To spend time in the Westland Distillery in Seattle, Washington is to get a true sense of the direction of the emerging American single malt whiskey category. Quite simply put, these guys are leading the charge in a way few others can grasp.
As we touched upon when we first visited Westland a year ago, they are located in a beautifully restored, nearly century old crane factory which houses their tasting room, distillery and some of the barrel aging. The distillery, started back in 2010 in a small warehouse by a couple of high school friends, has grown rather exponentially since then.
I got the chance to sit down with Westland distiller Matt Hofmann after going through a tasting of their core line up to get a sense of what’s going on with him and his team as they craft whiskies in a category which is as yet only vaguely defined legally. Note this interview is edited for clarity and brevity.
The Whiskey Wash (TWW): Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get into distilling?
Matt Hofmann: I got into distilling when I was 18 and started out at University of Washington as an Economics Undergrad. I was really obsessed with distilling actually from before that point, when I was in high school and I learned about distilling. The concept of taking something very simple and humble, barley, it’s been around for a long time, but taking that and transforming that into a beverage that is massively complex. Part of it is the difficulty of it, and the scale of the difficulty. It’s appealing, because you don’t really know if it’s working for years. That was always really interesting to me.
I bought a still first thing when I got up to the University of Washington and just never stopped. Eventually, I dropped out of school in my junior year and went over to Scotland to learn how to make whiskey.
TWW: Talk a little about Westland as a distillery, and its philosophy with American Single Malt.
Hofmann: Westland is an American Single Malt whiskey distillery. Part of what we want to do is not just to make single malt whiskey. The really important thing is to not just replicate Scottish whisky in the United States. The really important thing is to make truly American Single Malts. To do that is one thing but to do it in a way that talks about it, and explains what that means, is a large part of Westland’s philosophy.
TWW: With the whiskeys you guys are doing today, you have three primary blends. Could you talk a little bit about each of those?
Hofmann: We have a core range of whiskeys, which is designed to showcase what Westland is from a malt standpoint. What we’re doing is we’re trying to focus on the flavor of malted barley.
We have our flagship whiskey, that focuses on that interaction between that beautiful spectrum of malt flavor with New American Oak barrels, the same you would find with bourbon. There’s also our sherry wood, which is, of course, a little bit more traditional. The same thing as well with our peated expression.
TWW: Westland seems pretty much unique in the US in that you are guys are really the only ones that have access to your own peat bog. What is that mean for you? How did that come about?
Hofmann: We don’t own the peat bog outright. We do, rather, have this relationship that we’ve developed with the owners of the peat bog over the past five years. There’s actually quite a few peat bogs in Washington State.
We use peated malt from Scotland as well. That’s coming from Northeast Scotland and that has a different flavor profile. That’s got some grassy components in it. What we have here is really amazing. This plant called Labrador Tea. It’s a bush that’s about three or four feet high. It looks like rosemary. We discovered it at first when we were walking around in the bog. We were stepping on these weeds that fall down from it. You can smell it. It’s just hyper-aromatic. You pick these leaves up. You break them and you smell them. It’s lavender, orange peel and rosemary all rolled into one. It’s just incredible stuff. This plant every year grows these leaves and they fall off in the Fall and back it goes into the peat.
Then what is our peat going to taste like if you have this hyper-aromatic leaf that’s perfectly preserved in the style, in the way that peat bogs do? It’s less important about whether it tastes like Scottish peat or not, in fact that’s far from it the important thing here. It’s exploring the truth of Washington State Single Malt, instead of American Single Malt Whiskey, and telling that story and pursuing that is incredibly exciting.
TWW: Of all the thing you can put into an American Single Malt, whether it’s the native wood, or peat, or the barley, what excites you the most?
Hofmann: Boy, that’s tough. Ultimately, the thing that gets me the most excited is barley. That’s the core of it. There’s a close second there with the peat and the Garryana Oak (Oregon Oak) for us.
TWW: With your Single Cask Series you’re able to do a lot of exploration of different combinations of things. If you could create a single cask bottling that was your dream bottling what specifically would it be?
Hofmann: It would be a 100% Washington State malted barley, stoked with Washington State peat and aged in an Oregon Oak cask. That’s a true expression of place.
Right now for me exploring that sense of place is really exciting. It’s an important thing that we embrace. We don’t use any artificial maturation conditions. We’re all full-sized barrels and it’s all ambient air temperature and humidity in our rack house we have out on the coast.
TWW: One thing we find quite refreshing is that you guys are straightforward with the mash bill, aging time, style of wood, etc. on your website and are one of the few distilleries we’ve seen who’s really super-detailed on that material. Why is that?
Hofmann: We believe in total transparency, first and foremost. It’s also, we believe, that the more people know about what goes into it and the complexity of everything that’s involved there, the more people will understand really what it is we’re doing, and why what we’re doing is unique and something that’s worth following from a consumer’s perspective.
TWW: That’s awesome. You mentioned a little earlier your upcoming Garryana Whiskey. Talk a little bit about what’s coming up with that.
Hofmann: The Garryana release is about the garryana wood, the Quercus garryana wood, Garry Oak or Oregon Oak. We’ve been filling casks of Oregon Oak whiskey since 2011. It’s something we’ve been really, really excited about for a long time. We continue to be very excited about it. Just now we’ve gotten enough where we can put some together with other casks and release that as a concept whiskey.
TWW: One last question. With the American Single Malt style, how do you recommend drinking it?
Hofmann: If you’re looking for an academic exercise and experiencing it for the first time and getting its nuances, it’s in the same way I drink almost all other whiskeys which is a relatively narrow rimmed glass. I do things like the Kentucky chew. Getting it all runny inside of the mouth.
Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and...