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Single Malt Whiskey Special: Interview with Westland Master Distiller Matt Hofmann
In the March issue of Seattle Magazine, we ran a fantastic (if I can say that humbly) article about the new single malt American whiskies being made in Washington State, and what our local distillers are focusing on to bring great taste to drinkers. One of the distillers I talked to was Westland master distiller Matt Hofmann. His answers to my questions were so thorough that I thought it’d be fun to feature his full interview here on the blog. It really gives great insight into both making single malt whiskey and being a distiller.
What constitutes, to you, an American single-malt whiskey?
In America we're free from the restrictions of Europe, whether they be legal or traditional. What underscores all of our whiskies, is more a common approach to our craft than a particular style. While many of us use the same ingredients as our colleagues across the pond, our approach is expanding the possible flavor profiles typically expected in single malt whiskey. At Westland, our distillation process follows many of the traditions developed over generations at Scottish distilleries. But our use of specialty malts, a flavorful Belgian brewer's yeast and new American oak casks for maturation lend our whiskey a unique style and offers something worthwhile and new to the category.
What made you decide to make a single malt whiskey?
As a distiller, I believe that malted barley offers more potential for the exploration and flavor development than any other grain, or any other spirit for that matter. Malted barley is an extremely flexible grain to work with. It's possible to make a very light, ethereal and delicate whiskey and also a very rich, robust, chewy and flavorful whiskey, all from same raw material. No other grain can match this versatility. Of course, Seattle is a natural place to make single malt whiskey. We have some of the best barley-growing regions in the world and water quality that is tough to match.
When making your whiskey, what are you aiming for in flavor?
More than aiming for specific flavors, we aim for themes that give us options when the the time comes to bottle. We're after the complexity derived from the barley grain itself, but we also want an approachable whiskey. Our process creates orange, chocolate, vanilla and caramel notes that allow for most palates to recognize at least a few nuances and find something that they like. In the end, we know we've got it right when we're able to balance these two components in a refined and mature whiskey.
I’ve heard that American single malt whiskey is the next big spirit. Do you agree? And if so, why do you think it will rise in popularity?
Yes. We'd like to see Westland carry the flag for this emerging category. At the moment there are relatively few distilleries making single malt on any scale. This country however (and the Pacific Northwest in particular) is home to some of the finest raw ingredients in the world. We know we can deliver exceptional single malt whiskey here in America. But perhaps more importantly for the growth of the category is the evolving American palate. Single malt whiskey is the most complex spirit in the world and that's why we're seeing a transition to whiskey, and single malt in particular.
How many different types of whiskey do you produce? And what sets them apart?
We produce only single malt whiskey at Westland. All of our whiskies are produced by us right here in Seattle and made from 100 percent malted barley. Even though all of our whiskies are single malts, we do use several different grain bills, or recipes. Our five-malt grain bill has Washington-grown and malted barley at its core, representing 70 percent of the recipe. The remaining 30 percent is made up of four different “specialty malts” that were kilned dried or roasted at higher temperatures, which develops additional flavor from within the grain. All five of these malted barley grains are mashed, fermented, distilled and matured together. We produce spirit from two additional grain bills: one made from 100 percent Washington pale malt (perhaps similar to a “Highland style” malt), and one made with heavily peated malt (55ppm) imported from Scotland (comparable to Islay).
At the moment, we have our flagship product, Westland American Single Malt Whiskey. This will be an ongoing product offered as part of our main portfolio. In late in 2014, we'll add our Westland Peated Malt Whiskey. We've already got a few things up our sleeves, from single cask releases to different concept whiskies, so stay tuned.
What's the best way for someone to enjoy your whiskey -- neat or on the rocks?
However you want to. Start with a tulip-shaped glass. Nose the spirit neat, then add water in small amounts to help coax out all of the flavors a whiskey has to offer. But again, if you find that you enjoy the flavor profile more with an ice cube or two in a rocks glass, then by all means drink it that way. And there's no arguing that our single malt does quite well in a number of thoughtfully made cocktails, such as a simple Old Fashioned or Manhattan. There are a number of bartenders around town making great cocktails with our whiskey. The only thing that would truly disappoint me would be to see someone drown our single malt with Coke. It would be tough to hide my dismay at that.