12 Northwest Malt Whiskeys Reviewed - The Whiskey Wash

12 Northwest Malt Whiskeys Reviewed

Most consumers have performed some blind taste test in one form or another. In talking to friends and family, many reference wine tasting as their first experience tasting something they know nothing about and then trying to determine flavors, aromas, and quality. Having participated in many wine tastings myself, I remember looking around and observing others with the very same question on their minds: “Do I like this?” It’s a pretty tough question when you don’t know the ingredients, manufacturing process, cost, and how the packaging looks.

Researchers typically use blind taste testing to compare one brand to others. Here in Portland, Oregon State University has a Sensory and Consumer Group in which I have volunteered a few times to blind taste test foods, the last being frozen ahi tuna. The Sensory Group has strict guidelines, including a prohibition on wearing fragrances on the day of testing.

This year was my first year as a spirits judge.  Previously, I had been on the production side of the industry as the founder of Eastside Distilling.  There I had created flavor profiles for more than 20 products, many that ended up winning awards and several that are now multimillion dollar brands. I have done hundreds of experiments on flavor. As far as I was concerned, I had an educated and diverse palette.

Wow, did I have a lot to learn. When your first task as a judge is to rate 21 corn vodkas, all made from the same bulk neutral grain spirit, your taste buds and your brain go to a whole new level.  When all those glasses of clear alcohol stare at you blankly with no input as to cost, packaging, and marketing, you have to dig in and really evaluate based on smell and flavor. I know that sounds obvious, but trust me, organize a blind test with your friends.  Pool together ten bottles of very similar products, say four-year-old bourbons. Have somebody else pour the samples in another room and start tasting them one at a time (you will need lots of glasses).  What you think is your favorite bourbon may not be your favorite bourbon!

American malt whiskey is not a defined category in spirits, so a blind tasting is even more challenging.  What is American Malt Whiskey? Here is the standard from the American Malt Whiskey Commission: Made from 100% malted barley and distilled in entirely one distillery. Mashed distilled and matured in the United States of America. Matured in Oak casks not exceeding 700 L. Distilled to no more than 160 proof or 80% alcohol by volume. Bottled at 80 proof, 40% alcohol or more by volume. This is pretty loose for a whiskey definition and leaves plenty of room for variation and innovation.

The products we tried here did not all fit into this guideline, as some were made with less than 100% barley, but they are all similar enough in production to warrant a taste test. Everything we tasted was in the range of flavor from an Irish whiskey to Scotch whiskey to something totally different.  I decided to do my tasting at Polaris Studio here in Portland because they have been working with me for many years in taking product shots for not only my products but other companies I work for.  I had originally thought of bringing in whiskey professionals, but I decided that instead of professionals I would get enthusiasts.  I was not disappointed with the results of the tasting.

Out of the 12 samples, three rose above the rest, and the top two spots were very, very close.  All of the products were very good and there were no bad whiskeys in the lot.  In general, the products that did not score in our top were simply younger and a bit less structured.

All of these whiskeys are from Oregon and Washington, where some of the best barley in the world grows.

image via Lenny Gotter/Polara Studio

#1
Westland Single Malt Whiskey
aromas of blackcurrant tangerine and walnuts
flavors of mossy bog, tar, waffle cone, and campfire smoke
a long pleasant lasting earthy hint of peat finish
Westland Distillery – WestlandDistillery.com

#2
Bull Run Oregon Single Malt Whiskey aged four years 89.08 proof
the nose is moderate with aromas of malt, toffee, light peat smoke and a touch of cardamom and tobacco leaf
the taste is cocoa powder, waffle cone, white pepper and raisin
an oily lasting finish of coffee, caramel, and a touch of mushroom funk on the end
Bull Run Distillery – BullRunDistillery.com

#3
Clear Creek Distilling’s McCarthy’s Single Malt Whiskey
nose is peaty smoke with a hint of cinnamon
flavors of smoke, peat, and honey
earthy campfire smooth finish
Clear Creek Distillery – ClearCreekDistillery.com

The rest in alphabetical order:

13 Corners American Malt Whiskey 80 proof
nose is very light aromas of alcohol fuel oil and whole wheat bread
flavors of soggy toast clove and milk chocolate
finish complemented by a lasting light malty and almond flavor and a bit medicinal
Wishkah River Distillery – WishkaRiver.com

Copperworks Distilling American Single Malt Whiskey 106 proof
the nose is very light of smoky cocoa beans a touch of cinnamon
the taste is lots of caramel and graham cracker with black pepper
finish is dry and malty with a burnt sugar sweetness
we found it to be a bit hot at 106 proof, but a few drops of water opened it up nicely
Copperworks Distilling – CopperworksDistilling.com

Four Spirits Single Malt Whiskey 80 proof
This was the wildcard of the bunch. Aromas of banana popsicle and chai tea
flavors very sugary reminiscent of custard and bananas foster
a short fruity, grassy finish
4 Spirits Distillery – 4SpiritsDistillery.com

Idle Hour Malt Whiskey 88 proof
aromas of peach pie, caramel, and grain
flavors a little bit hot reminiscent of lightly burnt wheat toast
sea salt air finish that ends a bit medicinal
Seattle Distilling Company – SeattleDistilling.com

Madam Damnable Washington Single Malt Whiskey 88 proof

nose is rising rye bread with white pepper and hazelnut
Flavors of rye toast moss and black cardamom with a spicy rye finish that burned a little bit.  Few drops of water took off the excess spicy bite
finish of modest peat smoke and caramel
Sounds Spirits – DrinkSoundSpirits.com

Ransom Spirits The Emerald 1865
noses pleasant and balanced shortcake allspice and brown sugar
full-bodied and rich flavors of butterscotch pancakes almond and a dusting of clove
finishes smooth and malty
Ransom Spirits – RansomSpirits.com

Rogue Spirits Oregon Single Malt Whiskey 80 proof
the nose is very light gunpowder phenolic with aromas of orange piecrust demerara sugar and hazelnut
flavors of buckwheat pancake peaty smoke hazelnut and nutmeg with a waxy texture
the finish is lasting malty mushroom and smoke
Rogue Spirits – Rogue.com

Tualatin Valley distilling Oregon single malt 92 proof
almost no nose cinnamon cookie with clove moderate alcohol presence and a slight medicinal quality
flavors very light of barley biscuit pecan a touch of caramel with a white pepper burn
a lingering finish of pepper spiciness
Tualatin Valley Distilling – Tvdistilling.com

Westward American single malt whiskey 92 proof
aroma doughy cinnamon roll prune and a light iodine aroma
the flavors are ready yeast general and malt
finish of burnt caramel, with a bit of mushroom funk
House Spirits – HouseSpirits.com

In closing, I would like to add that this was an exceptionally enjoyable tasting and I’m very excited about all of these products what the future holds for American malt whiskey.  It is my firm belief that American Malt Whiskey will become the next big category in the American spirits industry.  I’m very excited to have so many excellent products from so many local distilleries.