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Is America capable of making great single malt?

By Jason Pyle

As a sub-category of whiskey, single malt production in the United States is in its infancy. Even “infancy” may be a stretch. A glance at the number of producers today versus 10 years ago illustrates just how few American distillers have taken up the mantle of the whiskey that Scotland placed firmly on the map.

Some brave souls are committed to making fine U.S. single malt whiskey

This may be a little puzzling for those that are up to speed on the craft whiskey movement that has invigorated the whiskey industry in the U.S. for the last half decade or more. Small boutique operations are doing some extremely creative things with their whiskey – everything from working with under-appreciated grains, smaller barrels, different barrel toast and char levels, and certainly much more. So why have so few tried their hand at single malt? It’s a puzzler.

Even with few producers today, there are still some brave souls that are committed to making fine U.S. single malt whiskey. Distilleries like Stranahan’s, Copper Fox, Clear Creek (McCarthy’s Single Malt), New Holland, and Tuthilltown are all producing great quality whiskey that has yielded positive reviews from noted whiskey writers across the globe.

However, few American distilleries have been making single malt whiskey longer than St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA. Operating from a former naval aircraft hangar situated along the San Francisco Bay, the merry band of creatives from St. George are producing some of the highest quality, and certainly one of the most distinctive, single malt whiskeys anywhere in the world.

St. George Spirits

St. George has been making small batch single malt whiskey for more than 15 years. One could even consider the distillery the elder statesmen of American single malt since few, if any, in the U.S. have been doing it longer. Lance Winters, St. George’s Master Distiller, and his right hand man, Dave Smith, take a lot of pride in their flagship whiskey. It shows in the finished product.

A recent visit to the distillery afforded me an opportunity to try the rich distiller’s beer that St. George uses for their single malt. In combination with their distillation and aging process, this high quality beer may very well the most important piece of the puzzle. It is produced by Sierra Nevada Brewery from a variety of barley malts - 2-row pale ale malt, crystal malt, chocolate malt, black patent malt, and beechwood and alder smoked malts. This combination of bright malts and richer, toasted malts serve to ramp up the complexity in the finished whiskey. St. George also gains significant advantage for the fact that the distillery has just completed the 11th release of single malt whiskey in 15 years. With each year, the distillery has been able to reserve barrels of for future releases. As a result, a plentiful stock of older whiskey remains, which has been aged in an array of barrels - from refill bourbon to sherry, port, and French oak. It’s this combination of aging technique and the distillery’s blending of barrels (up to 13 years old) that have helped St. George grab both a big foothold, and a distinctive house style. This style is at once elegant, with lush fruit flavors, but balanced by deep chocolate, roasted, and smoky base notes.

It’s worth noting that the distillery has a number of 14 year old barrels or older. A sip of these older cask-strength whiskeys showcases some of the most concentrated, syrupy, and fruity whiskeys I’ve tasted this year. If this is a sign of what’s to come, the future of single malt whiskey in the U.S. looks bright.

Leave it to one of the most exciting distilleries in America to achieve what few are willing to try, and to do so with exceptional results.

St. George single malt whiskey tasting notes

The nose is completely different to anything on the market. It opens up with lush fruit (almost tropical!) aromas of melon, banana, pear, lemon-lime soda, and ginger ale. The fruitiness eventually gives way to the smoky malt. On the palate the flavors peel back like the layers of an onion with ripe fruits making an early appearance backed with spiced honey, nutty almond toffee, and cocoa. The chocolate and pale ale malts stamp their signature to the finish with the lingering flavors of the beer used to craft this wonderful pour of single malt whiskey.