A lot of American craft distillers enter the aged-spirit business by way of bourbon or rye, two great drinks that date to our Colonial agricultural past—and that are considered whiskey in much of the U.S. But more than a decade into the craft renaissance, we are seeing true American single-malt whiskeys, historically Scottish and made only from a single malted grain like barley. (By law, bourbon must be distilled from a grain mixture containing at least 51 percent corn, a crop native to the U.S.) In a pleasantly crowded brown-spirits market, these American additions stand out.
“I began making single-malts as I’d grown to appreciate the Scottish whiskeys, and thought we could do something just as creative here in the U.S.,” says Colin Keegan, founder of Santa Fe Spirits. His signature single-malt is excellent and as American as it gets: He replaces Scottish peat—the traditional material used to dry barley during the malting process—with mesquite, delivering the essence of the southwestern desert in each bottle.
How Santa Fe Spirits Makes American Single-Malt Whiskey
Malting: Barley is laid out, wetted, and kept warm, mimicking good growing conditions. Once the grain has the maximum converted sugars, it sprouts and is then heat-dried to arrest further germination.
In Scotland, the barley would be dried over burning briquettes of peat, organic plant matter compressed in the ground for thousands of years. A fifth of Scotland is covered in peat bogs, so it’s an economical heat source known for its powerful flavor profile. Keegan instead uses mesquite, a hardwood tree that can grow throughout the dry Southwest due to its unique dual root system: a deep tap that draws subsurface moisture, and a sprawling lateral network that picks up slight rainfall.
Distillation: The dried barley is ground into grist, mashed with hot water (the cracked texture allows flavor to be soaked out of the grain), then pumped into tanks for a three-day fermentation and double distilled. It is barreled for at least three year.
How to Drink It
Add five to ten drops of cool water to the spirit, served neat. “If you want to get nerdy, you can talk about how water breaks down the long molecular chains, opening up the whiskey to deliver more aroma, which heightens the experience as well as the flavor.”
Three Great American Single-Malts
Rich, warm, and spicy with a lasting woody finish and lingering smoke. (Santa Fe)
Caramely, thanks to maturation in new American oak. (Seattle, where the climate is similar to Scotland’s)
Cherrywood-smoked and unsmoked, 100 percent malted barley, with a little honeyed finish. (Evanston, Illinois)