You haven't tasted anything like Westward single-malt whisky

It might be one of the world's newest whisky categories, but Australians have wasted no time in embracing American single malt.

Arriving in Australia little more than a year ago, Portland, Oregon brand Westward is already selling more than 30 per cent of its whisky downunder.

"Australia has been a remarkable success for Westward. We just couldn't be happier or more excited," says CEO and co-founder Thomas Mooney.

"I mean, a year ago, back in September of 2018 we had not yet sold the first bottle of Westward in Australia.

"It's a major market for us, to say the least, and if you look at it from a population-adjusted basis, it's by far our most developed market in the world."

West Coast cool

Since the opening of its new, expanded distillery in 2015, which increased capacity six-fold, Westward is the largest craft distiller on America's West Coast.

In late 2018, it received a minority investment from Distill Ventures, the accelerator fund created by spirits giant Diageo that also has a stake in Melbourne's Starward Whisky.

"There is a friendship within the Distill Ventures portfolio and with Starward in particular," says Mooney.

"We certainly think of [Starward founder] David Vitale and his team as friends and they have done a number of wonderful things for us as we got our business started in Australia about a year ago.

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"Now that they're busy expanding in the US, we're very much at their service to help in any way we can, sharing insights about the US market or just working together to find ways to grow our brands."

That whisky wave

Mooney says American Single Malt is currently the single fastest growing segment of whisky in the United States.

"A good illustration of that is, five years ago when we met to create the American Single Malt Commission, it was five like-minded distillers sitting around not even a table, but literally a barrel," he says.

"Fast forward to today and we're coming up on 100 producer members of the commission."

Land of the free

America's national spirit, bourbon, has achieved global recognition as a whisky category on the back of strict production criteria.

But while the American Single Malt Commission has this year petitioned the US Government to create a standard of quality and identity for the category, Mooney says it was important that distillers be left free to innovate.

"The consumer who sees American Single Malt on the label can therefore expect that this is a whisky made at a single distillery from barley – that's about it," he says.

"It's not overly prescriptive in terms of how we make the whisky, or how we age the whisky, or how long we age it, or what we age it in, because that's the fun.

"The last thing the world needs is us trying to recreate Scotch in America."

A particular terroir

Westward's approach to American single malt is heavily influenced by its location in the Pacific Northwest, a leading American region for growing barley, with a very strong tradition in brewing.

Nicknamed 'Beervana', Portland is routinely claimed to have more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Westward places a huge emphasis on the first stage of making whisky; brewing the beer that will later be distilled into new make spirit.

"I think winemakers often say that great wine is made in the vineyard," says Mooney.

"We say great single malt whisky is made in the brewery and if the quality of the beer that goes into the stills is the best it can be, we know what's going to come out the other side.

"We're going to get a much better whisky at the end of the process, and we won't need to spend a tonne of time cleaning up mistakes or flavours we don't want in there."

Artistry in the brewing

Early on, the Westward whisky washes were brewed in collaboration with renowned Portland breweries including Breakside and Rogue.

Since November 2015, the company has brewed its wash in-house at its brewhouse and distillery in Portland's Central Eastside District.

Embracing similar practices to those of the city's craft brewers, Westward Whiskey is fermented at low temperatures for extended periods of time using ale yeast, producing spicy, bright and fruity notes.

"From the very beginning, people really enjoyed the malt character that makes Westward the iconic Northwest whisky," says Mooney.

"But there are also decisions we've made that are a little closer to the bourbon tradition, like maturing it in new American Oak.

"That makes Westward very familiar to somebody who might have grown up with bourbon but is looking for something a little more sophisticated, but still with that kind of hint of sweetness that they enjoy from bourbon," he says.

Westward American Single Malt Whiskey is available now in Australia at an RRP of $129.99.

The writer travelled to Portland as a guest of Westward.