It was around noon on a Thursday back in February and thanks to the sunshine – an uncommon occurrence at that time of year, as any of the local Seattle residents would tell you – the Skagit Valley landscape was a lush vision of old-fashioned farmland splendour.
On this third day of the three-day World Whisky Forum, distillers, blenders and distillery owners from around the world were gathered at the Bread Lab, a research center affiliated with Washington State University, listening to Dr Stephen Jones, the institution’s director. He was waxing lyrical about heritage grains, plump, ‘pretty’ and ‘prettier,’ high-protein grains of pink, purple, black and green, and the close-knit, orderly ecosystem he’s part of. It’s an ecosystem that encompasses farmers, maltsters, millers, researchers and spirit producers, one that rests on the sound foundation of collaboration. Or to hear him tell it, “It’s a community of people who are investigating different ideas and saying ‘yes’ to things.”
Matt Hofmann, managing director and co-founder of Westland Distillery in Seattle, which hosted the third World Whisky Forum earlier this year, stepped in when Jones, a vision of hippie romanticism, complete with a lavish white beard, finished. “I’m super-thrilled all you came out here to see this. I hope your minds are exploding because that’s what’s happened to me over the past eight years since we started working with Steve,” said Hofmann. “My head’s been exploding constantly. That’s a good thing.”
The prior day, Hofmann himself was detonating the minds of attendees who’d come to Seattle from Japan, Iceland, Denmark, England, and elsewhere, plus ten US states including Alaska, New Mexico and New York. He was explaining Westland’s pioneering use of Garry Oak, a species native to the region, to age their luminous Garryana releases, part of its Native Oak Series. Wine-makers had used the wood, more brittle than white oak, in the 1980s and 1990s, but since it didn’t yield a result like French oak, they stopped, he explained. Hofmann was inspired to look at its possibilities.
At that pre-Covid moment in 2020, the whisky industry was different, but Hofmann’s approach seems to be a sensible, if not necessary, one in our pandemic era. Many young, small producers and bigger historic ones alike have been on a path to differentiate themselves, showing deft use of unconventional grains, aging methods and local resources. Now sheer survival is more of a scramble, with distillery and tasting room closures and on-premise sales slumps battering the industry. But the takeaways from the Forum might prove to be a roadmap for survival because they are lessons of community, sustainability, and creativity, all critical components of a robust, healthy, self-sufficient business.
Westland, known for its American single malts, provides a model to follow for thoughtful whisky-making. It’s a Platonic ideal of distilling, which seems even more valuable in this pandemic-era mindset than before. And that brings us back to those “pretty” grains that Dr Jones was exalting. In addition to Dr Jones’s talk, the group heard from Adam Foy, vice president of business development at nearby Skagit Valley Malting, who talked about ‘style-accurate malts’ that are distinguished by nuances of difference. He explained how rejecting the commodity system in favor of breeding grains for specific flavors and yields leads to rewards even greater than excellent beer and whiskey.
“There’s an interconnectedness of a non-commodity environment. It’s about being a handshake away from the farmers, real farmers with other crops that are successful businesses, like organic tomatoes, potatoes or tulips,” he laid out. “There’s a closeness. We don’t go through a brokerage, a buyer, a grain elevator, then a smasher that pumps out some Play-Doh-like grain stuff. We have a connection to a community, and that’s something that doesn’t happen, at least not since before modern times.”
It makes sense to think of heritage grains that Dr Jones specializes in as curated, what with them coming from a vast library that he and his team accumulated from around the world. The Bread Lab’s storage rooms are stacked with shelves neatly lined with containers full of grains from different countries and different centuries. These small spaces, though cramped, have a church-like air about them, stocked with relics that tell an ancient history.
You get more worth from grain when you can differentiate the market and use it for a valuable product instead of selling it for animal feed, Foy continued. And that’s where the malting house comes in. Big kernels with low proteins are immensely useful to beer and whiskey producers, so Skagit Valley Maltings pays up to three times as much to growers for malt-quality barley as they might pay for commodity grain.
This hyper-local, focused approach has famously become the modus operandi of Bruichladdich, the Islay distillery owned by Rémy Cointreau, the same parent company as Westland. Lynne McEwan, Bruichladdich sales manager and daughter of recently retired distiller Jim McEwan, sounded a note of encouragement that the shift to short-supply-chain production, one that puts a premium on the still-controversial notion of ‘terroir,’ could become a movement.
“When we started, we were on our own. There weren’t many distillers in Scotland who were talking about not chill-filtering and not adding colour. The world is changing. The whisky industry is so [expletive] slow to change, it’s unbelievable,” she mused emphatically. “This is the body of humans that will change it. We’re medium-size, lots of you are small in size, but together we are the power. We are going to make extraordinary change.
“The reason I’m positive is that 20 years ago we weren’t together and we’re here today. In another five years, this room’s capacity will be doubled and doubled. We’re making it happen. Keep the faith, people.”
The three days were loaded with discussions about flouting convention and taking old-world ideas and practices and making them work in a twenty-first-century context. Producers like Todd Leopold from Leopold Brothers in Denver and Nicole Austin, formerly of Tullamore Dew and Brooklyn’s Kings County Distillery and newly of Tennessee’s George Dickel, spoke of how North American whiskey is relying on authenticity to fuel its renaissance, while Louise McGuane, founder of J. J. Corry, the Irish whiskey bonding company, and Stephen Kersley of LoneWolf, BrewDog’s distillery touched on the various ways they’re pushing the limits of tradition. The fervour was so palpable that it transcended language for this international audience.
Jota Tanaka, master blender at Kirin Brewery Company’s Fuji Gotemba Distillery, explained, “They’re touching on a feeling, a resonation,” he said of the talks by Hofmann, Jones and Foy.
“I’m really moved and impressed by what Matt was saying, but also his face, his expression.
“The reason why I took a picture while he was talking was his confidence. I could feel it, some kind of vibration or what. I was feeling so…” he paused in contemplation, digging for the right words. “I was happy to be in that moment when he was talking, and be part of that group of people who were on the same ground.”