Like bourbon and Scotch, American Single Malt is playing by the rules.

If you've been paying attention to the American whiskey space over the past few years, you've likely noticed that American single malts are having a moment.

It wasn't long ago when single-malt whiskey meant Scotch and Scotch alone, but lately the term has been applied to an ever-increasing number of bottles originating on this side of the Atlantic. Now, The New York Times reports that American single-malt whiskey will soon receive official governing rules and classification from the US Treasury's Tax and Trade Bureau, creating a new official spirit category for the first time in years. Here's what this means.

What is American single-malt whiskey?

As it stands now, before government intervention, the definition of American single-malt whiskey is pretty straightforward but also unenforceable. The generally accepted definition is a whiskey that's distilled at a single distillery in America from 100% malted barley. But because there is no official classification, a whiskey could technically label itself an American single malt even without meeting these criteria, so long as it met the existing guideline for American malt whiskey that calls for at least 51% malted barley in the mash bill. Obviously, having these posers in the market is a problem for distillers of true American single malts looking to elevate the spirit.

What are the new rules defining American single-malt whiskey?

In 2016, a group of American single-malt whiskey distillers — including Virginia Distillery Co., Westland Distillery, Balcones Distilling and more — got together to form the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission. The group came up with its own set of defining rules for American single-malt, and they are as follows:

  • Distilled from 100% malted barley
  • Distilled entirely at one distillery
  • Mashed, distilled and matured in the USA
  • Matured in oak casks no larger than 700 liters
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof
  • Bottled at least 80 proof

The group petitioned the US Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to consider its rules and create a new category of whiskey, and the TTB obliged. Although the TTB is curiously using the e-free "whisky" spelling in its American single malt definition — a spelling typically reserved for Scotch and a couple of other non-American whiskeys — the rest of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission's proposed rules will stay intact. The classification should become official in the coming months, according to the Times.

How is American single-malt whiskey different from bourbon?

The newly-formed American single malt category shares some similarities with America's most popular whiskey category, bourbon, but there are some key differences. While both spirits must be produced in the US, distilled to no more than 160 proof, bottled at 80 proof or above and matured in oak casks, that's where the similarities end.

Bourbon's oak casks must be new and charred — American single malt's will have no such limitations. Want to use old sherry oak casks to age your single malt? Go right ahead. Next is the difference in mash bill. Bourbon's mash bill must contain at least 51% corn ... and that's it. There's no stipulation on the rest of the grains in the recipe. Bourbon also does not have to be distilled at a single distillery, but it does have one additional requirement: it must begin its maturation process at 125 proof or less.

Where can you get American single-malt whiskey?

While the official categorization of American single-malt whiskey has yet to go into effect, you can still find plenty of bottles on the shelves. Steve Hawley, President of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, told the Times there are already over 200 distillers in the US making single-malt whiskey, which is more distilleries than in Scotland.

These distillers range from smaller independent brands like Colorado's Stranahan's and Oregon's Westward, to massive corporations like Jack Daniel's, which released its first American single malt made from 100% malted barley in 2022 with Jack Daniel’s Twice Barreled Special Release American Single Malt Finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks. The whiskey was a limited edition that sold out in a flash, but something tells me it won't be the last single malt from JD.

Article Written By Johnny Brayson

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