American-made single malt whiskey is still relatively rare, but one distillery has been producing peated whiskey for almost two decades.
I've mentioned Clear Creek Distillery before and it is both a local institution and one of the oldest craft distilleries in the United States. While original established to produce fruit brandies, their product line has expanded over time to include other spirits, including whiskey. They buy peated malt from Port Ellen on the Scottish island of Islay, which is the malt source for well-known distilleries like Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Caol Ila. The malt is brewed into unhopped beer by Widmer Brothers Brewing, then distilled and aged at Clear Creek. As far as I can tell, McCarthy's Single Malt is the only malt whiskey that is only distilled once (compared to more traditional double- or triple-distillation), though they are using Holstein stills that contain bubble plates to control the amount of reflux rather than the simple pot stills used to make scotch whisky. They describe their distillation process as "mak[ing] a small “heads” cut and a fairly large “tails” cut and put[ting] about 4 liters of tails into the next still run.". The whiskey comes off the still with an average distillation proof of 150 (75% ABV), which is actually on the low side for single malt whisky. Aging is carried out in casks made from air-dried Oregon oak (Quercus garryana). As I understand it, new make is placed in fresh casks for one year, then moved to refill casks for the next two years. So far all releases have been aged for three years. I have spoken to the McCarthys and they stated that while they would like to age their whiskey for longer, the demand is such that they have a hard time keeping up, even at such a young age. While I can't nail down a precise date for my bottle, the gold foil around the label and the 40% ABV likely place it somewhere between 2006 and 2008.
Nose: salty barbecue, bacon, peat, tar, slightly feint-y, licorice, dry leaves, a touch of pine, caramel sweetness, vanilla. After dilution, it becomes a bit thinner, with pine-y peat, more salty bacon, and licorice that reminds me of black Magic Markers.
Taste: strong wood sugars, salted licorice, medium spirit heat, mild smokey/vegetal peat at the back, and an overall creamy feel. After adding a few drops of water, the taste becomes pure sucrose up front, with a brief segue to peat, then back to sweetness, with just a hint of oak.
Finish: peat, a bit of sweet oak, light fruit
This whiskey is an interesting contrast with the bottle of Kilchoman Machir Bay I reviewed recently. They're both roughly three years old (though the Machir Bay has some older whisky in the mix) and peated. McCarthy's makes me a think of a mash-up between Islay whisky and American bourbon, with the mix of peat flavors overlaid on a lot of woody caramel sweetness. Kilchoman is almost the essence of Islay.
Out of curiosity, I tried watering down the Kilchoman to 40% to see how it compared. First off, it reinforces my belief that whiskies are blended together to work at a particular ABV. Machir Bay retains most of its flavors, but the mouthfeel and flavor density definitely suffer, even after a few days of integration. Interestingly, most of the peat disappears from the nose. It's mostly malty, with just a hint of smoky peat, licorice, and berries. The palate is unfortunately rather watery at first, but gains steam mid-palate, with most of the same flavors that I found at full strength, but it slumps again in the finish.
In contrast to the Kilchoman, McCarthy's peat is much more about salted meat than ash and smoke. I also think it works fairly well at 40%. I wouldn't mind giving it a try at 43% or even 46%, but it doesn't seem watery, especially on the nose, which has great density. I also believe that the ABV of newer bottlings has been raised a few points, which should help it out. The bottom line is that if you enjoy Islay whiskies, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by just how good an American homage to the style can be. Prices can be a little steep, with a recent rise to $55 in Oregon, but much like Kilchoman, I think it's well worth the investment.
Ben Nevis 15, 1997 (Gordon & Company)
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