What Tariffs? American-Made Whiskeys for Single Malt Scotch Fans

Kara Newman

(Bloomberg) -- On Oct. 3 the U.S. announced it will impose tariffs on European Union goods, including hefty 25% duties on single malt Irish and Scotch whiskies. Although blended varieties from both countries, such as segment leader Jameson, will remain unscathed, fans of single malt Scotch—meaning whisky made at a single distillery in Scotland—can expect to see substantial price hikes passed along.

The lengthy list of targeted products also includes Parmesan, pecorino, and Swiss cheeses, among many others; wines from certain EU countries produced with less than 14% alcohol by volume, such as Sancerre or Muscadet; liqueurs and cordials from Germany, Italy, Spain, or Britain, such as Aperol, Campari, or amaretto; and olives from a wide range of countries, including France’s Picholine and Spain’s Castelvetrano varieties.

While blended Scotch outsells single malts in the U.S. by a wide margin, prestigious single malts sell for higher prices: In 2018 single malt exports to the U.S. accounted for 33% of sales by value, representing $463 million, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, a trade group representing Scotland’s whisky distilleries. “The tariff will undoubtedly damage the Scotch Whisky sector,” Karen Betts, chief executive officer of the SWA, said in a statement on the group’s website. “The U.S. is our largest and most valuable single market, and over £1 billion [$1.2 billion] of Scotch Whisky was exported there last year.”

How might this play out on the shelf? Consider, for example, Glenfiddich 12-year-old, imported by Pernod Ricard SA, with a suggested retail price of $40. Assuming all costs are passed to the consumer, a 25% tariff would push that to $50—and some retailers might jack it up even higher if single malt Scotch is perceived as scarce. Many single malts, particularly older and rare bottlings, sell for much more than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.

Luckily, plenty of American-made whiskeys can help scratch that itch for single malt Scotch.

Single Malt Characteristics

The first thing is to look for a whiskey made primarily, if not exclusively, from malted barley (as opposed to corn, rye, or other grains) and aged in a cask that formerly held bourbon.

“Single malt whisky out of Scotland fundamentally is made out of barley, by law,” says Matt Hofmann, co-founder and managing director of Westland Distillery, a Seattle-based single malt producer that takes some cues from Scottish whisky-making traditions. Barley yields a spirit that’s “lighter and more delicate compared to bourbon,” he says. “It’s a little more refined.”

Next, the spirit should be distilled using a pot still, “so they retain some flavor,” Hofmann says. And finally, the barrel: As Scottish distillers do, the whiskey should be aged in an ex-bourbon cask, not a new barrel, lending subtle vanilla tones from the wood and gentle tannins. (A fresh barrel would double down on both vanilla and puckery tannins.) 

“If you could try to sum up a general Scottish single malt, there’s always a nice background of cereal note, then you’ve also got some caramel-vanilla notes that come from the use of old bourbon casks, and usually also some dried fruit,” he says. In addition, a number of Scottish single malts also rely on ex-sherry casks, which add notes of darker dried fruit such as figs or dates. And of course, some producers smoke the barley over peat, which provides distinctive smoky tones.

Is it possible to find a homegrown bottle that incorporates these characteristics? Absolutely—though Hofmann also counsels Scotch lovers to take this opportunity to try something new.

“If the tariff’s got you down, there are whiskeys that will be a little bit more traditionally styled out of American single malt,” he says. “But there are also a lot more innovative ones that will help you discover new things at the same time.”

Here are seven American-made whiskeys that should appeal to fans of single malt Scotch:

American Single Malt Whiskey Buying Guide

Cedar Ridge Single Malt Whiskey (Iowa)Distilled near Cedar Rapids, it’s reminiscent of a lightly peated Speysider and has a 100% malted barley mash bill. Aged five years, it’s fragrant with apple blossom freshness and just a hint of vanilla, finishing with a wispy, smoky exhale. 40% ABV; $49

Copperworks American Single Malt Whiskey (Washington) Seattle’s Copperworks Distilling turns out plenty of excellent whiskeys and gins, and maybe it’s not a coincidence that the city shares a climate notably similar to that of Scotland. While the releases change year to year—incredibly detailed spec sheets are available for the current release (click on the “production specifications link”) and all past releases—it’s reliably made with 100% malted barley and tends to mix fruity and vanilla tones. Release 022 was aged for a minimum of 29 months in new American oak. 53% ABV; $60

Hillrock Single Malt Whiskey (New York)This field-to-flask distillery in the Hudson Valley was pioneered by late whiskey maker Dave Pickerell. Using grain grown on the Hillrock Estate, the 100% malted barley whiskey is bold and flavorful, smoked on-site over Scottish peat for deep campfire, toffee, and smoky, leathery tones. It’s aged for approximately six years. 43% ABV; $125 

Low Gap 3-Year Blended Whiskey (California)While this Ukiah distiller in Mendocino County north of San Francisco is best known for its brandies, this mellow blend of malted corn and malted barley (here, “blended” refers to the grains; it’s still a single distillery, single malt whiskey) is aged in pedigreed former Van Winkle barrels as well as new Missouri oak. It’s richer and more butterscotch-y compared with traditional Scotch but retains hints of fresh apple, white flowers, and baking spice. 46% ABV; $75

St. George Baller Single Malt Whiskey (California) Across the San Francisco Bay in Alameda, St. George also makes a more traditional single malt, and it’s also very good. But the limited-edition Baller version, finished in barrels that previously held umeshu (Japanese plum wine), is so over-the-top delicious that we recommend you get both—if you can—and try them side by side. Master distiller Lance Winters describes Baller as “a California take on the Japanese spin on Scotch whisky.” 47% ABV; $65

Swift Single Malt Texas Whiskey (Texas)Made in Texas from 100% Scottish malted barley and finished in oloroso sherry barrels, this single malt offers plenty of orchard fruit and vanilla notes, plus a lightly charred fade. Swift also makes a version finished in ex-Sauternes barrels, which layers on mellow honeylike flavor. All the brand’s whiskey is aged two to three years. 43% ABV; $50

Westland Sherry Wood American Single Malt Whiskey (Washington) For those who love sherry-finished single malt Scotch, this is the next best thing. Made from 100% malted barley, specifically it’s a “five-malt barley bill, which consists of Washington Select Pale Malt, Munich Malt, Extra Special Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, and Brown Malt,” says the distiller. It’s then aged in ex-sherry casks for at least 36 months, imbuing tempting hints of dried apricot, custardy vanilla, and chamomile. Peated Scotch fans will also want to seek out Westland’s annual Peat Week bottling. 46% ABV; $80

To contact the author of this story: Kara Newman in at kara@karanewman.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Justin Ocean at jocean1@bloomberg.net

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