavor of this incredible oak species while preventing it from becoming a one-note novelty is to include other cask types in the blend. The Garryana series is incredibly exciting for many reason [sic] and bottles of this whiskey will eventually make it around the world.
See below for more info on this whiskey.
AC: You say that your Sherry Wood is aged in casks that once held PX and oloroso sherry for nearly 100 years! How did you find these casks? Is there a story behind this find? Why age whisky in such old casks? I am told that, with older casks,there is more of a chance that they may have off-notes so quality control is very important. Can you give me a glimpse into how you select these casks? What made them, in your opinion, suitable for aging whisky? What character do these nearly 100 year old sherry casks infuse into your whisky? Do you think these very old casks offer any unique qualities?
MH: We work with Toneleria del Sur to source some of the best PX and oloroso sherry casks. An old sherry cask has nuances of flavor buried deeper in the wood and so presents the truest expression of sherry cask maturation. Quality control is indeed important and off-flavors, especially sulphur, are screened for in Spain well in advance of us receiving these casks. To this day we’ve not had a sulphured cask.
We also ship the casks whole from Spain, a rare and expensive move relative to what happens in Scotland where they are usually broken down into staves and shipped. This provides a fresh sherry character that cannot be imitated. The end result is both fresh and deep sherry character nuance that works in perfect harmony with our rich, malty spirit. We like to use oloroso and PX together as oloroso tends to add nuance to the nose and PX adds decadence and mouthfeel to the palate. All the while though we are being mindful of that balance with the malt.
These older sherry casks, when we use them a second time, are also capable of extremely long term maturation. A second-fill sherry butt is usually filled with spirit that is designed to mature for twenty years or more.
AC: You say your sherry casks come from Rafael Cabello and his team at Tonelería del Sur in Montilla in Spain. Why do you source your sherry casks from this cooperage
MH: We sought out Toneleria del Sur in Spain because back in 2011 there were no options for importing sherry casks into the states. They have a great track record behind some of the Scottish brands and a few other world single malt producers. They are also big believers in quality, something we cherish in our relationship with them.
AC: Is there anything else you wish to add?
MH: Ultimately, our goal at Westland is to be the vanguard of American Single Malt Whiskey. We do not want to simply replicate Scottish whiskey in the United States, we want to make as authentic a single malt whiskey as we can. Our use of local malt and varietals of barley that are only grown here, as well as our local peat and oak species, make that happen. All the while though we are mindful of tradition. Using sherry casks is a great example of this commitment to traditional techniques. The sum total of Westland is a mixture of this tradition, local terroir in the ingredients, and the innovative culture of the Pacific Northwest and America at large. All of these factors come together to make our single malt whiskey as authentic and compelling as possible.