Westland is a relatively new American whiskey maker, based in Seattle, Washington state. Rather than try to compete with the established US bourbon makers, they have opted instead to focus on a distinctive style of single malt whisky.
For this review, I’m going to look at their core range of single malts, as well as their most recent special release.
I recently had a tour of the distillery, and discovered that Westland malts and distills their own custom mashbill blend of five distinct types of barley – Washington Select Pale Malt, Munich Malt, Extra Special Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, and Brown Malt. They use a Belgian “brewer’s yeast”, which is a different strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae than the ubiquitous type M distiller’s yeast that Scottish distillers use. Check out Whisky Science if you want to know all about yeast strains and whisky making.
Here are the wash still, spirit still and spirit safe, from the tour:
The Westland custom copper pot still design is also rather unusual, and looks a bit like a hybrid of a traditional pot still and a continuous column still (see close-up photos below). I gather they run it in different modes, on occasion.
Another area of distinctiveness is barrelling. Unlike old world malts – and much like other American whiskeys – most of the Westland distillate goes into charred virgin American oak barrels. Along with the other characteristics above, this makes for a distinctive product they like to call an “American single malt” (not that any such term has legal standing at present).
Of course, another reason for this virgin barrel selection is so that they can offer fairly young malt whiskies for sale. If they used ex-bourbon barrels for their core range (as is the case for most Scottish malts), they would presumably have to wait much longer before they produced a drinkable product. Check out my source of whisky flavour page for an explanation of what barreling adds to a whisky.
As an aside, I gather an increasing portion of their production is currently going into the ex-bourbon barrels, as they plan for the future. They also age some spirit in sherry casks, as I will describe below. And they have been experimenting with barrels of Garry oak (Quercus garryana), a species of white oak native to the Pacific Northwest.
Note that the French drinks group Rémy Cointreau (current owners of Bruichladdich) have recently acquired Westland. This suggests we will see a ramp up in production over the coming years, with greater brand awareness for Westland (and the American single malt category in general).
Let’s see how the core lines compare to other North American malt whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:
Balcones Texas Single Malt: 8.67 ± 0.35 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Copperworks American Single Malt: 8.68 ± 0.25 on 3 reviews ($$$)
FEW Single Malt: 8.44 ± 0.53 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 10yo Ice: 8.19 ± 0.61 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 10yo Rare: 8.01 ± 0.46 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 14yo: 8.06 ± 0.63 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 15yo Battle of the Glen: 8.52 ± 0.28 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
High West Campfire: 8.78 ± 0.35 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Stalk & Barrel Single Malt: 8.26 ± 0.40 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Westland American Single Malt: 8.46 ± 0.27 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Westland Garryana: 8.66 ± 0.07 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Westland Peated: 8.53 ± 0.56 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Westland Sherry Wood: 8.30 ± 0.56 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Although the number of reviews are typically low for this class, the various Westland expressions seem to score toward the higher end of the group.
Now, on to a description of each of the various Westland whiskies, and my personal tasting notes:
Westland American Oak
This uses their standard 5-malt mashbill. It is aged for 2-3 years in mainly charred virgin American oak barrels, with some proportion of first-fill ex-bourbon. Bottled at 46% ABV. You could consider it their standard, base offering.
Nose: Caramel and vanilla are prominent (as you might expect from the virgin oak). Cinnamon. Lightly fruity, but nothing specific initially stands out (on repeated sampling, I started to find banana and citrus). Creamy. Seems young (not surprisingly), with classic acetone notes – but as bad as I expected for the age. Water brings up the baking spice further, and the sweetness.
Palate: Butterscotch picks up now, joining the caramel. Hint of cherries, but still not a lot of specific fruit. Boston cream pie. Texture is a touch waxy, and a bit light overall. With a little water, whisky gets a bit more chewy (which is good). Of course, sweetness picks up too.
Finish: Medium length. Surprisingly, some new elements pick up now that I wasn’t really getting on the nose and palate – particularly citrus (lemon and orange zest) and menthol.
This is better than I expected, given the age. There are less off-notes than other young whiskies I’ve come across, and a bit of complexity comes across in the palate and finish that wasn’t initially present on the nose. I think the Meta-Critic average score for this expression is fair.
Westland Sherry Wood
This uses the same distillate as the American Oak, based on the standard 5-malt mashbill. I originally expected that they used the same barrels from above and simply finished for a period of extra time in sherry casks (i.e., the label describes them as “matured in sherry casks”). But according to the tour, this expression is actually a vatting of the base spirit that was aged 50% in sherry casks (a combination of PX and Oloroso), and 50% in virgin American oak (i.e, same as the standard American Oak series). Again, aged for 2-3 years, and similarly bottled at 46% ABV.
Nose: Sweet barley notes, moreso than the American Oak. Dried dark fruits. Indeed, nose is very dry, suggesting a larger Oloroso component. That said, I do get some pancake/maple syrup notes as well, which could be from the PX. No real off notes, as these are hidden under the syrup.
Palate: Very syrupy, and less fruity. It is much sweeter tasting than the nose suggested. Getting some chocolate now, and some Graham crackers. But it feels like much of the complexity of the American Oak is lost in the mix, with the overwhelming sweetness.
Finish: Medium-ish, but very simple. Very sweet coating left on the tongue (and not much else).
Upon making the comment about how the nose seems biased more toward Oloroso, my tour guide responded that the early batches were mainly Pedro Ximénez, but currently they are using predominantly Oloroso in the mix for Sherry Wood.
Overall, this reminds me a bit of the new Pike Creek rum finish in Canada – it lacks complexity, and the subtle notes of the base spirit are drowned out by an overwhelming sweetness. Not particularly my cup of tea, so I would rate this one slightly lower than the base American Oak (as do most of the reviewers, it seems). But if you like a sweeter rum-like finishing, this could suit you.
Although Westland has found a domestic source of Washington state peat, it has taken them some time to get the whole process up and running. So all the peated expressions currently for sale stem from the original peated Scottish malt they sourced directly from the highlands (didn’t jot down the name, but it was near Inverness, apparently). The heavily peated malt distillate is mixed with spirit from some of their standard American 5-malt, making a lightly peated final product. They age this mix in a combination of virgin American oak and first-fill ex-bourbon barrels. Similarly aged 2-3 years, and bottled at 46% ABV.
Nose: Light smoke, with some sweet peat. Some lighter fruits, like pear and apple, and citrus. Vanilla and caramel. Pleasant enough, with no real off notes.
Palate: More peat shows up on palate, sweetened by the vanilla and caramel. Light smoke turns more to savory BBQ mesquite now. Actually makes you kind of hungry for BBQ ribs. A bit nutty. Don’t add water, as it lightens and dulls it immediately.
Finish: Medium. Peat is earthier on the way out, with some iodine notes and tongue tingle. Some fruit returning at the end as well.
A blend with a bit of Springbank comes to mind, as it has that sweet peat characteristic that turns toward iodine over time. I would personally put this at least on par with the American Oak for its overall character and quality. My only complaint is that it is very lightly peated – it may benefit when the domestic Westland peated malt comes online.
Westland Winter 2016 (Special Release)
I also had the option to try one of their special releases, and opted to go for this one (sadly, Garryana 2016 was already sold out). The Winter edition is a blend of nine casks – mainly ex-bourbon, one sherry ex-Oloroso hogshead (filled with peated malt), and an ex-Westland cask. The resulting grain bill is a bit different, coming out as 65% Washington Select Pale Malt, 14% standard 5-Malt, and 21% Baird’s Heavily Peated Malt. Aged just under 3 years, and bottled at a higher 50% ABV.
Nose: Similar light peatiness as the standard Westland Peated expression. Seems a bit less smokey – but that may be because the sherry notes are dominating. I get apple and raisins. Promising, but I’d like to see a bit more character here.
Palate: Sweeter on the palate again, with some syrupy notes (just as I found on the Sherry Wood). Smoke stays in the background, and never really crystallizes into a defined presence, unfortunately. A bit watery in texture for 50% ABV, with no real burn. Was hoping for a more chewy texture.
Finish: Medium short-ish. It seems like both the peat and sherry are diluted here, and I’m still not getting much of the base spirit complexity.
This vatting doesn’t really seem to add anything to the standard Sherry Wood and Peated expressions – in essence, it tastes like a combination of them. And like in the Sherry Wood, the sherry seems to be diminishing the base spirit rather than enhancing it. So I would personally have to give this a slightly lower score than the standard Peated (but still better than the regular Sherry Wood).
I was impressed with these early offerings from Westland, and to look forward to what is coming next. The base American Single Malt has an interesting malted barley mashbill, with above-average character.
It will be particularly interesting to see how their domestic peat experiment turns out. Aged in some of their native Garry oak barrels, this could indeed be a very distinctive American single malt.
For reviews of the Westland single malts in general, you could check out the guys at Quebec Whisky, or the reviewers of Whiskey Reviewer and Whiskey Wash. Typically lower scoring are the reviewers of Whisky Advocate.