American Single Malt

When we think of American whiskey, we usually think of rich, sweet corn-based bourbon, or perhaps spicy and grassy rye. Rounded and biscuity malt whiskies, especially the revered single malt, seem to be exclusively in the Scottish domain. But American distillers are increasingly bucking tradition and setting their sights on growing the fledgling category of American malt whiskey, with surprising—and delicious—results.

What makes a malt whiskey a malt whiskey? The answer, in a word, is barley. That noble grain, well loved in beer, bread, and tsampa, is also the essential ingredient in malt whiskey. The name 'malt' derives from the malting process, in which the grain is soaked in water, made to germinate, and then dried with hot air to prevent full germination. This process develops enzymes required to convert the starches within the grain into sugars, and we all know how central sugar is to fermentation. It's true that other grains undergo the malting treatment as well on their way to becoming alcohol (rye, spelt, wheat, you name it), but barley gets the nod as the historical king of the hill. So in the world of whiskey, when you hear malt, think malted barley!