On the Trail

North by North Westland

David Driscoll

Being from California, I consider my state the spiritual home of the old west, the final destination for the entrepreneurial pioneers who headed West in search of gold. However, as I was reminded while visiting the Filson headquarters recently, the Pacific Northwest had its own spell of gold fever and Seattle’s industries at the time adapted to meet that impending influx of mountain men. The remnants of that era are still actively at work. When thinking of today’s technological boom, I suffer from the same sort of tunnel vision. I work right smack in the middle of Silicon Valley. I’m more than aware of what’s happening with continued expansion, population increases, and all of the headaches that come with that progression, but I forget that it’s happening elsewhere, too. Apparently, Seattle’s traffic has become an absolute nightmare due to the increase in population, and as Amazon expands its central campus, along with new developments from Expedia and Facebook, the city is racing to create more affordable housing in response. Much like San Francisco, Seattle is changing, adapting, and modifying itself in response to these pioneers of the new frontier. It’s in the middle of this transition that Westland Distillery looks to add itself to the modern age of Seattle’s industry leaders.

Westland Distillery is located in the SoDo neighborhood of Seattle; SoDo being short for South of Downtown district. It's like the SoMa region of San Francisco in both abbreviated name and character. There are warehouses and industry yards, along with modern-style lofts and architecture, intermixed with various states of urban neglect. It's as close to downtown Seattle as a single malt distillery can be as there are a lot of zoning issues that need to be addressed when you're distilling ethanol. Plus, how in the hell do you expect to take delivery of thousands of pounds of malted barley in a crowded city street? The distillery itself is located inside what was once the Ederer crane manufacturing building—a 13,000 square foot space that was established in 1919. Before being taken over, Ederer produced many of the beams in the retractable roof of Safeco Field, and there are remnants of that steel inside the revamped Westland site. Along with its sleek and modern decor, the furnishings of Westland are incredibly personal and mapped out with extreme detail.

It smells like malt from the moment you walk in; the blast of hot fermented grain envelopes your senses immediately. It's like walking into Glen Garioch or Springbank. It's familiar, yet we're nowhere near Scotland. The team at Westland is convinced that the Pacific Northwest is the spiritual home for single malt in the United States and have borrowed as much as they can from Scottish tradition and added in a few local twists to make something distinctly regional. To get into exactly what those specifics are, you have to talk to Westland's co-founder and master distiller: Matt Hofmann. The first thing he'll want to talk about is the grain. Matt could talk to you for hours just about malting and roasting barley; and for good reason: it's a largely unappreciated facet of single malt production that offers plenty of room for innovation. Unlike many Scottish distilleries I've visited, Westland is not using one type of barley from one particular place. They're not even using one singular recipe, and—much like Glenmorangie—they're experimenting with various roasting methods (some of the results taste like Grape Nuts). Because Matt's background and interests stem from brewing, his approach to single malt begins with the barley. To give you an idea of what's happening here, one of Westland's recipes contains 10% Munich barley from Germany, 12% "extra special" (that's the actual name) barley from Wisconsin, 4% roasted chocolate malt, and larger percentages of barley malted in Washington state. They also do a peated recipe using 100% peated barley from Scotland. Then there's a pale malt recipe, and variations within that. Which recipe they distill depends on the time of year and the need.

The stills are classic Scottish-style copper pots—one wash and one spirit—that produce a spirit Matt calls: "Double distillation with a twist." Westland uses a very unique process to accent to their already delicious new make. Portions of the discarded heads and tails are combined and redistilled separately (rather than being tossed back into a new batch), and the resulting spirit is married in later to the finished heart cut. It's a bi-weekly process that allows them to capture an incredibly fragrant whiskey, later used to spice up a marriage. Matt is so geeky about whiskey that he's blending his new make before it even goes into wood, but as the boys discovered later: they're not the only ones doing it. Apparently Mortlach distillery uses a similar process in their production, hence the oft-heard "2.5x distilled" when describing their Scottish single malt. In reality, it's a double-distillation with a third distillation on the side. The cuts at Westland are made by nosing the aromas of the spirit. "When it goes from Jolly Rancher fruit into actual fruit," Matt explained, "that's when you know it's time."

Production at Westland is enough to fill about six barrels a day. How those barrels are filled and into which barrels specifically, however, is a whole 'nother can of worms. If you thought Matt was particular about his grains, you should listen to him talk about wood. Westland is one of maybe a handful of distilleries that uses solely oak casks made from air-dried staves. They have two different types of new oak casks: those with staves air-dried for 18 months, and those with 24 months. It's like listening to someone talk about the benefits of dry-aged beef! Then—depending on the cask being used and if it's new oak, refill Bourbon, refill Sherry butt, or refill Sherry hogshead—the proof of the spirit itself must be altered. For example, Matt likes to fill new oak casks at 110 proof, but he might change it up for a refill cask. The reason being that the spirit acts differently with the wood at different percentages, and Matt is always looking to improve on that maturation process by examining the relationship between alcohol and oak. "But I do believe in 'hippie parenting' when it comes to whiskey," he told me. "You can't force a whisky to do what it doesn't want to do. You have to let it go where it wants to."

We began my visit to Westland with a ferry ride west, across Elliott Bay to Bremerton. Due to my many journeys to Islay—the mecca of single malt production off the western coast of Scotland—taking the ferry is something I naturally associate with whisky. It made complete sense that we would travel by boat to visit a Washington peat bog. Ferries and peat bogs go hand-in-hand in my mind. We hit land at the Bremerton dock and began the drive southwest to a small town called Shelton, where the Wright Brothers own a company called Organic Solutions, specializing in nursery, lawn, and garden needs—including peat moss. Behind the main building is a dusty path that leads to a six acre pond, created especially by Westland and Organic Solutions for the harvesting of local Washington peat.

What strikes you immediately about Islay—and really Scotland in general—are the colors. It’s all browns, greens, dark blues, and dark grays. With the exception of the timber, Western Washington shares much of that same natural color pattern. There’s a similarity in the feel of both locales—the cool breeze coming off the ocean, the moisture in the air, and the brooding darkness looming beyond the horizon. Let’s talk about peat for a minute (because not all peat is equal). Because the structure of peat depends on the decomposition of vegetable matter and minerals, the deeper down you cut into the earth, the more the composition of the peat itself begins to change. Top-cut peat, for example—the peat that’s closest to the surface level—is less broken down, and therefore less dense. When burned, it releases strong phenolics and it catches fire easily due to its more-fibrous structure. Most of what’s harvested for malting purposes is top-cut peat, dug out in rows along the surface of the Scottish bogs. Hence: many Islay whiskies carry the stronger, phenolic aromas and flavors from that matter.

What Westland is beginning to do, however, is very different from any other producer I’m aware of. They’re using a tractor to dig much deeper into the earth (up to thirty-five feet under the lake); extracting both middle-cut and bottom-cut peat as well, then separating the three groups to create a variety of peat options. When ignited, middle-cut peat creates a much milder smoke, whereas bottom-cut peat—with its incredibly-dense composition—burns slower and cooler, releasing lighter aromas and heathery notes. Using strictly the high temperatures of top-cut peat to dry one’s barley can have adverse consequences, however, such as damaging the structure and integrity of the barley itself. What Westland is looking to do is blend various cuts of peat to combine the slow-burning, cooler flame of the bottom-cut peat with some of the more-flavorful compounds of top-cut peat to increase the absorption of smoke, while creating a more dynamic set of aromatics and flavor. Westland is every bit as serious about the many possibilities of peat blending as they are about every other factor of their whisky production. It’s mind-boggling how deep they’re willing to go in the name of better booze (in this case, both literally and figuratively, with a "bog" pun thrown in for good measure).

Then it was time for yachting. Matt Freerks, Westland's sales director for Washington, absolutely cracks me up. He has this amazing look that really works for him. It's part Southern gentleman, part rockabilly, and part playboy. When we walked out of the museum and over to the docks, there he was: perched on the stern, one leg crossed over the other, holding a drink like it was the most natural thing in the entire world; like what else would he be doing at this very moment? We docked at Westward: another hip Seattle spot with amazing seafood and great views of the lake. The weather was perfect, the atmosphere heady, and the company warm and welcoming. There’s a real whiskey movement happening in the Pacific Northwest and it’s intoxicating. These guys not only put together one of the most incredible distilleries I've ever visited, they also invested in their own local peat bogs and their own local source of oak, and I must point this out here: Westland didn't go local because it was cool, trendy, or à la mode. They went local because they're in this game for the long haul, which was clear in the way they approached each facet of their business right from the start. In the modern spirits era where more than half of new distilleries are speculative investments, these kids wanted to build a dynasty.

Now let's talk about that aforementioned local oak. Westland's upcoming limited release of 2500 bottles is called "Garryana" and it uses Quercus Garryana white oak to mature the whiskey. Garryana is a species native to the Pacific Northwest, hence Westland's branding of the whiskey as part of its "native oak series." Let me add some perspective here: I've tasted dozens of spirits over the last few months that stress locality—local botanicals, local water, local native yeasts, local barley, local fruit, and even other examples of locally-coopered oak barrels. Few of them tasted unique. Even fewer of them tasted good. It's important for me to make that clear because my fear is that Garryana is going to get bogged down in the saturated sea of similarly-marketed spirits when it's clearly the cream of the crop. When you smell the new Westland Garryana, you instantly inhale something special. When you taste the new Westland Garryana, you draw back quickly from the intensity. There's a roasted, seasoned flavor on entry. It's oak, but it's not your standard American oak profile. It's exotic and alive, brimming with spiced vanilla and toasted goodness. What's even more interesting is that only 21% of the blend was aged in Garryana oak. The other 79% was aged in standard Quercus Alba oak, leading me to take distiller and blender Matt Hofmann seriously when he says "Garryana is not Quercus Alba, nor does it behave like it, as we've quickly discovered." 

Personally, I'd recommend getting a bottle when it arrives. But, of course, you should really go and see Westland for yourself. Your appreciation of the whiskey triples after you understand what it took to make it.

-David Driscoll