American malt whiskeys are experiencing a resurgence – a resurgence rather than newfound popularity because they were made and enjoyed before Prohibition. As the legal framework for whiskeys tightened just before, during, and after Prohibition this category virtually disappeared. But it’s important to remember the reason we have whiskey in the first place is to preserve excess crops and to make them more valuable and transportable for sale, so the notion that America has only ever made one or two kinds of whiskey is false. On the frontier you would throw whatever you had into the fermentation vats – even fruit brandies were always quite popular because of the ease of preserving excess fruit in this manner. As legal frameworks tightened and the nation moved toward monocrop agriculture, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey became the most prevalent types of whiskey made while rye was still made in small quantities. But it has only been in the last decade or so that people have started to make malt whiskeys again, and there are many variations from which to choose.
What Is American Malt Whiskey?
American malt whiskey tends to be quite different from Scotch. Many craft distilleries are making American Single Malts and American Straight Malts so as to avoid appearing to compete with Kentucky bourbon. But even larger distilleries are getting in on the action. Woodford Reserve released its own Kentucky Straight Malt this summer. Woodford Reserve and MB Roland are the only two Kentucky distilleries* I know for sure are making malt whiskeys, but these whiskeys are exceedingly popular in craft distilleries outside of Kentucky.
Straight malts are a combination of multiple grains with a minimum of 51% malted barley.. They differ from single malts, which are whiskeys made from a 100% malted barley mash bill. Straight malts and single malts have minimal legal definitions surrounding them at this point in time, and there’s even an American Single Malts Commission trying to push for a standard legal definition of an American Single Malt Whiskey. This may prove to be difficult, however, because of the wide variety of American Single Malts already being made.
At Copper Fox Distillery in Virginia, Wassmund’s Single Malts are made with 100% malted barley smoked with a variety of fruit woods – the peach wood smoked whiskey is a personal favorite of mine. Meanwhile at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn the malt whiskey is made from 100% peated malt. Some American Malts are aged in used cooperage, others in new cooperage. Because of the wide variety of flavors found in this spirits category, not only will coming up with a single legal definition be tricky, but also making cocktails with these products will require a great deal of knowledge about each one.
Making Cocktails With American Malt Whiskeys
Because of the wide variation of flavors you can find in American Malt Whiskeys, it’s important to know a little bit about the flavors you are working with as well as the desired outcome of your cocktail. But the great news about making cocktails with these whiskeys is that it opens you up to a whole new world of flavor. Some tips from the pros:
- Chuck Cowdery says, “One good way to use malt whiskey in cocktails is as a float, i.e., pour a little bit onto the top of the drink but don’t mix it in.”
- Nick Britsky says, “They work well with Amaro, IMHO.”
- Sam Slaughter says, “Outside of highballs, I like using Single Malt whiskeys as a rinse.”
- Jason Horn says, “Carbonation is key! Whether it’s a basic highball or some kind of French 75 riff, bubbles and American single malt go together well.”
Copper Fox Peachwood Old Fashioned Amarena cherry Sugar cube Orange slice Angostura aromatic bitters-good dash 2 oz. Peachwood Single Malt To a rocks glass add cherry, a little cherry syrup from the jar, sugar cube, bitters and orange slice. Muddle. Add 2 oz. Peachwood Single Malt. Stir up to get everything off the bottom of rocks glass. Add large 2” ice square or ball.
Copper Fox Peachwood Peach-a-Peno 3/4 oz. Peach Jalapeno Syrup 1/2 oz. Fresh lime juice 1 oz. Peachwood Single Malt Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until chilled. Pour into rocks glass. Top off with 1 oz. Q brand club soda. Stir up with spoon to blend well. Garnish with lime/jalapeno/peach slice or combination(preference of appearance). Peach Jalapeno Syrup ½ cup sugar ½ cup water 1 jalapeno seeded and sliced 1 peach peeled and cut into chunks Combine sugar, water and , jalapeno and peach in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and stir to dissolve sugar. Press on jalapeno and peach with a fork to help extract their flavor. Remove from heat, cool, then puree. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Copper Fox Peachwood Autumn Harvest 1 1/2 oz. Pumpkin butter 1 oz. Apple butter 1/2 oz. Fresh lemon juice 1 oz. Peachwood single malt Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until chilled. Pour into rocks glass with a cinnamon sugar rim.
Virginia Highland Mapple Julep (by Fiona Chandra) 10 Mint Leaves ¼ cup Small Diced Apples ½ oz. Maple Syrup 1 ½ oz. Port Cask Finished Virginia-Highland Whisky Muddle mint leaves and apples. Add maple syrup. Fill cup with ¾ cup crushed ice. Add whisky and stir. Top with more crushed ice. Garnish with a spring of mint.
Virginia Highland Second Row (by JP Fetherston of the Columbia Room) 1 oz. Port Cask Finished Virginia-Highland Whisky 1 oz. Capitoline Rosé Vermouth .25 oz. Falling Bark Hickory Syrup 1 dropper Bittercube Blackstrap Bitters 8 drops Black Mint Tincture Add all ingredients to a mixing glass; add ice and stir briefly. Strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with a sprig of black mint floated on top of the ice cube.
Virginia Highland Virginia 29 ¼ oz simple syrup* ¾ oz lemon juice 1 ½ oz Port Cask Finished Virginia-Highland Whisky 3 oz Champagne Lemon for garnish Combine simple syrup, lemon juice, and Port Cask Finished Virginia-Highland Whisky into shaker with ice. Shake ingredients and strain into champagne flute. Top with champagne and a light dusting of lemon zest. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl
*Michael reminded me that Town Branch makes Pearse Lyons Reserve, Heaven Hill made a malt for Parker’s Heritage, and Corsair does a malt whiskey in Kentucky as well.