American single malt whiskey is one of the most exciting categories in whiskey right now. The whole style is growing so fast that for the first time ever, legal definitions are about to officially codify it. New and old distilleries are releasing single malts left and right, and innovation is at the heart of it all. What better way to celebrate it than with a blind taste test?
For this blind ranking, I’m not stacking up American single malts against Scottish ones, I’m simply taking 12 bottles from my shelf and pitting them against each other in a blind, head-to-head tasting. There are some special single barrels, unique barrel finishes, and some standards, alongside a few peated and “vatted” ringers too. It’s a bonanza of American single malt. As far as the ranking, I’m going on taste alone.
Our lineup today is:
- Westward American Single Malt Stout Cask Finished
- Balcones Distilling Pilgrimage Texas Single Malt Whisky Finished in Sauternes Casks
- Virginia Distillery Co. Courage & Conviction American Single Malt Whisky Cuvee Cask
- Westward American Single Malt Pinot Noir Cask
- Boulder Spirits American Single Malt Whiskey
- Lost Lantern American Vatted Malt Edition no. 1
- Virginia Distillery Co. Courage & Conviction American Single Malt Whisky
- Boulder Spirits American Single Malt Whiskey Peated Malt
- Lost Lantern St. George Spirits California Single Malt Whiskey
- Lost Lantern Balcones Distilling Texas Single Malt Whiskey Aged in a Tequila Barrel
- Boulder Spirits American Single Malt Whiskey Bottled in Bond
- Lost Lantern McCarthy’s Peated Oregon Single Malt Whiskey
Let’s dig in!
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Part 1: The Tasting
The nose opens with hints of apricot and butter next to soft leather and a hint of buttermilk biscuit. The palate opens up toward sugar-glazed doughnuts topped with cinnamon and pecan next to apple wood and creamy dark chocolate with a hint of date in the background. The end dries out a bit toward a solid finish full of warm malts with a hint of clove and that apricot from the nose.
Well, this was just a lovely first dram. It’s deep, delicious, and delightful.
The nose on this one is big with soft leather, peach pie, stewed pear, creamy honey, and a dash of something savory. The palate leans into lush milk chocolate with woody pears and sweet and fresh honey next to orange blossoms with a hint of salted caramel. The end is equally big with chili-spiked chocolate bars next to orchards full of fruit, blossoms, and soft woods with a sharp dark spicy malted end.
Goddamn, this is good stuff.
Lemon oils and apple candy mix with a hint of dark berry and a touch of spicy malts on the nose. The palate has a bit of citrus pie next to sour berries with a thin line of winter spice. The end mixes honey, woody, and tart lemon cream on the short finish.
I’m not over the moon for all the citrus in this. It’s not bad, it’s just really not my jam.
Big old leathery notes drive the nose toward ripe figs, dark plums, and a lot of brown sugar. The palate leans into warm and woody spices that are almost more tannic than sharp as the dark fruit fades into the background. The end is short and is more brown sugar and bitter tannic than anything else.
This was very much in the “that’s fine” column of the ol’ ledger of this tasting.
There’s a sense of pleather and dark fruit on the nose that leads to nutty and woody maple syrup with a hint of pecan waffle. The palate has a whisper of lemon oil that immediately leads into dark fruit leather with a hint of clove and cinnamon. The end sweetens the fruit toward a grape soda with a dash of cinnamon and pecan.
This ended up being pretty nice. That pleather on the nose was a bit of a distraction though.
This opens with a mix of old leather boots next to soft and damp grains (think oats and malts) that build on sour cherries with a hint of sharp clove and anise lurking beneath it all. The palate is a lush mix of sourdough rye crust next to spiced malts, soft and waxy cacao nibs, and an echo of oatmeal raisin cookies in some far-off cookie jar. The finish is a mix of dried tart and sour fruits that sweeten slightly with some honey as that old boot leather engulfs the end.
This is another contender. It’s pretty damn good and very easy to drink in a neat pour.
Raw grains and leather lead to a sense of bourbon vanilla and caramel on the nose. The taste tips between tart red berries and braids of dry cedar bark before a creamy body full of chili-infused dark chocolate and vanilla sauce round everything out. The end has an echo of dried roses before sweet malts and soft leather finish the taste.
I like this in theory. It was a little “bourbon-y” for me. But it did pull that dried floral note way back. I’m on the fence.
Fresh Band-Aids, pine resin, and sour fruit lead the way on the nose with a hint of sharp clove. The palate is super earthy with hints of dry pine, old moss, and burnt-out tree trunks next to soft toffee, almonds, and sour cherry pie. The end brings about a bushel of caramel malts with a buttery edge next to dark cinnamon and allspice and a hint of sour cherry tobacco with a twinge of old Band-Aid.
This was a rollercoaster and I kind of loved it. It’s not quite as refined as a big Islay peaty, but it’s damn fine nonetheless.
Lemon, lemon candy, cheap lemon soda (that somehow tastes like it was left in a hot car in the Texas sun for a week), and instant lemon tea all come up on the nose and the palate. The finish is sweet lemon next to sweet malts with a hint of honey, at least.
This burst forth with a huge note of butterscotch on the nose next to rich honey, very old roasted agave piñas, soft winter spices, powdered sugar icy, and a hint of green herbs. The palate just keeps going through layers and layers of white pepper, woodruff, dried ancho chili-infused dark chocolate bars, salted caramel ice cream, old leather jackets, and this thin line of really good blanco tequila. The end sweetens slightly with creamy yet fresh honey next to a concentrated version of the chili and chocolate in espresso with a little cream on top and a whisper of grape must.
This is wild and I kind of love it. There’s just so much going on that I want to go back again and again to find more.
Raw grains and Cherry Coke lead the way on the nose with hints of vanilla and dark brown sugar, which makes this kind of sweet. The palate leans into all that sugar with a nice counterbalance of licorice and sassafras with a touch of clove and allspice. The end is malty and sweet with a warming vibe that’s ultimately pretty soft and nice.
This was another “that’s nice” whiskey.
Old Ace Bandages and smoldering mesquite logs greet you on the nose with lush vanilla ice cream drizzled with salted maple syrup with a hint of pecan next to old leather pouches that held pipe tobacco for decades. The palate is like licking the bottom of ashtrays in the best possible way with a sweet burnt tobacco vibe next to silky notes of vanilla cream, eggnog nutmeg, and salted caramel with a hint of waxy cacao. The end is bold with notes of old charcoal next to fatty walnuts, a hint of orange, and more of that lush vanilla rounding things out with a sharply spiced end.
This is a very love it or hate it kind of whiskey. But, wow, does it go for it. There’s no holding back and I kind of dig it for that alone. Plus, it tastes amazing and distinct.
Part 2: The Ranking
12. Lost Lantern St. George Spirits California Single Malt Whiskey — Taste 9
Average Price: $160
St. George — in Alameda, California — is technically America’s first (modern) craft distillery, founded all the way back in 1982. The juice in the bottle is a single barrel release of only 215 bottles. The whiskey is made with 100 percent malted barley that’s aged for a mere three years and 10 months in new American oak. The single barrel that Lost Lantern picked was then bottled as-is with no filtration, cutting with water, or fussing.
I really, really don’t like this whiskey. Sorry. If you want a lemon bomb, then go for it. But, actually, don’t. It’d be a tragedy if this turned you off American single malt forever.
11. Virginia Distillery Co. Courage & Conviction American Single Malt Whisky Cuvee Cask — Taste 3
Average Price: $85
This expression is made from 100% malted barley distillate that’s aged for three years in Cuvée wine casks in the foothills of Virginia’s Appalachia. Those barrels are vatted and proofed down with local water and bottled without filtration or coloration, letting the barrels shine in the glass.
This is leaps and bounds above the bottle above it. That bottle is more like 175th and this is eleventh. That aside, this is where we get into the “good stuff” that I’d gladly drink, but I’m not standing in line overnight to buy.
10. Westward American Single Malt Pinot Noir Cask — Taste 4
Westward Whiskey Pinot Noir Cask Finish teams up Westward with local friends from Suzor Wines. The expression spends time mellowing in their old Pinot barrels before small-batch bottling.
I like this for what it is, a bit of a novel finishing. It’s much better over a few rocks, in my opinion. That also means that you can use this as a solid cocktail foundation and build off that tannic mid-palate.
9. Boulder Spirits American Single Malt Whiskey Bottled in Bond — Taste 11
Average Price: $69
This Colorado whiskey is a fascinating experiment — asking what a single malt that’s treated like a bottled-in-bond bourbon might taste like. The juice is made from 100% malted barley. Then is spends four years in a bonded warehouse aging in new American oak. It’s then bottled at 50% ABV per federal regulations.
This was squarely in the “that’s nice” camp. I think it’d make a great cocktail. That’s about all there’s to say.
8. Virginia Distillery Co. Courage & Conviction American Single Malt Whisky — Taste 7
Average Price: $75
This expression from Virginia Distillery Co. is a single malt blend of 100% malted barley distillate that’s aged in ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and ex-Cuvée wine casks. The blend is a split of 50% from the bourbon cask and an equal measure from the sherry and Cuvée casks.
This is a very solid whisky. I tend to reach for this a little more for cocktails but it totally works on the rocks or neat (if those tasting notes above are your jam).
7. Boulder Spirits American Single Malt Whiskey — Taste 5
Average Price: $60
This craft whiskey from Colorado is made with 100% locally grown barley and Rocky Mountain water. It’s slowly fermented and distilled in-house on an old-school Scottish copper pot still. The juice is then aged in new American oak, much like bourbon, for four years before it’s cut with water and bottled.
Once I got past that “pleather” note, this was pretty damn good. It’s not amazing, mind. It’s just very solid and, I’d argue, a good cocktail or highball whiskey.
6. Boulder Spirits American Single Malt Whiskey Peated Malt — Taste 8
Average Price: $69
This Colorado whiskey starts off with very lightly peated malts that are mixed with that Rocky Mountain water. After fermentation and distillation, the spirit ages for around three years in new American oak in the arid highlands of Colorado. Those barrels are then vatted and proofed before bottling.
This was a very nice peated whiskey, especially for anyone looking to dip their toe into the peaty world. The only reason it’s a little lower is because of that too. It’s a little reserved on the palate. It’s very nice but I wouldn’t call it bold or exciting.
5. Westward American Single Malt Stout Cask Finished — Taste 1
Average Price: $90
Portland’s Westward knows how to make a killer American single malt and how to finish that juice in a quality barrel. This whiskey was finished in barrels that held several different breweries’ stouts from all over Oregon. Those barrels were sent back to Westward where this whiskey spent another year maturing before proofing and bottling.
This was very good. It had a great depth. The only reason it’s fifth instead of, say, third or first is that it was solid but not “holy shit” good.
4. Lost Lantern American Vatted Malt Edition no. 1 — Taste 6
Average Price: $120
This whiskey is technically a blended malt whiskey (much like Johnnie Walker Green, which is not a blended whisky since it’s only made with single malts and not a mix of single malts and single grain whiskies). In this case, the “vatted malt” is made from 12 single malt barrels from Texas’ Balcones, Washington’s Copperworks, New Mexico’s Santa Fe Spirits, Massachusett’s Triple Eight, Oregon’s Westward, and Virginia’s Virginia Distillery Co. The whiskey was made over the course of a single day as each of the distillers and blenders from each shingle gathered together to create the whiskey, eventually bottling only 3,000 bottles.
“Vatted” or not, this is great malt whiskey. This was such an easy sipper, even neat, that I wanted to go back to it immediately. While it was very nuanced and deeply hewn, it wasn’t mind-blowing like the next three.
3. Balcones Distilling Pilgrimage Texas Single Malt Whisky Finished in Sauternes Casks — Taste 2
Average Price: $76
This single malt starts with Golden Promise malted barley in the mash with proprietary ale yeast and local Texas water. The distilled juice is then loaded into used barrels like all of the world’s great single malts. After a few years of aging under the hot Texas sun, the whisky is transferred into French Sauternes casks, bringing a distinct dessert wine vibe to the juice. Finally, the whisky is bottled at cask strength from very small, one-off batches.
This is just f*cking good whisky. These top three are all in that realm. This was a little sweeter and “approachable” than the next two. But it still wowed.
2. Lost Lantern Balcones Distilling Texas Single Malt Whiskey Aged in a Tequila Barrel — Taste 10
Average Price: $120
This whisky is classic Balcones single malt made with Golden Promise malts on their old Scottish stills. The difference is that that juice then spends five years in a used tequila cask that previously held Balcones Rumble, which is a specialty spirit made from honey, figs, and turbinado sugar (think of it as a cousin to rum). Lost Lantern got their hands on that single tequila barrel of single malt and then bottled it as-is with zero fussing.
This is spectacular whisky. This did truly blow me away. It was deep and funky and interesting and enticing. I really wanted more of this. That said, I wrote a “one” next to the next pour without hesitation.
1. Lost Lantern McCarthy’s Peated Oregon Single Malt Whiskey — Taste 12
Average Price: $90
Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon has been making McCarthy’s for about 25 years now. This juice is made from Islay peated malts that are sent to Oregon where fermentation, distillation, and aging takes place. The hot spirit is filled into a second-fill, 228 liter Oregon oak cask and left to mellow for three years and 11 months before Lost Lantern picked up the barrel and bottled it as-is.
This gave me hope. I know it’s been around for two-plus decades, but it’s spectacular, bold, and truly distinct. There’s a sense of something special here that’s saying loudly to the world that American single malts are something to be reckoned with, even the peated ones. This can easily stand up to the best from Islay, the Islands, or the Highlands of Scotland and maybe even beat them out. But that’s a blind taste test for another day.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Well, I guess the most classic and iconic bottle of American single malt won the day. Granted, it was a special single-barrel version, but still. It goes to show that American single malt is a major category that’s growing quickly for a reason. There is some great whiskey to be found in the bottles above.
All of that said, the top six are all very recommended. The top three are all stellar. And that Lost Lantern single barrel peated malt from Oregon is in a league of its own. If you can get your hands on a bottle, you’ll be in for a bold and peaty treat.