Washington Whiskey – The Next Big Thing in Craft

Aside from heaps of kale, fresh seafood and people who wear socks with sandals, Seattle is making its mark as a craft beer destination. Brewers of micro operations proudly call Seattle home, and Washingtonians are happy to have them. What we’re hearing less about however, amid all the beer-related festivities, is the (not-so-secret) mission to put Washington State on the map as the perfect place to create world class single malt whiskey. Leading the charge towards fine whiskey fame? Westland Distillery, located in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood.

Yesler Journal recently caught up with Jim Stephens, a whiskey-pouring-trained-tasting-professional who told us about Westland’s whiskey, the near-perfection of Washington’s climate for whiskey making, and, the possible secret ingredients making their way into our whiskey (er, mastodon?)

Yesler: I’m a whiskey novice, can you tell me what I’m about to drink, and why I should like it?

Stephens: This is our Flagship –  it’s American Single Malt Whiskey. We like to say it’s distilled in the Scottish tradition, matured in the American Style. I think it tastes like my wife’s peach cobbler. Some people taste chocolate chip cookies. It’s really approachable and accessible for new whiskey drinkers, but those more experienced with whiskey can appreciate it as well.

Yesler: What makes it especially delicious?

Stephens: So, we do a couple of things differently.  We’ve deviated from tradition a bit – chalk that up to being too young to know any better – with delightful results.

First, we use four specialty grains – think craft brewing here in Seattle – that’s where we drew our inspiration. We have Munich malt, think of scones. Brown malt gives the whiskey a nuttiness, kind of like porter. We also use pale chocolate malt – from that you might get the chocolate chip cookies, hints of coffee, caramel and toffee.

Second, instead of using traditional whiskey distillers yeast, we use a Belgian ale yeast. Saison ale is the yeast we’re using. Using saison yeast does take longer, but we’ll sacrifice efficiency for flavor any day.

Thirdly, we use new American oak barrels to age our whiskey.

Yesler: Why doesn’t everybody use oak barrels?

Stephens: Our aging climate is similar to Scotland – we age our whisky on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s rainy, the average temperature is about 55 degrees, and we have a temperate climate. If you used our oak barrels and sent them to Kentucky to age, the taste would be dramatically different, there would be too much going on because of the huge temperature and humidity variations. That works great for whiskey made with corn, but not for our product.

Yesler: How did you get into this?

Stephens: I’ve been into craft brewing for a long time. I had aspirations of starting a brewery down the road. About 5 years ago I got into single malt whiskey. I like to say that I lost my virginity to Lagavulin 16. The first time I tried it I thought ‘oh my gosh, I get it! I know what this is about.’ I had it at a whiskey bar, then went to get a bottle. I then realized it was a little more costly than I expected, but I committed. I was working in retail, but I never loved it [retail] as much as I loved spirits and beer. I got the offer for this job and thought, ‘I get to teach people about whiskey all day? Let’s do this!’ I also get to spend my day with master distillers, doing sensory analysis training. How cool is that?

Yesler: So did the dreams of the brewery turn into dreams of your own distillery? Do you plan to distill at home?

Stevens: Distilling at home is illegal, patently, so there’s that. But even if that weren’t an issue, the scale at which you have to operate in order to make whiskey is just inefficient. We are the largest producer of single malt in the western hemisphere, but if you put us down in Scotland we’d probably be third from the bottom. If we were even half the size we wouldn’t have enough stock to pull from to make the product we use. If you’re going to do anything barrel aged you have to be able to scale up really quickly.

Yesler: I’m a little intimidated by this peated whiskey you’re offering me…

Stevens: If you like smoked salmon, there is no reason not to like peated whiskey. Peat has this beautiful smoky campfire flavor. The other cool thing is that the nature of the peat is solely dependent on what grew there. So in the Islay its peat moss that grows and dies. The Highland area is all grassy in terms of the peat. On the Olympic Peninsula it’s all kinds of stuff growing together to form that peat. Our peated whiskey uses 51% peat from the highland area of Scotland, the rest is  barley malt. No one makes a peated barley here in Washington…yet.

Yesler: So you mentioned the Olympic Peninsula, is there untapped peat potential in Washington?

Stevens: We do have access to a peat bog on the Peninsula. We’ll be working with Skagit Valley maltster to produce a peated whiskey. It will be the first time a peated malt is produced in the US .

Yesler: Are there a lot of peat bogs on the Peninsula? Why hasn’t anyone made a peated barley here yet?

Stevens: There is tons of peat in Washington, but most of it is known to us as Federally Protected Wetland. There is very little available for public use. Our peat goes down 60 feet, at least 500 years. Scotland has peat only about 10 feet deep.

Yesler: Aren’t peat bogs known for preserving bodies?

Stevens: I mean, this might have, not to be gross, this could have mastodon in it. When we drink the stuff that is made from Olympic Peninsula it’s going to be arguably much older than the barley we use now.

Yesler: So what’s next for Westland?

Stevens: Our mission is to put Washington on the map as a place to produce world class whiskey. The state itself is screaming for single malt whiskey production. If we achieve our goal, everyone in the world is going to know that whiskey from Washington State is going to be delicious – world class.

Intrigued by the possible promise of mastodon? Most places in the Seattle area carry Westland’s flagship product, the more recently introduced Sherrywood and Peated whiskey is less widely available. Visit Westland Distillery to find out more.