In Food + Drink

How The Highest-Rated American Single Malt Whiskey Arrived In Australia

If there was one lesson brewer Christian Krogstad learnt from watching the boom of the craft brewing scene in Portland, Oregon in the late 1980s, it was that the only way to stand out was to innovate.

“You have to think ‘what could I bring to [the scene] that would be newsworthy or that would get people’s attention?’” Krogstad says. “It had to be creating something new.”

And so, in 2004, he decided to do just that, opening his own craft spirits distillery then called House Spirits, now known as Westward, that specialised in a type of whiskey few had made before: American single malt.

The result was Westward Whiskey, now the highest-rated American single malt, and available in Australia since 2018.

The Westward Whiskey way

westward whiskey

So, how did Krogstad innovate? Compared to other single malts, what exactly makes Westward’s whiskey so different?

Krogstad’s idea was simple. He wanted to create a whiskey that focussed on a stage of the distilling process most other distillers neglected: brewing. Krogstad wanted to make the beer in the whiskey-making process so flavourful, it could be consumed as-is.

“Technically all beer comes from whiskey, but it’s just not all beer you’d want to drink,” Krogstad says. “[Our process] is based on a functional beer brewing system, but then we put our own stamp on it.”

Today, all of Westward’s staff are former brewers. The first area of Westward’s distillery, located right outside downtown Portland, is essentially a brewery. In fact, it’s one of the largest breweries in Oregon, volume-wise – mind-blowing considering it doesn’t sell a single bottle of beer.

The wash used for Westward is an unhopped pale ale – inefficient to make, in terms of cost and time, but deliberately done so as to ensure flavour. “We could bottle all the beer that we make and people would love it,” says Krogstad.

After the whiskey wash is double-pot distilled, water is then added to it to reduce its alcohol content. The final stage is to age the wash in Cooperage barrels, typically new and medium char, so as not to let the wood influence take over.

Throughout the process, one thing is clear: Westward’s core expression stays as close to that first-step, flavourful beer as possible. It isn’t overly manipulated, overly aged or overly distilled. The end-product is a bright and robust whiskey.

Westward’s American single malt whiskey stout cask finish

With the desire to innovate in its DNA, the Westward team last year released a twist on the core expression: Westward American Single Malt Whiskey Stout Cask Finish.

The expression uses a four-year Westward whiskey as its base, aging it for about a year in stout barrels from craft breweries across Oregon. With the barrels once used to make everything Russian Imperial stout to Belgian chocolate stout, the resulting whiskey has a very different aroma, taste and finish to the original.

“Whereas our core expression has that very robust, very round flavours, sweet, fruity, the stout cask is more dry, structured, a little more elegant,” says Krogstad.

“I have no explanation for why that could be. It’s just magic. The stout does something to the chemistry of the wood.”

Westward in Australia

Since the brand and its core expression were launched here in Australia in 2018, Westward has credited us with a whopping 30 per cent of its sales. For head distiller Miles Munroe, it made complete sense that Westward’s first export would be here.

“There’s a great single malt scene [in Australia],” Munroe says. “People like whiskey. People want to try something new. Our connection to craft beer – and there’s a big support there for craft beer as well. It seemed like a natural place to go.”

This year the brand will follow up the Australian release of the core expression with the launch of the stout cask finish. Munroe, who flew to Australia for the core’s unveil, says the decision to introduce the stout cask finish here next happened by chance.

“Just before I left for Australia, we released the very first bottle of the Oregon Stout Cask Finish and so I grabbed a six-pack and brought it with me to Australia,” Munroe says. “I thought it was something people would like to try as it speaks to our story of coming from brewing heritage.

“And so I brought some as a special treat at the end of our tasting, and everyone was like ‘This is delicious – where can we get them?’ and so I made the promise that I would return in 2020 and bring it to them.”

The stout cask finish will be available in Australia later this year.

(All images: Westward Whiskey / supplied)

Published 01 April, 2020