The 2010s may have been all about craft beer, and 2020 might have been all about “hard seltzers,” but now there’s a new alcohol trend in town – craft whiskey.
When you think about single malt, America probably doesn’t spring to mind. It’s all Scotland, Japan – even ‘the Highlands of Australia‘ – before the bourbon-swilling barbarians over in the United States, right? Wrong. A classy – but still seriously fun – movement is brewing in the United States (and the early signs are that Aussies are going to love it). That movement? Craft whiskey.
Speaking of which… I was recently invited to America by Westward Whiskey to do some old fashioned whistle-wetting. In doing so, I had my eyes opened to the craft whiskey movement that’s a brewin’ (and which is now making its way over to Australia in leaps and bounds).
Westward’s philosophy, as Westward Head Distiller Miles Munroe puts it, is to brew their whiskey like a beer, distil it like a single malt and age it like a bourbon. But before we get into all that: a little backstory. Westward Whisky began in 2004, when Founder & Master Distiller Christian Krogstad – a former brewer and winemaker – envisioned a distinctive American Single Malt inspired by the American Northwest.
At the time, there were only three dozen craft distilleries in the U.S. Now there are more than 2,200, with Westward a proud leader of the space. Christian was joined in 2011 by Thomas Mooney, who came to the team as Founder and CEO, to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a whiskey entrepreneur, and the rest is history.
Westward isn’t the only craft spirit maker in the game. The sector is booming. According to a study conducted by the American Craft Spirits Association, the craft spirits industry achieved $2.4 billion in retail sales in 2015, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 27.4% in volume.
It’s grown since then, too, and my recent tour of Westward’s Portland distillery and barrel warehouse (aka “Jenny”) showed me by just how much. Westward now has a large distillery alongside a super stylish tasting room reminiscent of a winery. It has remained true to its roots though, with personal touches, like the quirkily named warehouse “Jenny” (and people putting stickers on the bottles partially by hand) never too far away throughout my tour.
Upon arriving, it quickly became evident, however, that this was no slapped-together hop shop. It’s a very savvy – if full of heart, and local ingredients – operation. Westward’s got high-tech whisky distilling gadgets, a classy tasting room and a brewing set-up that would put many micro-breweries to shame.
After walking into the brewing room, the smell of malted barley wafted over me. I instantly found myself craving a beer, and Miles, as if reading my mind, asked if we want to try the “mash.” We all had a pleasant chew, before Miles, casual as you like, tapped the giant metal cylinder as if it were a mere keg, letting us know that this isn’t any old wash (and we’d expect nothing less, in a distillery run by a brewer).
Here, we learned that wash – a kind of light, non-carbonated ale-y substance – is the finished product of fermentation destined to be distilled for the first time (of which the tasty mash is a mere byproduct). We also learned that all Westward Whiskey is made from 100% Northwest two-row pale malted barley and ale yeast.
In the early years, before the distillery I’m visiting was built, Westward washes were brewed in partnership with a number of iconic Portland breweries, like Breakside, Alameda, and Rogue, but since November 2015 every single wash used has been brewed inhouse, with a classic craft beer philosophy – fermentation being done slowly and at a low temperature. The result is a spicy wash with bright and fruity notes. One that makes you feel like you could drink it all day.
But enough on that: drinking is not what this “wash” is for though, really. We were just indulging in a little bit of experimental excess – such is the Westward way. After drinking a cheeky glass of the stuff, we headed over to a different part of the room, where a young woman stood at a sticker-covered counter, wearing noise-cancelling headphones and tasting a fresh batch of whiskey (the finished product). Adorning the wall is a Mark Twain quote that reads: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
This quote proved prophetic; we then learned that 28,000L of wash ultimately equates to just 5 barrels of whiskey. Though this method of production is deliberately inefficient, having such a high-quality base is what gives Westward the ability to create such a unique flavour profile, in such a short period of time (compared to traditional Scotch makers).
It also gives them the license to play around a little; something Head Distiller, the long-haired, cowboy boot clopping, tattoo-adorned Miles Munroe absolutely loves to do.
In the room next door, we climbed up on top of the custom-built still, which is converting the fermented beer into whiskey. Unlike the stills you see in Scotland, which have longer necks, Westward stills have short copper necks. This means the evaporating droplets stay closer to the liquid below – closer to the brew’s flavours as they travel upwards, eventually finding their way into a smaller, second still for another round of distillation. This means you can get a stronger taste, in a quicker time.
As Westward puts it: “We start with the finest ingredients possible to express our signature robust flavour. Why would we want to lose any of that?”
I’ll drink to that. And it’s not just me. Australia appears (as a nation of not just degenerate alcoholics, per passé stereotype, but increasingly sophisticated drinkers) more than ready to receive this latest alcohol trend. And sales figures show we’re well and truly poised to pick up what Westward – and other craft whisky makers – are putting down.
Westward’s Single Malt Rum Cask edition, for instance, was voted 2021 Whisky of the Year by The Whisky Club – Australia’s biggest whisky community. Matured in Guatemalan rum casks and dripping with tangy tangerine, crunchy sugar cane and rich Banoffee pie, it was one very sexy whiskey. Or as one member, Andrew Martin, described it: “Lifting the cork on this bottle was like walking into your favourite ski lodge late at night to find the fire roaring and steaming pudding wafting from the kitchen.”
Who can resist that?
If you fear Westward may not have another innovative drop for you soon though, think again. They are constantly experimenting and are sure to be a growing presence in the Australian market in the years to come. In Westward’s warehouse, for instance, we were fortunate enough to try some of the wilder experiments they currently have running (as well as some of the tried and tested recipes, like their collaboration with local winery Dominio IV).
We tried Mezcal, Chardonnay, Port, Pinot Noir and Rum Westward variations. On top of that, while visiting Dominio IV in the Willamette Valley, we hand-picked hazelnuts off Dominio’s vineyards, which Miles plans to roast and then soak in Westward whiskey as a cheeky experiment.
Judging by the response we’ve seen thus far to Westward in Australia, we can safely say we expect to see more craft whiskey over here behind Australian bars and bottle shops soon. Who knows, maybe we’ll even get a Jacaranda-flavoured whiskey one day soon. So, if you’re listening Westward, go West! Or should we say, East…
DMARGE was invited to visit America as a guest of Westward Whiskey.