As Emerson Lamb grabs a hunk of chunky earth, media gather round. It's as if Lamb is holding a press conference in the middle of nowhere, Washington, to show off something special. Other whiskey writers are here - namely Mark Gillespie - for a press junket that also attracted contributors to Playboy, Men's Health and Maxim.
And none of us came for the gorgeous boat ride over Lake Union, to buy legal marijuana in the state or to visit the popular topless coffee shops on Washington roadsides. No, we came here for what was in Lamb's hand - American peat.
Yes, that peat. The peat known in Scotland for centuries. The peat not traditionally used in the United States of America. The peat that is protected by US wetland laws.
Lamb co-founded the Westland Distillery in Seattle. Unlike many other so-called craft distillers, Westland does not make vodka, gin, brandy, Bourbon, rum or flavoured products. Westland focuses on one single style of whiskey - American single malt. In fact, it is the largest North American single malt producer, but it would still be in the bottom one third in Scotland in terms of production. But as Taiwan, Japan and South Africa have shown, there's room for single malt production outside of Scotland - by God, just don't call it Scotch!
But to create an American peated single malt is something dreams are made of. Due to the country's environmental laws surrounding wetlands, it was thought impossible to extract peat from a US bog. However, there were some bogs designated for harvesting and were actually used during times of war. The stuff in Lamb's hand is from one of those bogs, a marshy cut unknown to passer-by vehicles travelling on the nearby road.
"There's a root structure still intact when it comes to this stage," Lamb says. "The root structure breaks apart and that's important for us because of combustion. You need to think about making peated malt like barbecuing. You want large volumes of smoke, not heat, because it will over dry the barley. Root structure gives us a nice slow burn, the most smoke and least amount of heat."
Lamb says the American peat will have a more woody smoke than Scotland's. "This will be more earthy. All things going well, that will carry over in the whiskey," Lamb says.
Westland is doing a lot to carry over into the whiskey. Perhaps the most obvious observation is the distillery's overt attempt to be different, to stake a claim on American single malt and do nothing else. Prior to Prohibition, Washington enjoyed a decent whiskey distillery scene. And even in the 1800s, Puget Sound whiskey traders were among the craftiest, boldest bootleggers, escaping those excise tax agents and were made a priority to be stopped during the Civil War, a time when the country had other problems.
In the contemporary new whiskey brand scene, hundreds of new brands have named themselves after regional history, using a backstory to sell booze. And nobody would have blamed Lamb and his co-founder if they tapped into the area's rich whiskey history. Instead at the early onset of the brand, they named it something simple, Westland, after the home Lamb, 27, grew up in. Choosing single malt over other whiskey types is in the same vein of dare to be different, as is the use of sherry butts, American peat, and working with universities to create more whiskey-friendly breeds of barley.
Different ways of looking at things is something of a past time for the Seattle area. Modern technology - from the cell phone to Internet - was largely innovated and perfected here. Could Westland be doing the same for American whiskey?
Well, if you listen to what they're trying to do, if they succeed, they could introduce new breeds of barley to the world, made specifically for whiskey production.
Lamb and Westland's head distiller Matt Hoffman are working with Skagit Malting and Washington State University Centre to develop new malts from grains bred and grown in the Skagit Valley and Salish Coast regions of Washington. "I'm breeding a barley for Westland right now, but it's going to take awhile. We're looking at thousands of breeding lines," says Brigid Meints, a PhD candidate at Washington State University. "As you would expect a barley grown in northern Ethiopia will not grow well in Washington, it will get diseases."
There are more than 21,000 varieties of barley, according to the European Union Seed Bank. But the American Barley Association only endorses between 10 and 15 barley breeds a year for malting and even fewer are used in American whiskey. Essentially, the majority of the distillers takes six row barley from their grain partners and don't have much of a say in what they select, but Bourbons don't depend much on barley for flavour versus rye, corn or wheat, so barley matters a lot less to most US distillers. "The whiskey and beer industry want to have a certain profile on that grain, and we've created a monocrop world of barley," says Wayne Carpenter, founder of Skagit Valley Malting. "We've decided to try something that doesn't fit in the normal malt. What happens if it doesn't have the same chemical analysis?"
If this Washington barley experiment works, Westland's desire to make unique American single malt could have greater impacts than just the United States. "There's been a lot of Scottish interest in what we're doing," Carpenter says.
Perhaps the greatest indication that Westland has Scotland's attention was a 2am phone call from a barrel broker who said a bodega was going out of business and his ex sherry casks were for sale that very second. Unless Lamb wired $250,000 during the phone call, the barrels would be sold to a distillery in Scotland. Buying used sherry casks is "incredibly competitive. If I don't make the wire transfer, Glenmorangie will. You need to buy them when you can." And therein is the attitude of Westland: It's a single malt distillery fighting for the same consumer as the great Scotch names.
Westland Peated American Single Malt (not American peat)
Colour: Light straw
Nose: Campfire smoke, fresh-cut grass, citrus and black pepper.
Palate: Gorgeous white pepper spice with a hickory smoke and cake batter sweetness.
Finish: Medium with spice.
Westland American Single Malt
Colour: Straw to tawny
Nose: Dark cherry, lemon peel, vanilla and a hint of oak.
Palate: The nose made me think this would be strong with fruit. While the fruit is there, the whiskey pleasantly surprises the palate with hazelnut and other nut notes. It's packing hints of caramel, toffee and coffee.
Finish: Long with a hazelnut latte note.
Malt: Pale, 55ppm peated, pale chocolate and Munich malt
Mashing: 50 hectolitres
Fermentation: 100 hectolitres
Distillation: 1 wash still 2,000 gallons
Distillery capacity: 1,500 gallons
Westland Distillery, 2931 1st Avenue South, Seattle, WA 98134, United States
Tel: +1 206 767 7250