Kate Johnston Deconstructs American Single Malt Whiskey

Virginia Distillery Company’s Sales Director, Kate Johnston sat down with Bonfort’s to discuss the single malt category and American producers’ place within it, and moreover, the on- and off-premise licensees role in educating their customers on what is American Single Malt Whiskey?

Virginia Distillery Company (VDC) is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Nelson County, Virginia, about 30 minutes south of Charlottesville on Route 29. The company is set to release its ultra-premium American Single Malt Whiskey that is 100% distilled and aged on-site in the spring of 2020. The flagship product willo be a combination of ex-bourbon, sherry and retoasted wine casks, fully aged and matured in the distillery’s cask houses.

Kate Johnston

VDC’s Single Malt is currently being distilled onsite using malted barley from the U.S. and water from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

BONFORT’S: Describe the growth of the American single malt whisk(e)y category over the past few years.

JOHNSTON: The Single Malt Category as a whole grew 13 % in 2016 according to DISCUS and continued to see growth in 2017 and into 2018. We’re excited to meet the growing enthusiasm for the category by offering our 100% produced on-site American Single Malt in 2020, and will be one of the largest, if not the largest, independently owned producers of American Single Malt in the country. The distillery is currently producing 80,000 4.5L cases of the American Single Malt product with plans to continue increasing production.

BONFORT’S: Will the category formalize more in the near future?

JOHNSTON: Awareness as a whole will continue to increase as more producers enter the field to educate consumers and trade on the category. The American Single Malt Commission, which we’re proud to be a founding member of, formed to ask TTB for standards and definitions for the category. This is an important piece as we look to lesson confusion on shelf as to what is, and is not, an American Single Malt.

 

Photo Credit: Tom Daly

BONFORT’S: Is the flavor profile changing with changing demographics?

JOHNSTON: My personal theory is all consumers graduate from profiles. For example, with wine, you typically don’t see people starting out with tannic wines. They generally start with a more fruit-forward style and then graduate as their tastes evolve. We have seen bourbon and rye boom in the last decade, and while I still expect the category to yield growth, I do expect the eventual graduation of consumers into more sophisticated categories as they age.

BONFORT’S: Why are more women drinking whiskey?

JOHNSTON: I think women and consumers, in general, have been educating themselves and expanding their palate and options beyond what they “should” be drinking. We’ve seen market share increase in bolder and more dynamic categories, like Cognacs, Mezcals, and Malts over the recent years.

BONFORT’S: What categories is whiskey moving into, taking over, replacing?

JOHNSTON: As consumers become more interested in whiskey, they seem to be trading in beer and to a lesser degree, wine.

BONFORT’S: What should mixologists know about the properties of creating a cocktail using single malt whiskey?

JOHNSON: Cocktails featuring single malt offer the consumer an introduction to the category, especially those who might not have had the best first experience. I have heard it a thousand times in tastings and events, “I don’t like single malt, the first one I had tasted like medicine.” Not all single malt is created equally, and for good reason. Single malt allows its consumers to develop and blossom into a plethora of age statements, styles and finishes. I find a cocktail that’s playful, yet traditional allows for consumers to try a spirit they might not normally go to. From Rob Roys and Black Manhattans to Tiki Cocktails, cocktails can make a daunting category seem more approachable.

BONFORT’S: How should a retailer approach a customer who “doesn’t know what they like yet?”

JOHNSTON: Tasting. If a state allows it, we encourage the retailer to offer a taste to the consumer or host instore tastings. At Virginia Distillery Company, we educate retailers, their teams and welcome anyone to visit our distillery while spending as much time as possible getting to know our partners. And malted barley is expensive, so the price tag can be a hurdle. Our relationship with retailers is key, because they are the front line with the consumer.

BONFORT’S: What are five things everyone should know about single malt?

JOHNSTON:

  1. Single malt is made of 100% malted barley.
  2. Single malt is produced at a single distillery (different barrels may be married together at the distillery, but the producing distillery is the same).
  3. Single malts come from regions all over the world.
  4. Not all single malts are peated. There are plenty of styles from all regions of the world which work with unpeated barley to produce single malts.
  5. There is a difference between smoke and peat in single malt whiskey. Smoke can be attributed to barrel char and can be a different smell not linked solely to the use of peated barley.

BONFORT’S: What do you think is the main misunderstanding about single malts?

JOHNSTON: Not all single malt whiskey is peated. It is one of the biggest misconceptions about the category and worth repeating. At Virginia Distillery Company, we work with unpeated barley to produce our American Single Malt.

Staffed by a local Virginia team mentored by Scottish consultants with decades of experience, Virginia Distillery Company produced 1,000 casks during 2016, its first full year of operation. At full capacity, the distillery can produce over 8,000 casks yielding 350,000 4.5L cases annually.

Cask House Bottle Array
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