Considered by many as the Wild West of whiskey, American single malt has always had a reputation for innovation and experimentation.
And it is through their collaborations, a lot of the time with breweries, where they’re making their point of difference felt.
To underline this, Westward have released their Oregon Stout Cask Whiskey, which draws on the region’s craft brew history.
We talked to Miles Monroe, head distiller at Westwood Whiskey about brewing, flavour, and the difference a good cask finish can make.
Considered by many as the Wild West of whiskey, American single malt has always had a reputation for innovation and experimentation. And it is through their collaborations, a lot of the time with breweries, where they're making their point of difference felt. To underline this, Westward have released their Oregon Stout Cask Whiskey, which draws on the region's craft brew history. We talked to Miles Monroe, head distiller at Westwood Whiskey about brewing, flavour, and the difference a good cask finish can make.
Thank you for joining us Miles.
It's wonderful to be here. Thank you for having me.
Now, ageing beer in whiskey barrels has been around for quite a while. Why do you think it has taken so long for the reverse to happen?
It has. Yes, it's no secret there that the brewers certainly love whiskey barrels to age their beers, usually at higher ABV and darker in that way. I don't think the reverse has really occurred to many distillers, especially here in the States, given that it's a standard of identity as defining our whiskey here in the US that we put our new mix spirit into brand new barrels. Most all of our whiskey barrels after one use actually go to other whiskey producing regions such as Scotland, Ireland, Australia to be used there over and over again. I think the idea of reusing a barrel is just something that wouldn't occur to a lot of people in that way.
What made you decide that stout barrels were going to be a good pairing?
Well, in that I think a lot of single malt producers found something like a port or sherry barrel could give a nice finish to their whiskey and really compliment those malt flavours. Our approach at Westward is very much from the beer making, production history, where we're all ex-brewers, myself included. We approach our single malt very much in the style of producing a craft beer. In that way, we feel that there's a certain roastiness, certain chocolatey finish to Westwood, and stout seemed like an excellent flavour match to those aspects.
Westward is said to have a philosophy of minimalist distilling. Do you want to explain exactly what that means?
Absolutely. Our approach is more in the style of beer. We're working with malted barley that we source here in the Pacific North West where Oregon is located in the States and to that effect, we have a very minimalist approach to our distilling.
We're very selective in the grains that we get from our malts starts. We use an ale yeast for fermentation. So there's a lot of great flavour that's already there. We don't really want to remove that. We're attempting to create more flavour every step of the way. If there's one thing we love about pot distillation, it's very minimal in how it's refining the product. That's what I mean about minimalist approach. There's very little refinement. We want a lot of those raw material and fermentation flavours to come through.
When you're bringing those flavours through, are you designing that stout whiskey to be marketed towards beer drinkers or whiskey drinkers?
Both. Absolutely, both. You know there are a lot of flavour aspects that I think could appeal to both beer and whiskey drinkers and certainly with the Oregon Cask Stout Finish. It's a hybrid of style. We're in the States, and so there's this certain again standards of identity that we should abide by to a certain extent. We're producing it much like a single malt from the British Isles but we're ageing in new oak, and in that way it's much like a bourbon.
As I said before with an ale yeast being used for fermentation and now with a stout finish I think it's going to appeal to a broad range of people who enjoy craft spirits.
Are these your barrels that have gone to a brewery, been used by a brewery, and sent back to you? Or are these barrels that have gone to the brewery from someone else and then come to you?
This is something that we set up, I guess you could call it a barrel loaner program, where our Westward barrels are actually being sent out to breweries all around Oregon for their use to then get sent back to us. We set up a trade across a lot of different breweries. I think actually at this point we've got just nearly about 40 different breweries that we're working with for this program.
And is that just in Portland or is that in Oregon as a whole?
That's throughout the whole state. We have just a bit over 80 breweries in the city of Portland itself, quite a few throughout Oregon actually. There's a pretty long history in craft brewing in Oregon itself. Central Oregon has Deschutes Brewing which was open in the early, mid 80s. They're definitely a pioneer in the states of craft brewing. We're working with quite a few.
How long have the barrels been with the brewery. Is it just one, shall we say expression of stout that has gone through the barrel. Or have they used it repeatedly?
When you start a program like this, those are the questions you ask yourself. You wonder, should we work with just one brewery? Will a particular brewer's style or even that style of stout effect what we're trying to do here? Which, you're not even entirely sure of what these outcomes will be. As far as time with brewery, it really depends on the brewer. Some will hold onto the barrels for six months. Other times it's eighteen months to two years that they hang onto these barrels to age their beer. Then we're doing an additional one year finish on the barrels. It's a lengthy process. We have found that there isn't too much a difference from brewer to brewer as far as the finish effect that we get on the whiskey.
I was about to ask that if it was going out to so many, and yet it had no difference in the way the whiskey has come through.
Yes. Thankfully, you know it's enough of a logistical nightmare to keep track of all these barrels going to those various craft brewers all across the state. We were looking for and hoping for this consistency though in the finished product. It's compelling I think to get a lot of different results from barrel finishes, but when you're... We're just launching this product now in Australia. We got it all throughout the States here. You certainly hope for a bit more of a consistency there if you're wanting to put out a larger amount of a product.
But it's really not too much of a difference that we've found from going from brewer to brewer. Part of that is our approach to the finish. I look to finishes on whiskey as something that should amplify the core elements of that spirit rather than overtake them. Rather than a stout flavour Westwood, this is a finish. Some of the tasting notes that we get from this are really more of like I said, just a compliment and a slight addition to the overall flavour characteristics.
I suppose the logical thing would be to ask what are those flavour notes? When someone tastes this, what can they expect?
Westwood itself, our core flagship expression is very robust. It's got a lot of character to it. Some of those notes, the stone fruit, the tropical fruits, honeyed, nuttiness, some of that brown sugar. You know, that all still comes through in the stout, like I said before, those core elements are still there. What it does though in barrel when finishing for an additional year with stout is there's a lightness to it. It actually dries the spirit out just a bit. You know, it adds a bit more chocolate and rose character to it, but it's not pulling. It's actually a really beautiful floral note that comes out in the aromatics. It's really a nice subtle change.
I suppose in a way, you could almost say that it smooths the whiskey out a little bit.
Certainly. Yeah, I think for a couple reasons. One, of course, an additional year in barrel, but also, when we get these barrels back from the breweries, we're actually using them as soon as we get them back. There's a bit of beer, and there's a bit of ??? from the secondary fermentation still in the barrel and that's deliberate. We don't want to rinse the barrels. I actually attribute all of those aspects to the softer mouth feel and the overall smoothness of the whiskey.
If it is a smoother whiskey, and it's bringing out a lot of the flavours that you were talking about, do you believe that this would be a good expression for non-whiskey drinkers to start with?
I do. I think it would be an excellent introduction to the single malt for someone who's perhaps just getting into the world of whiskey or is altogether unfamiliar. It's very approachable in that way. It's intriguing enough that as I said before, it has a very broad appeal. Yeah, it's quite approachable.
Is it perhaps a gateway expression?
I like that term. Yes. Yes, definitely.
I think that something that I find a lot when either presenting at a tasting or a hosting something at the distillery where you know some people who aren't too experienced with whiskey haven't really broken through that wall of being able to just taste whiskey a certain way that people do. They look for a smoothness. I think people expect a certain amount of sweetness from a whiskey. I'd say that this is also something that is, it's obvious to state, actually paired with a beer. If someone is wanting to approach this in a boiler maker style that they could have a really nice time with this whiskey paired not only with a stout or a darker beer, but I think it goes well with a nice craft lager also.
Now with the pale ale as the starter and the stout as the finish, it's almost like you're going back to your roots in brewing again. Just with a little whiskey in the middle.
Yes. Exactly. Yeah, it's enjoyable, the process. Again, we come from a brewing background. We're still very much steeped in the brewing world here in town. As I said, there's just so many breweries here, it's almost hard for us to avoid. We've still got a friends, workers, colleagues in the brewing industry. Our system, our wash system, that we have set up here at the distillery is essentially a 30 barrel craft brewing system. Yeah, we're always wanting to stay in touch with beer. It's a huge part of our history here in the North West. We're creating a regional style of single malt. We want it to speak of it's origins. Brewing is certainly a big part of that.
Take us through the distilling.
Our fermentation is about five days. It's a low temperature, slow fermentation which is great. It doesn't take too many off flavours. Again, something that is our minimal approach to distilling. It gives us about an eight and half percent beer wash, which we then send through our mains, thorough our pipes to the other side, to the distilling side of the building.
We've got two pot stoves on the other side there. We've got a two thousand gallon, about an eleven thousand litre pot stove that was made custom for us down in Louisville, Kentucky, down in Bourbon Country by Vendome. They’re a well renowned stove maker down there. It's a stainless steel pot with copper columns, pipe and condenser. That's built to our specifications in that it's got a very squat column with our boil ball, our onion at the very bottom of the column. Again, discouraging reflux, discouraging too much refinement getting all of the characters to come over. We make a very small heads cut on that. We collect our first run, our low wines and then distill in our second smaller still about 700 gallons, about 2100 litres. We're making some more cuts there. That's all done by sensory. Every single cut that we make in our run. It's one of us distillers standing up there determining through sensory when we're going to collect from heft to heart. It's not done at a certain time. It's not done using equipment measuring proof. It's all done by taste. It's as hands on as we can make it. It's inefficient, but we think it makes the best whiskey.
Did it turn out the way you had expected that it would?
I hope I don't come off as corny here, but honestly better than expected. We knew it would be a wonderful flavour match. The subtle floral notes that I think really add a depth of complexity to this whiskey were a bit unexpected.
When someone first gets their hand on a bottle, how would you suggest that they drink it?
Well, this is something that is for me personally, best drunk neat. Because it is something that's a bit drier but smoother and a bit softer of a pallet. We bottle, across the board, at 90 proof. That's a bit higher than most. I think neat would be a great approach. Having said that, I did mention boiler maker is an excellent way to enjoy it as well. Then, you know, as far as cocktails go, I haven't done too much with it. We have our great horse race down in Kentucky, the Kentucky Derby every year and the mint julep is the drink of choice for the Derby.
I think it was last year on Derby day I happened to just come across a bar here in town. They carried our stout finish, and he was making mint juleps. It was absolute dynamite. The mint with chocolate, which of course is just a classic flavour combination is really, pretty stellar.
Speaking of bars. What has the reaction of bartenders been to the whiskey?
Very positive. Very positive. Again, this is a newer product that hasn't been out in the world for too, too long but its still something that a lot of people are happy to experiment with. Bartenders are always looking for... I think not just new flavours, but new takes on flavours. This just adds another element without actually the need for an additional modifier to that drink.
There's a great bar here, Clyde Common, they're a hotel bar that's been around for about ten years. They're constantly winning awards. They've got an excellent whiskey program. They're kind of my beta testing ground and that's where I brought it before we'd actually released it. The bartender and I ended up drinking most of the bottle the night I brought it in, trying different drinks. It's a lot of fun.
Aside from the mint julep that you mentioned, have you seen bartenders and perhaps even the bartender from Clyde Common, use it in ways that have surprised you?
Definitely. I think there's traditional go to standard whiskey drinks that I'm sure would shine in just wonderfully.
Where I've seen some left of center experimentation has been pushing some of the notes in the whiskey that aren't just going to grab you right away, some of the florality. There's even some great citrus notes that I think are sort of hidden under that initial, that sort of primary taste of the spirit. Turn the volume up on those have yielded some great results.
Portland is a very beer based city and that has been the inspiration for many of Westward's expressions. Is beer going to continue to be an inspiration to what you do in the future?
Always and forever. It is constantly inspiring us. It's inspired our style in general. We've been around since 2004. We've been producing Westward in it's form we know it now for over ten years. When you pioneer a new category of whiskey that is American single malt. You have to think to yourself, what does this mean? How do we define this? We're hesitant to, and I would even say disinterested in, replicating a style of whiskey that's already out there. We're all fans of malt whiskey here in the distillery but there's nothing we want to emulate. Especially when you're staking your claim in the world of whiskey saying "We're establishing a new category." Well, why is it different? Why should people care that it's a new style of whiskey?
So our approach is very much rooted in our history of beer. Again we wanted to create a regional style. Our malt that we use is considered a brewer's base malt in the States. It's a bit more of a modified barley that we're using. And the ale yeast for our fermentation, that pale strain, that pale ale yeast strain is what's referred to in the craft brewing circles as the Chico strain or the Sierra Nevada yeast strain. The Sierra Nevada pale ale strain. That is just very, very American as far as case profile, what's put us on the map. These are all deliberate choices that were based in all of our history of brewing.
So, yeah, it's a constant inspiration. We even, I don't know, a couple times a year, we'll invite brewers, a Portland brewer, or someone within the state or close by, that is interested in collaborating with us. We'll sit down with some whiskey and beer. We'll taste through what they make. If there's a particular beer that we think would make a good whiskey, we'll actually replicate that beer on our wash system here with those brewers. We'll invite them over for the day. We'll make a wash using their beer recipe with specialty grains, and then we'll double pot distill that into a whiskey.
In that way we're still very much involved in brewing and even evolving what we understand and what could be American single malt.
So basically, as many expressions of beer that are available, you will probably try and convert into a single malt whiskey of some kind.
Yeah. At most. I think you know there are certain styles that we just don't think would actually make a compelling single malt. Yeah, we're trying most everything. It isn't just experimentation for experimentation's sake. We're, to use the marketing term, innovating where we can just to push the category. Tradition at one point was an innovation. Right? With craft, craft is the pursuit of constant improvement. It's a work of progression and so we're just exploring new flavours constantly to see what works for us.
And a little bit of fun too I imagine.
Always. Always fun. It is whiskey after all.
The stout whiskey recently received a gold medal at San Francisco. You must have been pleased at the response?
Absolutely. That was a huge win for us. That was the first international competition that we'd sent the spirit to. Yeah, that was a big win.
We're certainly not in it for the medals, but to bring a new category of whiskey out to the world and then a second expression of that category. These wins help connect consumers to what we're doing. We're all about an educated consumer. Those are really people that can grasp onto what we're doing here and enjoy the spirit.
Yeah, that was an absolute huge win. We're ecstatic about that.
Now, I imagine that the stout is obviously available throughout Oregon. Is it available throughout the other states within the United States?
A few. In the United States, each state has it's own rules and regulations and hoops to jump through as you attempt to bring your spirit in for distribution. That's 50 different regulators that we have to go through which isn't something that we were interested in right away. Certainly not with the second expression that's a smaller volume.
We've released in our bigger markets here first, outside of Oregon. San Francisco, LA, Dallas, Austin, TX, Chicago, New York, a few other markets. Really going where the bigger drinks markets are first to get established there. Its widely available in those bigger markets with the intent of getting further and further throughout the States as we go.
What about overseas?
Australia is our first export market for the stout just as Australia was our first export market for our core expression which was last year when you and I met last March when I came to launch then. The intent was if you have me travel there this year to launch that of course was thwarted.
Bringing the flagship to Australia first was such an easy decision. It answered the question itself. There's such a strong appreciation, not only for whiskey, but for craft spirits and beer as well. There's a huge audience for craft beer in Australia. I think that the appreciation for innovation. The amount of great single malt makers, new world whiskey makers in Australia as well is really inspiring. Australia has always been our first choice.
Are there plans for maybe the UK and places like that?
Certainly. I think so. It's just, we're building this up as we go. Whiskey just takes time. These barrels that we send off to breweries, after they're done with them, as I said, could be up to two years, we're receiving them back and it's an additional year in finish. We've seen just great positive responses to this so we continue to grow our barrel program for the stout finish. It's still certainly not large enough to go to too many other international markets. The intent is there to definitely expand it for sure.
Speaking of that, last year, knowing that we wanted to expand this program and really get a lot of volume out to the world. We decided that most of these brewers that we're working with, these breweries, they're just little brew hubs. They're producing not too much beer so they're really only taking two maybe six barrels at a time.
So we looked to some bigger brewers last year to see who might be able to take more at once. We've actually done collaborations in the past with Deschutes, again, in central Oregon. They've got a great barrel program. They make excellent barrel aged stout. I sent 100 Westward barrels over their way last August. The expansion is in progress.
If people want more information about the stout or just Westward as a whole, they can go to your website which is westwardwhiskey.com
Yeah, there's information there on core expression, on our stout cask, upcoming news at the distillery. We're actually hoping to, we'll see how the rest of this year goes, hoping to release a third expression of Westward. There's news there. Information on just what we're doing here at the distillery. It's very informative.
Are you able to give us a little bit about the new expression, that you're about to bring out?
Sure. So in keeping with our ethos of regional style, of establishing a single malt that speaks of the pacific northwest, that has provenance. Obviously going with a beer finish was just sort of a natural next step. Thinking also to wine finishes, right?
Again, in a lot of port and sherry. Those don't really fit into our Northwest style because we don't produce port or sherry here. But we do have quite a few smalller, world class pinot noir producers here just 45 minutes away from the distillery in Willamette Valley. We've also got a few people on our crew, actually our founder, Christian Krogstad, used to help manage wineries. We've got great established relationships with wineries here in Willamette Valley as well. We've started to explore that option as well.
Yeah, something that continues to tell the story of where we're from.
All right, thank you so much for your time today Miles.
It's been a pleasure. It's been great talking with you.
Hopefully when that next expression comes out, we can talk to you again about that.
I'd love that.
Thank you so much.
For more information on Westward’s Oregon Stout Cask Whiskey, go to westwardwhiskey.com