WESTWARD AMERICAN SINGLE MALT WHISKEY
Single Barrel B-236-11 selected by K&L (2019)
MASH BILL – 100% two-row malted barley
PROOF – 131
AGE – NAS (5-6 years according to K&L)
DISTILLERY – House Spirits Distillery (a.k.a. Westward Whiskey)
PRICE – $80 (on sale from $109)
BUY AGAIN? – As I write this there is only one bottle remaining, but I’ll leave it for another lucky customer
Westward Whiskey is based in Portland, Oregon—a particularly beautiful and complex city that has yielded a particularly beautiful and complex whiskey.
I first visited Portland in 2002 to attend a small theater festival. I found a cheap motel on the edge of downtown, only $48 a night, complete with flickering fluorescent lights and a mysterious hole punched in my bathroom wall. I ate breakfast each morning at a nearby farmer’s market. In the afternoon I got lost for hours in Powell’s Books, the iconic book lovers destination. After seeing a show each night at the festival, I’d get a drink somewhere to make notes before returning to my motel. The owner would greet me from behind his plexiglass and strike up a chat. He had immigrated to America from India some years prior. He wasn’t much into theater, so we’d talk about music. Jazz was his favorite genre.
Portland immediately struck me as a city of contradictions. It had the architecture of a big city, stuffed in and among the trees of a mountain town. There was a sense of sociopolitical awareness in the air, seemingly centered on food, crafts, alcohol, and a certain idea of individual freedom. The population was quite predominantly White. My host at the motel was the only person of color I recall meeting that weekend. One San Francisco Bay Area acquaintance who moved there just a few years ago quipped that Portland is where young White Californians go to retire early.
I visited Portland again in 2016, this time to attend a national theater conference. Fourteen years on, and surrounded by theater people from around the country, my sense of Portland’s sociopolitical contradictions was heightened further. The conference attendees were notably more racially diverse than the people in the streets outside our hotel, and this often came up in public and private conversations.
Being a somewhat shy person, after each long day of very social conferencing, to regain my inner equilibrium I would strike out on my own for dinner and a drink. I was still early in my whiskey journey then, but very much on the journey, and I made a point of seeking out the local whiskey holes.
I noticed a trend with Portland bartenders. Once they realized I knew something about whiskey, they’d start pouring me free tastes. This happened at each of the four places I went. Thus it was in Portland that I first tried Old Forester 1920, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, WhistlePig 10 Year, George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, and Amrut Fusion Indian Single Malt. At the airport waiting to catch my flight home, I noticed the Westward Whiskey kiosk and stopped by to peruse their offerings. I’d not yet heard of Westward then.
These many memories come flooding back as I consider the current bottle on the table, this single barrel of Westward American Single Malt Whiskey selected by K&L. It didn’t fly off the shelf after arriving in July 2019, so they put it on sale earlier this year. Having recently had an incredible experience with another American single malt, Rua from Great Wagon Road in North Carolina, I picked up a bottle. Tasted in a traditional Glencairn, two weeks after uncorking and a handful of pours into the bottle, here are some notes in brief:
COLOR – a burnt copper-orange
NOSE – rich and vibrant malt, fresh moss, dark molasses, gooey caramel, some dark chocolate fudge, a spiciness I associate with Indian and African teas like Chai and Rooibus
TASTE – the aroma’s flavors all amped up, dark and rich but also very vibrant, with a nice peppery flare on swallowing
FINISH – a nice cooling sensation around the spiciness, with the chocolatey malt, caramel, and tea spices all lingering together at length
OVERALL – Wow. A new love. Spicy fruity sparkly dark malty mossy good!
Between this, my recent Rua experience, and my now longstanding appreciation for the Old Potrero Rye Single Malt, it’s clear to me that the American single malt genre is one I need to continue exploring. Very few distilleries make it. But there does seem to be a movement afoot.
These American single malts combine the intensity of flavor I enjoy in a bourbon like Booker’s, with the variety of flavor I so appreciate in the various single malt and grain scotches I’ve explored. There is also a flavor-relationship to rye, in the prevalence of earthy and spicy aspects. (And of course the Old Potrero uses malted rye.) Ryes ultimately fascinate me more than their sweeter bourbon cousins, and these American single malts have been providing similar brain-tickling experiences.
Very. Interesting. And dangerously drinkable given how utterly smooth this Westward is for a 131-proof whiskey! I’m quite tempted to snap up that last bottle at K&L. But I’ll be good and leave it for someone else to fall in love with.
Who can say what exactly makes this whiskey sing so well—whether it’s the barrels seasoned in Portland weather for 36 months rather than the more typical 18, the locally sourced two-row barley, that they boil the grain mash to inoculate it from unwanted bacteria (a practice more common in beer production). However it came together, it’s a flavor bomb that grabs my senses and my brain—something I also value when it comes to art, people, and nature itself.
Is it a coincidence that a unique and intense whiskey like this conjures up so many vivid memories? I don’t think so. Vivid whiskeys do that. In this case it’s not memories of the flavors themselves, as I often experience with oaky bourbons that remind me of where I grew up. Here it’s the knowledge that this whiskey comes from Portland. I’ve had other experiences with foods or whiskeys that evoke something of the people and the landscape where they come from. So here I think about Portland.
As I write this in late July 2020, Portland is regularly in the news due to continued political protests, against systemic racism and police brutality, being controversially policed by armed Federal officers. When the local government asked the Federal government to withdraw its forces, more forces were sent. That complex spirit of rebellion in Portland is showing itself. That its population remains predominantly White and liberal creates a local bubble that can itself accommodate unchecked issues. The lack of significant racial integration, juxtaposed with these race-related protests lingering farther into the Summer than in many American cities, has made Portland a place of nationwide interest to politically active liberals and conservatives alike. It’s difficult to know for certain what exactly is happening there given how news gets filtered today. But it’s clear Portland has become a surprise epicenter for something very complex and very American.
When I was last there in 2016, the bartenders I met were all White men near my age or younger. Toward the end of my last day, with my head and heart full from the politically charged theater conference, I sipped my gratis introduction to Amrut Fusion Indian Single Malt Whisky. Looking back I wonder if the motel owner from India would have been greeted with the same hospitality I enjoyed. Or do the recent protests indicate that he might? I still don’t know Portland well enough to make an educated guess.
…In any case, this is where a compelling whiskey can take you. A single malt made in Portland won’t solve sociopolitical problems there or anywhere. It’s just whiskey. But whiskey has always been an excellent gathering tool and conversation starter. This introduction to Westward Whiskey has certainly been that. I look forward to getting to know Westward, and Portland, better.