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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A tour of Westland Distillery and its whiskey

I knew more about Westland's reputation than its whiskey when I traveled to Seattle this past November.  In fact I'd never even tried the stuff.  It was one of those situations wherein the more I'd hear people raving about the whiskey, the less I'd want to try it.  I'd say about 90% of the American "craft" (or new small business) whiskies I've tried are whiskies that I never want to drink again.  Each whiskey had plenty of hype ink in books, magazines, and online.  Each whiskey was terribly disappointing.  And when I heard that Westland was only making single malts, I was even less enthused.  The only American single malt I found to be recommendable up to that point was McCarthy's Oregon single malt.  But when my Seattle friend, James, said he'd scheduled a tour of the distillery for us, I was genuinely interested to see how Americans were making single malt.

The night of our Seattle arrival, James brought out two single malts: Longrow 11yo 'Red' Shiraz Cask and Westland single cask 16.

The Longrow was so-so, though I always expect Longrow to be better than so-so, especially at this whisky's price.  The Westland was......very good.  It wasn't just another six-month-old tiny barrel quickie whiskey.  It had 4+ years in an ex-port Hungarian oak cask.  It was rich, thick, spicy, and very drinkable at its high ABV.  Now I was really looking forward to the tour.

The next night we Ubered over to the distillery.  If you go to Westland, I highly recommend taking the Experience tour, like we did, rather than just doing a tasting at the bar.  The tour is very casual and as informative as you'd like it to be.  In our case, I asked a zillion questions.

Westland Distillery was started by two 20-something year old guys, Emerson Lamb and Matt Hoffman, in 2010.  Financially, it is backed by the Lamb family's extensive old wealth (specifically Enterprises International) from the lumber industry.  With this solid backing, Lamb and Hoffman wanted to spearhead the creation of an American single malt industry.  They bought a former crane factory south of downtown Seattle and turned it into the current distillery.  They built two large dunnage warehouses in Hoquiam, WA, for their barrels.  In October 2013, their products first started hitting Seattle shelves.  Today they have three whiskies -- American Single Malt, Peated Malt, and Sherry Wood -- in their regular range that are distributed across the country, as well as a rotation of single casks that usually stay local.

The thing I appreciated the most about Westland is how completely open they are about every step of their processes.  This is more common in the American craft brewing industry than the scotch whisky industry, which keeps mum about any detail they can't turn into a marketing ploy, as if they fear some random dude is going to recreate Lagavulin from scratch in his garage.

Westland has three malt bills.  First is their most common, the 5-malt bill.  Made up of 70% pale malt from East Washington, 10% Munich Malt from Washington, 12% Extra Special Malt from Wisconsin, and a little bit of Brown Malt and Pale Chocolate malt from the UK, this mix is what goes into the American Single Malt as well as many of the single casks.  Then there's the Washington Malt bill, which is made entirely of the pale malt from East Washington.  Finally, there's the peated malt which they get from Baird's in Speyside, peated at 55ppm.

After experimenting with 27 different yeast strains, Matt (the Master Distiller) went with Belgian saison brewers yeast.  I can confirm it has fruity results.  They have a 5,000 liter mash tun (using 66ºC water) and 10,000 liter fermenters.  Their fermentation time is 5 days, which is much longer than most Scotch distilleries.  The resulting beer is 8%abv.

Their pair of pot stills, fashioned by Vendome and allegedly the largest west of the Mississippi, have the capacity for the installation of rectifier plates.  They have no set cut points, instead it's all done by nose and palate.  They redistill the heads and tails, so it's sort of a 2+ distillation process.

They use a number of casks.  They have ex-oloroso hogsheads and butts, ex-PX hogsheads and butts, ex-bourbon barrels, new American oak with different levels of char, Oregon oak, and the aforementioned Hungarian oak.  And with different sorts of casks, Matt uses different fill strengths.  Their warehouses are not climate controlled, so the oceanside weather affects the maturation.  Their target age range is two to four years.

Though there's only 200 casks in the warehouses right now, there's storage space for more than 3200.  Their daily capacity at the distillery is 5-6 casks.  The batch size for their regular range was 20-30 casks at first, but due to the expansion of their distribution the batches are now 50 casks.

So after all that, how is the whisky?

At the end of the tour, they pour the regular range, but while we were in the blending room we had a chance to sample a few single casks.  Cask 281 spent most of its life in a #3 char new oak barrel but was finished in a first fill Oloroso barrel.  The sherry was quite potent and whisky tasted much older than its 31 months (maybe even 8 extra years).  Cask 283 was massively peaty.  At 61%abv and 24 months in a first-fill ex-bourbon barrel it could easily compete with Kilchoman quality-wise.  Cask 313 was a whisky that had spent almost 3 years in a PX hogshead.  It was a dense desserty thing and though I'm usually not a PX fan, I liked this one the best of the three.

When it comes to their regular range, I think the American Single Malt is fine, not much more than that.  The Peated Malt is good, at least the equivalent of McCarthy's.  There are no too-young sharp edges, the peat is moderate and pleasant, and the oak stays back.  But it's the Sherry Wood that impressed me the most of the three.  It's quite a creation, utilizing six different cask types, the 5-malt bill, and a little bit of the peated malt.  The result is something that feels much more deeply matured than its 26 months.  I hope they can continue to match that quality in future batches.

I do have to say, though, the four single casks I tried all topped the regular range.  The very first Westland I had, Cask 16, the night before the tour, remains the best.  Its quality gives me a little bit of hope that something good will come from the American small distillery rush.  Eventually the market will thin out those who can't (most folks), leaving those who can (probably very few) to establish a successful American independent whiskey industry.