American Single Malt Whiskey Guide header image

Your Guide to the Proposed American Single Malt Standards of Identity

In Banter by David Levine1 Comment

On July 29, 2022, the Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would give American Single Malt a formal, legal definition in American whiskey. These are also called the Standards of Identity (SOI).

These standards were first proposed by the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC) in 2016. The Committee is led by Westland’s Steve Hawley and represents nearly 100 member producers in the United States. Currently, American Single Malt Whiskey has no formal definition within the guidelines of U.S. whiskey and there are no relevant parallel regulations as there are for other grains (i.e. bourbon must be 51 percent corn, rye must be 51 percent rye, etc.).

Malt whiskey is defined in the same section—§ 5.143, paragraphs (c)(1) through (18)—as bourbon and rye, being at least 51 percent malted barley rather than corn or rye, respectively, with all other requirements carried over throughout the class. § 5.143, paragraphs (c)(1) through (18) are one class of whiskies that allow for combinations of multiple grains, pluralities or majorities of grains, and definitions based on new or used cooperage.

American Single Malt, as proposed, would be a separate category.

Rather than being a new entry into this class of whiskies, the proposed standards of identity for American Single Malt would create a new class solely for this product. The intent, according to the ASMWC, is to protect consumers and make clear exactly what is in the bottle they are buying. Therefore, “Malt Whisky” and “American Single Malt Whisk(e)y”* would be mutually exclusive definitions.

The proposed definition of American Single Malt Whiskey is:

  • Made from 100 percent malted barley
  • Distilled entirely at one distillery
  • Mashed, distilled and matured in the United States
  • Matured in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 liters
  • Distilled at no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80 percent abv) bottled at 80 (U.S.) proof of more (40 percent abv)

These proposed regulations largely follow those of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which legally regulates Scotch Whisky worldwide. There are, however, some small differences that allow for greater innovation and creativity for American distillers and producers.

Let’s look at each proposed regulation in turn.

Made from 100 percent Malted Barley

The SWA specifies that Scotch Whisky may only be made from 100 percent barley and water, with allowance for caramel coloring E150A (which, despite the name, is tasteless) before bottling. This proposed rule follows the SWA’s, with no other grains permitted in a single malt whiskey.

Notably, neither the SWA nor the proposed standards of identity for American Single Malt require the barley to be grown in their respective countries. This, according to the ASMWC, is in recognition of today’s grain market. Most of the grain used in Scotch Single Malt is grown outside of Scotland, including from England, Ireland, Continental Europe, Ukraine, and China. To require U.S. producers to use only U.S.-grown barley would stymie market growth, drive up barley prices, and limit variations in the strains of barley used.

Bourbon Flavor Wheel & Tasting Mats

Makes the perfect Fathers' Day gift. Click, Download, and Give.
Image
DrinkCurious Community Large Banner Ad Image
DrinkCurious Community Square Mobile Ad Image

Distilled Entirely at One Distillery

This also follows SWA regulations. “Single Malt” as a term does not mean one malting process or one malt type, but rather that the whiskey is made at one distillery. For example, a Single Malt from The Macallan or Glenfiddich can be labeled as such; combining single malts from multiple distilleries disqualifies that label and must be called a blend of single malt whiskies.

In current TTB regulations, this practice is already established. Barrell Bourbon is made from multiple distilleries, often from multiple states; it can then include “a blend of straight bourbon whiskies” on the label, but not “straight bourbon whiskey.”

The proposed SOI aim to create clear, understandable labels for consumers. A liquor store customer can thus be assured that an American Single Malt labeled as such is from that distillery and that distillery only.

Mashed, Distilled and Matured in the United States

Whereas the barley may be grown in the U.S. or imported, all subsequent steps in the whiskey-making process must take place in the United States. Once again, the proposed SOI follow the SWA’s lead.

Single Malt Scotch Whisky may only be mashed, distilled, and matured in Scotland. No barrels of Single Malt Scotch Whisky may be exported in anything but inert containers such as plastic totes or steel vessels, and if bottled outside of Scotland, cannot be called Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

*The standard spelling for American whiskey includes the “e” for commercial use, but federal regulations use the “whisky” spelling. Either is acceptable for use on labels in U.S. jurisdiction.

The SOI does allow quite a bit of variation within these boundaries. Mashing can be to any specification, and distillation on any type of still otherwise allowed for use in the U.S. Maturation can be in anything from shipping containers to rickhouses and anything in-between, as long as it is on U.S. territory.

"We’ve garnered widespread industry support for a Standard of Identity that meets the expectations of single malt drinkers the world over but also leaves plenty of room for creativity and innovation here in America."
Sreve Hawley, ASMWC

Matured in Oak Casks of a Capacity Not Exceeding 700 Liters

This one might be odd for the casual consumer for multiple reasons.

First, let’s address size. The American Standard Barrel (ASB) is 53 gallons, around 200 liters. Larger vessels include Hogsheads, which are assembled from multiple broken-down and used barrels, wine casks which are often 60 gallons or larger, and sherry and port casks, which can reach 700 liters in size. According to Owen King of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, a single malt whiskey producer’s largest cask on-site is an ex-cognac barrel at around 600 to 700 liters. Exceptionally few casks exceed this size and are often custom-made barrels for some other purpose.

Next is the word “casks.” Current TTB regulations on whiskey use the phrase “oak containers,” though in practice these containers are virtually always barrels. According to ASMWC President Hawley,

“[The ASMWC] used the word “casks.” TTB has used the word “barrels,” as have [American Single Malt producers]. In the final regulations, the TTB will phrase it as “containers.”

In other words, the terms cask, barrel and container are all interchangeable and understood to mean the same thing for the purposes of maturation.

Finally, the proposed SOI does not specify whether new or used cooperage must be used, and that is purposeful. Some producers like Stranahan’s have used new cooperage for most of their existence, but also have begun laying down whiskey in used cooperage in anticipation of the new SOI. Other producers have committed to using new, charred oak only, with the understanding that using new oak (sometimes referred to as “virgin”) is relatively rare outside the U.S.

The U.S. currently requires new, charred oak for all whiskies within § 5.143, specifically excepting corn whiskey. Scotch producers, on the other hand, almost exclusively mature their whiskies in used casks, whether ex-bourbon, ex-wine or ex-sherry. Releases using virgin oak are nearly always limited editions, line extensions or experimental barrelings using nontraditional oak species or other woods.

By allowing American Single Malt producers to choose whether to use new or used oak or a combination of both, the SOI and the ASMWC want to allow for creativity and expression. Several producers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that maturing American Single Malt in new, charred oak casks like they would with bourbon or rye imparts a uniquely American facet to Single Malt. Others are using a mix of used and new oak to figure out how their whiskey is affected by the combination.

There is, as expected, no specification on what type of oak may be used. While white oak (quercus alba and its subspecies) is used for the vast majority of American cooperage, Westland has a standard line of American Single Malt using garryana oak (quercus garryana, a.k.a. Oregon oak), and many other species are now being tested for suitable use in whiskey maturation.

Image

Distilled at No More than 160 (U.S.) Proof (80 percent ABV)

This follows current TTB regulations for “whiskey” and is repeated here to conform to standards generally understood by U.S. consumers.

Notably, the SOI does not specify a minimum or maximum entry proof. Bourbon, rye and other American whiskies defined in § 5.143 may not exceed 125 proof upon entry to the oak container. That’s not to say American Single Malt producers will be filling at 160 proof. In fact, the ASMWC addresses this in their FAQs on the proposed standards:

“Most, if not all, of our member distillers fill at 62.5 percent or lower, though we see no reason or benefit to stipulating fill or storage strength for single malt.”

Scotch Single Malt producers sometimes use higher entry proofs than allowed in the U.S. because they are using second- or third-use barrels. Alcohol interacts with the wood in the barrels to create new esters, break down lignin and otherwise create the flavors we associate with whiskey. With new oak, those compounds are readily available, hence why distillers such as Michter’s and Peerless can use entry proofs as low as 103 proof.

With used casks, those initially available compounds are depleted, meaning the alcohol interacts with the wood differently. Knowing that whiskey leaves the still completely clear, it’s easy to see how new charred oak or ex-bourbon barrels account for all of a whiskey’s color. That color is representative of the alcohol’s interaction with the wood as well as what compounds are available. Scotch single malt distillers use higher entry proofs because the wood requires that to break down and convert the present compounds into the desired flavors.

The proposed SOI allow American producers to experiment with higher entry proofs for that same reason, though there is no expectation that this will become a widespread practice.

"With respect to the comparison to Scotch Whisky regulations, the climate and production realities of the American distilling landscape are starkly different and more varied than those in Scotland."
American Single Malt Whiskey Commission

Bottled at 80 (U.S.) Proof of More (40 percent ABV)

Once again, this reiterates existing TTB regulations to be called “whiskey.” There is nothing unique about this requirement.

These standards both establish American Single Malt as a categorically unique product and also pay homage to long-standing traditions of Single Malt whiskey from Scotland and other countries. Leaning on existing regulations lends immediate credibility to these new SOI and the products to which they apply, whereas regulations diverging too far from expected norms may confuse and turn off intended customers.

Throughout the years-long process that brought these SOI to the proposal and public comment stage, the ASMWC has remained remarkably united. Their intention is to speak with one voice for the entire American Single Malt community, and I cannot find a single exception to this.

When asked whether there was any opposition to this rule from distillers and producers currently making American Single Malt, ASMWC President Steve Hawley said:

“Not to my knowledge. We’ve [the ASMWC] garnered widespread industry support for a [Standard of Identity] that meets the expectations of single malt drinkers the world over but also leaves plenty of room for creativity and innovation here in America. These are two sides of a coin that single malt producers in this country are very much looking for.

The proposed SOI as published by the TTB offer another example of American Single Malt producers’ unity on the proposed regulations. As part of the public comment period, the TTB offers a clause referring to the use of coloring, flavoring, or blending materials, asking whether this should be explicitly allowed or disallowed in the final SOI.

Asked about this clause, Hawley replied:

“Currently there is no clause included [in the ASMWC’s proposal] that prohibits coloring, flavoring, etc. but it is a question the TTB is asking as part of this process. As a group, the Commission is still drafting our comment which will include perspective on this question.”

I asked for a hint on what that perspective might be, but Hawley demurred.

Finally, there is one SOI not included in either the ASMWC’s proposal or the TTB’s published notice: an age statement.

The SWA requires that all products labeled Scotch whisky—single malt or otherwise—must be aged at least 3 years in oak. The ASMWC addresses this in their FAQs as well, saying:

“Outside Straight Whiskey Types specifically, there is no precedent for minimum age requirements in the TTB framework. We would be in favor of adding a Straight American Single Malt Whiskey Type to the Beverage Alcohol Manual to afford our distillers the same options as the provision does for other whiskeys and would expect TTB to do so alongside the ratification of the foundational Standard of Identity. With respect to the comparison to Scotch Whisky regulations, the climate and production realities of the American distilling landscape are starkly different and more varied than those in Scotland. A minimum age requirement in America would have a much more significant and equally varied impact on distillers in this country and would only serve to limit creativity and innovation [emphasis is mine]. The age of a whiskey is not fundamental to the definition of single malt and the choice should be left to the distiller and ultimately the consumer.”

What comes next?

Starting on July 29, 2022, a 60-day public comment period began during which you can comment as an individual or in representation of a group or company. Groups such as DISCUS, the American Craft Spirits Association, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission and others will put forth statements supporting the SOI as proposed. Widespread opposition is not expected, and *knocks wood* the standards will be formalized within a month or two of the comment period’s end.

Like other new regulations, there will be a transition period during which existing labels will be reviewed and, if needed, altered to fit the SOI, though it’s worth noting that the TTB’s own research found no existing label that would require changes to conform (yet another example of the ASMWC’s focus on unanimity). The length of that period will be determined at the appropriate time.

In conclusion, American Single Malt Whiskey is on a precipice six-plus years in the making. It is becoming more and more mainstream, with over 100 producers across the country consistently making an American Single Malt. With these SOI, the category will hopefully achieve the recognition, standardization and backing it needs to reach the next level of consumer awareness and appreciation.

*The standard spelling for American whiskey includes the “e” for commercial use, but federal regulations use the “whisky” spelling. Either is acceptable for use on labels in U.S. jurisdiction.

Thanks to Stranahan’s Owen King, Santa Fe Spirits’ Colin Keegan, and ASMWC President Steve Hawley of Westland for their contributions to this article.

Further Resources

The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009
Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for American Single Malt Whisky
TTB Distilled Spirits Hub
American Single Malt Whiskey Commission
ASMWC Press Release on NPRM


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Levine is the founder of the Whiskey in my Wedding Ring blog and host of The Whiskey Ring Podcast. A nonprofit fundraiser by day, David enjoys trying every whiskey (and other brown spirit) he can and sharing that experience with others after hours. He is on his own whiskey journey and loves nothing more than helping fellow whiskey lovers on theirs. David lives in Queens, NY with his wife, two cats, and ever-expanding bottle collection, and can often be found hunting the city for bottles he wants, not being able to find them, and resorting to secondary and auctions to keep the collection growing.

About the Author

David Levine

David Levine is the founder of the Whiskey in my Wedding Ring blog and host of The Whiskey Ring Podcast. A nonprofit fundraiser by day, David enjoys trying every whiskey (and other brown spirit) he can and sharing that experience with others after hours. He is on his own whiskey journey and loves nothing more than helping fellow whiskey lovers on theirs. David lives in Queens, NY with his wife, two cats, and ever-expanding bottle collection, and can often be found hunting the city for bottles he wants, not being able to find them, and resorting to secondary and auctions to keep the collection growing.

  • Ray Ford says:

    “Bottled at 80 proof OF more …” – is that a type-o that should read “Bottled at 80 proof OR more …”?