Interview: Copperworks Talks American Single Malt Made With American Peat

| April 4, 2022

Seattle’s Copperworks Distilling continues to innovate and take American single malt whiskey to the next level.

Recently, the whiskey maker unveiled its third release of Washington Peated American Single Malt and they will continue to do a batch every year.

This is significant, because it’s among the first domestic peated, malted barley produced entirely from ingredients sourced in Washington state, as this whiskey category is still in its infancy.

Copperworks opened its doors in 2013 and has since won numerous local, national and international awards.

Co-owners Jason Parker and Jeff Kanof recently visited with The Whiskey Wash about their eco-friendly distillery, about peated whiskey, and about the future of American single malt.

Copperworks Blending

The Copperworks team at work during a blending session (image via Copperworks Distilling)

The Whiskey Wash: Tell us the origin story behind Copperworks Distilling.

Jason Parker: “We were founded by two brewers (one professional, one an advanced homebrewer) wishing to explore the possibilities of malted barley by distilling high-quality craft beer (without hops) into fine spirits.That is still what drives the business to this day. Our belief, proven out by a decade of producing 100-percent malt whiskey from over a dozen varieties of malt, from dozens of different farms, and from each harvest year over the past decade, is that malt does indeed have a taste of place. Grains, like grapes, have terroir, though big malt houses, breweries, and distilleries purposefully strive to homogenize those differences.”

TWW: What were the challenges to creating a single malt in America?

Jeff Kanof: “Creating a single malt whiskey that was both delicious and distinctly different from Scotch, Irish, or Japanese single malt whisky was neither difficult nor challenging. We simply rejected the traditional brewing methods that we found in traditional distilleries around the world, opting instead for modern brewing practices that we’d spent decades perfecting. With improved brewing practices came several other opportunities, including better barrel selection, improved warehouse conditions, and at all times a focus on flavor rather than yield. Also not too difficult is getting customers, competitions, and the trade to appreciate the flavors, stories, and difference that is American single malt whiskey. What’s been the most challenging is getting legal recognition for the category. Like most regulatory processes, it is slow-moving, but we are optimistic that a legal definition will come to fruition and therefore catch up to the 200 distilleries that are already actively producing American single malt whiskey.”

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TWW: One of the hallmarks of a great single malt is the peat to toast the barley. How hard is peat to come by on this continent?

Jason: “Peat bogs are ubiquitous in this part of the United States. Washington state alone has over 450 peat bogs identified, mapped, and (mostly) protected. However, not all peat tastes the same, but this is not something anyone would know until they try a whiskey made from a peat not sourced in Scotland. The peat bog in Shelton, Washington we pull from has been mined commercially for decades as a source for garden soil enhancement. It’s the only peat bog we’re aware of in Washington State that can be commercially harvested. Smoke from this peat, injected into the drum malting machine as the malt is kilning, is mild and delicious, though almost nothing like peat found in Scotland. That’s because the plants that formed peat in this location are not the same as the plants that formed the peat from Scotland. It’s also because the process of malting at Skagit Valley Malting is quite different from the type of malting found in traditional Scottish malt houses. No one in the U.S., that we’re aware of, is making domestic peated malt except for Skagit Valley Malting.”

TWW: Does your barley come from Washington state as well?

Jeff: “Between 95 and 100 percent of our barley (depending on the year and what experiments we’re running) comes from small Washington farms. This release was made from Copeland malt grown and malted in the Skagit Valley. We’ve chosen to focus on sourcing from small farms who use barley as a rotation crop to improve their soil vitality. But instead of planting alfalfa or some generic winter cover crop that will be tilled under in the spring or sold as a commodity product into the animal feed market, we pay top price for specialty barley grown for malting. Our goal is to identify which varieties taste best and grow best on each farm, and to celebrate the differences in flavors those variety/farm combinations make, rather than striving for uniformity.”

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TWW: What are the benefits to being able to create a single malt from ingredients sourced as local as in your own community and state?

Jason: “The benefits of sourcing locally are numerous and important to our mission, which is to inspire individuals and organizations to become socially and environmentally conscious consumers through our innovative spirits, educational experiences, and transparency:

  • Local farmers earn a living wage;
  • Arable land in the region is retained and enriched;
  • The importance of the local grain-shed is recognized and preserved;
  • Salmon habitat is restored and improved;
  • Sustainable, soil-building farming practices are prioritized and rewarded;
  • Community members form coalitions and partner on projects to the benefit of everyone;
  • Flavors long gone or never before tasted in whiskey become available.

“The list goes on, but the point is whiskey is an agricultural product. By focusing on good, sustainable, valuable agricultural practices, a whole new flavor spectrum is possible that is unique to Washington, for whiskey, and all other forms of food and beverage.”

TWW: What will a whiskey enthusiast notice between a single malt made with Washington peat versus peat from Scotland? And what would they notice between peated and unpeated?

Jeff: “Washington peat, as mentioned before, is wholly different from Scottish peat in all but the name. Washington peat expresses itself in Copperworks whiskey as a cauldron of stewed fruits rather than a fresh box of Band-Aids. The smoke character in this first batch (the lightest of all batches so far) is only detectable as barbecue and smoked meat, and a beach campfire flavor on the finish, with almost no smoke detectable in the initial nose or palate. Subsequent maltings of Washington peat have increased the smokiness, but nowhere near the levels of creosote, hospital floor antiseptic, and brine characters so well defined in Islay scotches.”

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TWW: What benefits do the local and state economy have from partnerships like Copperworks and Skagit Valley Malting?

Jason: “Besides all the benefits mentioned above, creating a recognizable PNW provenance of flavor will give farmers, maltsters, land grant universities, producers, suppliers, and hospitality and tourism industries a boost, similar to what wine has done for the region.”

TWW: What more can you do, spirits wise, with the peat roasted, malted barley?

Jeff: “The experiments are ongoing:

  • Increase peat flavor through changes in process;
  • Explore the flavors of other peat bogs in Washington;
  • Use peated whiskey in blends to add complexity;
  • Create American Blended Peated Malt Whiskey with other American peated whiskey producers;
  • Create a recognizable ‘taste of place’ by featuring flavors only available from specific bogs or in specific regions.”

TWW: What’s next on the horizon for Copperworks Distilling?

Jason: “We learn from each release of whiskey we make. Considering the complexities of all the things that go into making a whiskey, we foresee several lifetimes of focused experimentation and knowledge creation. And we’ll always bring the consumer along on the journey, with a focus on education, transparency, and flavor in all we do. The ultimate goal is delicious and intriguing whiskey, and we will continue to push for that goal by exploring all kinds of factors in the process, including:

  • barley variety genetics;
  • farm location, soil health, and farming practices used;
  • weather during growth and harvest;
  • malthouse practices and techniques;
  • brewing parameters and equipment (milling, water chemistry, mashing, grain separation techniques, boiling–or not, etc.);
  • yeast selection and fermentation conditions;
  • barrel wood selection and production methods (tree location and attributes, drying or seasoning, toasting, charring, and construction techniques);
  • warehouse conditions (temperature changes or not, humidity levels, outside aromas and flavors present, air circulation);
  • blending, finishing, and proofing.”

Drinks

Gary Carter

Gary Carter has been at the helm of metro newspapers, magazines, and television news programs as well as a radio host and marketing manager. He is a writer/editor/photographer/designer by trade, with more than 30 years experience in the publishing and marketing field. Gary enjoys working to build something great, whether...