This past Friday, I was thrilled to participate at a Hot Stove Society event featuring Matt Hoffman, Co-Founder and Master Distiller of Seattle’s own Westland Distillery. The event allowed for an official tasting of four of Westland’s offerings. I’d already sampled three of the four (in full disclosure, I’ve got a bottle of one of the offerings – the Peated American Single Malt – in my office some 6 feet away from me as I write this). But the fourth selection (third in the order of tasting) was new and special.
This new offering was Westland’s newest expression: Garryana. What is Garryana? It is something that hasn’t really been tried before: maturing single-malt hooch in Quercus garryana – a species of white oak which is native to the pacific northwest. The whiskey was excellent. Why hadn’t this been tried before?
That is a very good question. It might be because Garry Oak is a bit of the Rodney Dangerfield of the oak world. It warps a lot when you try to dry it and so it gets no respect in terms of commercial use and value. In fact, it is so poorly valued in the commercial world that it was largely discarded and conservation efforts are now underway to save the species. But I suspect the primary reason is that we’re really in our infancy in terms of the production of single malt whiskey in the United States. And just as an infant first learns by imitating adults, many in our single-malt distilling community have tried (more or less) to imitate the whisky traditions and history of Scotland.
This isn’t entirely a bad thing. In fact, you could do much worse than managing to create a decent Ardbeg analogue in Alabama. But the fact remains that our friends in Scotland developed their traditional ways not because they were necessarily the best ways of doing things, but sometimes because they were the only ways of doing things. The peat-bomb that I love in Laphroaig might never have existed if Islay hadn’t been essentially devoid of trees. But without trees, peat was a primary fuel for fires – so the malted barley was dried over peat fires and the whisky came to taste of peat. This feels more happy coincidence than purposeful innovation.
Which is why I find the Garryana so interesting. Westland is trying something that hasn’t been done before not because they couldn’t get access to traditional oak barrels, but because they could get access to something different. This distinction will not only help get the product noticed and stand apart from other labels on the shelf, but it may also help to create an entirely new class of spirits.
And this second piece is particularly important in light of the upcoming TTB open comment period. As I’ve discussed before, TTB requirements can occasionally make innovation difficult. Westland is not exempt from this challenge, as they’re playing in a space without legal definition. The TTB does not currently recognize the category of “single malt whiskey” in its standards of identity – so Westland cannot label its product as “single malt whiskey”. As silly as this may sound, it is required to put “American Single Malt” and “Whiskey” on two separate lines of its label (as shown to the left, in the bottle which is no longer 6 feet away). [And they can’t call their product “Scotch Whisky” because no matter how cold and rainy it gets here in Seattle, we’re still not in Scotland.]
Why is this? In large part it is because the TTB has lagged behind the innovation in the industry. With the upcoming comment period, industry participants will have the opportunity to participate in discussions about things like categories, standards for products within those categories, and changes to labeling requirements. Will they make “Garryana” a category? Probably not. But they might just make “American Single Malt Whiskey” a category. That’s a move we could all support.