In the blazing dry heat of the Sonoran Desert, a 600-degree hearth burns in a custom-made steel furnace, unfurling plumes of white smoke laced with the odor of burning mesquite. It’s malting day at Hamilton Distillers in Tucson, Arizona. Mesquite smoke is pumped from the furnace right into a germination and malting kiln, the place it runs by way of moist barley, imbuing the grain with a smoky, lip-smacking barbecue character. It’s almost the similar process used for making smoky single malt scotch, except Hamilton makes mesquite-smoked single malt whiskey and it’s occurring not on a cool and misty Scottish island, however in the excessive desert in one in every of the hottest elements of the United States.
This is only one face of the shiny future of smoked whiskey in America, one among an enormous array of types of smoked whiskeys made using methods new and previous. American distillers are experimenting with new methods of smoking barley and different grains, using regional hardwoods that mirror their local setting, and even exploring the potential of American peat. Above all else, American distillers are creating new flavors which are making smoked whiskey much more numerous than peated scotch alone.
How Whisky Acquired Its Smoke
Scotch whisky has been synonymous with smoky flavors for hundreds of years, and Scottish distillers started down this path more of necessity than intention. With a view to malt barley for distilling it have to be inspired to germinate, then have the progress stopped by drying the damp grain with scorching air. Early Scottish distillers created scorching air using fires fueled with peat because it was an affordable and out there gasoline source in a area the place wooden was scarce. The barley attained distinctive smoky notes consequently. In trendy occasions, it turned potential to malt barley with no smoke contact by any means, and peat’s major position is now as a flavoring agent. In fact, peat is hardly the solely fragrant and flammable substance around.
Smoking malt for whiskey with wood is a product of the craft whiskey motion’s constant quest for unique flavors. Nevertheless, it borrows from a really lengthy and established American custom: barbecue. “Whiskey and barbecue have an incredible affinity because they share one key ingredient together, and that is wood,” says barbecue professional Steven Raichlen, the host of Undertaking Smoke and Venture Hearth on PBS and writer of books of the similar names. Throughout the country, distillers are further creating that connection by smoking their grain with regional hardwoods and exploring the flavors and textures that these woods provide. Virginia-based Copper Fox Distillery, an early pioneer, makes use of apple and cherrywood smoke for its Wasmund’s single malt, but peachwood for its Copper Fox single malt. Little Rock, Arkansas-based Rock Town Distillery makes a whiskey from hickory-smoked pink winter wheat. Sonoma Distilling Company’s Cherrywood rye includes a small amount of cherrywood-smoked barley.
Wooden-smoked whiskey trailblazer Darek Bell—founding father of Corsair Distilling in Nashville—has experimented for years with smoking grain using dozens of sorts of wooden, impressed by his love of barbecue and his seek for a distinctly Southern flavor. Lots of his whiskeys are smoked with multiple kinds of wooden, each contributing a singular taste to the nostril, palate, and end. Bell has documented his efforts each in the guide Hearth Water: Experimental Smoked Whiskeys and with a wide selection of whiskey releases, from the flagship Triple Smoke—smoked with cherrywood, beechwood, and peat—to the hickory-smoked Wildfire.
Wooden-smoked whiskeys differ from the peat-smoked variety, opening the door to whisky lovers who might not take pleasure in peat reek—the maritime, seaweed, and iodine notes widespread in peated scotch. Wood-smoked whiskeys emphasize fruity and meaty flavors. As with barbecue, whiskey could be smoked with many various sorts of wooden, but the differences between them are relatively delicate. “It may sound a bit heretical, but there isn’t a huge amount of difference [in barbecue] in the actual smoke flavor from one wood to another,” Raichlen says. “There’s a subtle difference, but it’s not like if you smoke with cherrywood you’re going to taste cherries.” This is true of wood-smoked whiskeys as properly. Flavors derived from totally different woods are noticeable, however delicate—cherrywood and applewood-smoked whiskeys are typically noticeably lighter than hickory. Nevertheless, past the species of wood, it’s the technique and period of the smoking course of that finally form the intensity and taste of the smoke.
Most distillers select the wood they use based mostly on their location, identical to using local grains and water. “The traditional [barbecue] wood combinations are dictated almost solely by geography,” Raichlen says. “They use alder to smoke salmon in the Northwest because alder is their prevalent tree. They use hickory in the South to smoke pork because hickory is the predominant wood.” The same may be true for whiskey. As the variety of American whiskey expands, new choices will increasingly mirror their place of birth.
There’s one wood that stands aside from the crowd: mesquite, whose smoke carries a particular and unmistakable barbecue meatiness. “It’s the smokiest of the woods, and if you think of the essence of barbecue as being smoke, anything that you would call the smokiest will remind you the most of barbecue,” Raichlen says. “Mesquite has a much stronger, oilier, and more bitter flavor than other woods.” Thus it’s no coincidence that, of all the types of wood-smoked whiskeys, mesquite is the first to emerge as a method in its personal proper, with complexity corresponding to peat-smoked scotch however throughout a completely totally different palette of flavors.
Stephen Paul, who founded Hamilton Distillers together with his daughter Amanda, knows lots about mesquite. For many years, he made luxury furniture out of the knotty, grainy, uncompromising wood. But while consuming scotch at a family barbecue fueled by leftover mesquite wood, Stephen’s wife Elaine proposed that barley may be malted with mesquite, as an alternative of peat. That spark of genius turned the foundation for Hamilton Distillers and its flagship Whiskey Del Bac Dorado. All the grain is malted in-house using regionally harvested mesquite wood. “The people who go out and cut it tend to be kind of oddball dreamers too,” Stephen says. “Mesquite has this romantic notion around it. It’s super wild, and a very difficult wood to deal with at every stage.”
Just as peated Islay whiskies supply a breadth of types and smoky intensities, mesquite whiskey is starting to exhibit its personal flavor vary. Colin Keegan, an Englishman who lives in an apple orchard in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, was doubtless the first distiller to make mesquite whiskey in any amount, pioneering the fashion with Colkegan whiskey. When he opened Santa Fe Spirits, Keegan needed to make a whiskey that may resemble scotch whereas additionally reflecting New Mexico. So he labored with malted barley, scotch’s hallmark grain, but added some American affect by smoking it with mesquite wooden. “We realized just how iconic mesquite smoking is to America,” Keegan says. Colkegan is aged for a number of years in full-size, 53-gallon barrels, most of them used—another nod to Scotch whisky. “After 3 years we can achieve a flavor profile that’s more akin to an 8 year [scotch] because those higher volatiles just shoot out of the barrel,” Keegan says, referring to the release of undesirable taste compounds.
Whereas mesquite smoke is usually a dominant flavor, Colkegan and Whiskey Del Bac are very totally different whiskeys. Whiskey Del Bac’s smoked whiskeys are wealthy, meaty, spicy, and crammed with a dry heat, while Colkegan is fruity, elegant, and refined, with a maltier backbone. Other distillers, like Ranger Creek in Texas, are also experimenting with mesquite-smoked whiskey and creating their own arsenal of flavors. Even spirits big Diageo has latched onto America’s fondness for mesquite with Crown Royal Texas Mesquite, a Canadian whisky with mesquite flavoring. Mesquite-smoked whiskeys, rooted in the Southwest and aged in the region’s very popular and arid climate, might someday be as emblematic of the American Southwest as peated whisky is for Scotland’s Islay.
A couple of daring distillers are taking over the Scots at what they do greatest: making peated whiskey.
American craft distillers who need to make peated whiskey usually import the similar Scottish malt utilized by the giant Scotch whisky distillers. They define their fashion by their methods of fermentation, distillation, and maturation. So three totally different whiskeys, like McCarthy’s from Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon, Westland Peated from Seattle-based Westland Distillery, and the new Balcones Peated from Balcones Distilling in Texas are clearly distinct from one another, despite the fact that all of them are made utilizing Scottish peated malt.
In fact, any whiskey made with Scottish peat will all the time owe something to Scotland, so some American distillers are beginning to distance themselves by procuring genuine American peat. Solely just lately have unbiased malt houses that can smoke and malt barley on a small scale appeared in the U.S., enabling the use of home-grown American peat.
The allure of American peat is that not all peat tastes the similar. Peat is a pure product, created by decaying plant matter, and the composition of those crops varies from place to put. That’s why Islay peat—predominantly decayed moss and seaweed—can style quite totally different from Highlands peat, which has more terrestrial plant matter.
The composition of North American peat, which is discovered throughout the continent, could be even more assorted, and craft distillers are simply starting to discover its many flavors. In addition to its Scottish malted launch, Westland is at present maturing whiskey smoked with peat harvested from a Washington lavatory rife with crops you’d never discover in Scotland, like crabapples, wild cranberries, and Labrador tea. Skagit Valley Malting, an unbiased Washington State malt house, labored intently with Westland to develop a peat smoking and malting course of. “The raw material that we receive looks like the peat moss you’d get at the garden store, but a little coarser,” says Skagit CEO Dave Green. “It’s not real exciting at that point. It smells like dirt. But once we heat it and create that smoke, then that great aroma really starts to come out.”
Upon its release in 2020, whiskey lovers could have their first style of how these botanicals categorical themselves in the peat. “It’s not nearly as medicinal as Islay-style peat,” promises Westland grasp distiller Matt Hofmann. “It’s got a nice, almost barbecue spiciness to it,” he says. “We’re trying to make something that is very expressive of the Pacific Northwest, and if the peat is different, that’s a good thing.”
Above all else, American distillers are creating new flavors which might be making smoked whiskey much more numerous than peated scotch alone.
In Portland, Maine, Luke Davidson, founding father of Maine Craft Distilling, is crafting a uniquely Maine whiskey in his state’s Scotland-like climate. His Fifty Stone whiskey is made out of Maine-grown barley that’s flooring malted and smoked in-house with each Maine-sourced peat and seaweed. The peat comes from a fourth-generation traditional Maine peat farm that when bought hand-harvested peat used to warmth individuals’s houses—a standard follow in 19th century Scotland and Maine alike. Davidson harvests the seaweed himself, hauling it in his boat before drying it in the distillery all through the season. “We start the fire with oak and then we throw in the peat, which almost puts the fire out,” says Davidson. “It smolders, and then we throw the seaweed in and it instantly lights back up like paper.” The seaweed provides a singular iodine and brine notice, a “burnt hospital” flavor that Davidson likens to a lighter model of Laphroaig, a basic Islay malt.
American peat presents two challenges for distillers: most peat lies in protected land, so discovering a dependable source isn’t all the time straightforward. Then, once the peat is procured, very few U.S. maltsters are outfitted to make use of it to smoke barley. However the infrastructure for making American peated whiskey is slowly starting to develop, promising a not-too-distant future once we can odor and style the smoke of the land itself in our whiskey.
There will by no means be one single fashion of American smoked whiskey. Some distillers will proceed to adapt conventional Scottish strategies for their own environments. Others are blazing solely new trails or just enjoying with smoked twists on basic types, like peated bourbon and peated rye. For many years, whisky lovers have requested the once-simple question, “Is this whisky smoked?” Now, with so many new types to choose from, they could find themselves asking as an alternative, “How was this whiskey smoked?”