Editor’s Note: This whiskey was provided to us as a review sample by Stranahan’s. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
Draw a line in your head with single-malt Scotch on one end and bourbon on the other, says Owen Martin, master distiller at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. At various points along the line, American single malts appear – some snugged right up against Scotch and others slipping down the line toward bourbon.
It’s tempting to think American single malts are just versions of Scotch from this side of the pond. After all, both are typically made from malted barley. But it’s not that simple, Martin says. While Scotland shares somewhat consistent weather coast to coast, the climate in Washington state is wildly different from the one in New Mexico, which is wildly different from what’s happening on the east coast. There’s also the fact that Scottish distillers are more inclined to abide by time-honored traditions and re-use barrels, while makers of American single malt are free to experiment and implement an astonishing variety of aging and finishing techniques.
“American single malts share pioneering, out-the-box thinking that comes from craft beer,” said Martin, who moved up to master distiller at Stranahan’s in 2019 after Rob Dietrich left to oversee Metallica’s whiskey brand Blackened. “You have that as a base, then you have all this experimentation. The result is insane ranges of flavor.”
The only problem is that American single malts, as a distinct category, haven’t been around very long. “The knock,” Martin concedes, “is that the industry hasn’t been out long enough to put out stuff that’s up to snuff.”
Founded in 2004 and dedicated from the beginning to making nothing but single malt, Stranahan’s wants to change that perception as one of the segment’s forerunners. Its whiskies incorporate brewers yeast and specialty malts – a nod to Denver’s craft-beer roots – and have included a number of experiments with barrel finishing over the years.
When Martin tested the whiskey that had been barreled in 2009, though, he knew he didn’t want additional finishing. A decade in Denver’s high altitude and extreme climate, in new American oak barrels, had left its own indelible mark. In three of the barrels, roughly 80% of the juice had been given over to the angel’s share; in the other two barrels, between 50% and 60% had evaporated. (Thus the name: Mountain Angel.)
“With this release,” Martin says, “we wanted to show what a pure American single malt can achieve.”
The result is a dark and concentrated whiskey, edging toward the bourbon end of Martin’s imaginary line. Ten years in new American oak will do that.
Mountain Angel won’t be the last American single malt released by Stranahan’s with an age statement, either. The distillery has other whiskey still aging that’s as old, or older. Martin says ten years is about as much new-oak char as he wants to put onto American single malt, but there are plenty of opportunities for additional experimentation.
“Hopefully, we’re going to be known for defining and pushing the boundaries of where the category can go,” he says.
Tasting Notes: Stranahan’s Mountain Angel 10 Year Old
Vital stats: Mashbill of 100% malted barley; aged at least 10 years in new American oak with a #3 char; 47.3% alcohol by volume/94.6 proof; $130 per 750 ml bottle.
Appearance: Burnt umber; black tea.
Nose: Sweet liqueur, glazed cherries, after-dinner cognac and pipe smoke.
Palate: Tobacco and brown sugar; dark, sticky molasses; maple bars; caramelized wood. The finish is long and luxurious, the mouthfeel velvety.
Summary: The unfortunate thing is that fewer than 500 Mountain Angel bottles were released, in Colorado, California and New York. You’ll be lucky to get your hands on a bottle, or even see it at your local whiskey bar. The fortunate news, however, is that it does represent a whiskey style really starting to come into its own. Expect to see a startling variety of American single malts in the next few years, from Stranahan’s and others. Do yourself a favor by taking a chance and picking one up from a craft distiller in your region.
The unfortunate thing is that fewer than 500 Mountain Angel bottles were released, in Colorado, California and New York. You’ll be lucky to get your hands on a bottle, or even see it at your local whiskey bar. The fortunate news, however, is that it does represent a whiskey style really starting to come into its own. Expect to see a startling variety of American single malts in the next few years, from Stranahan’s and others. Do yourself a favor by taking a chance and picking one up from a craft distiller in your region.
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Scott Bernard Nelson
Scott Bernard Nelson is a writer, actor and whiskey reviewer in Portland, Ore. When he's not working, you can often find him fly fishing or rock climbing in the Pacific Northwest.