Friday 5 April 2019

Westward - getting to know Miles Munroe, Lead Distiller (Tasted #449)

Launching last month in Australia is a new single malt 'whiskey' from the Portland, Oregon. Well known for its hipster and craft culture, it is no surprise to see a craft single malt whiskey borne out of one of the most diverse, food-centric city in the United States. As a category, American single malts are still uncommon as compared to its bourbon brethren though the category is growing, riding on the wave of the boom in scotch and new world single malt whiskies globally. According to International Wine & Spirit Research (IWSR), the American single malts category grew 131% from 2014 through to 2017 which is a significant growth over a mere three years.

Craft distillation is also growing at a staggering rate in United States with different distillers driving a range of innovations to mold and shape the quality of their whisky. Miles Munroe, Westward Lead Distiller told us that Westward, like others, are continuing to explore various innovative techniques and have been given the freedom and flexibility through which they can do this in. Their latest bottling, Westward Stout Cask Finish is a result of a collaboration between Westward and various local breweries and he is also exploring cask finishes and other ways to alter the farm to table approach so as to influence the overall profile of the final whisky.

Those with keen eyes may have picked up that Westward has actually been in existence for some time. In fact, Westward has been making whiskey since Christian Krogstad, Founder of Westward founded House Spirits 15 years ago. Though the focus significantly changed in 2015 when, under the direction of current CEO and co-owner Thomas Mooney, Westward built its current Portland, Oregon distillery. Westward became the largest independent distiller of American single malt whiskey with a daily production quota of around 3,000 gallons of pale ale whiskey wash. Prior, releases have been single barrels and in smaller quantity. Facing the same challenges as smaller Australian distilleries, there was never enough barrels mature enough to blend and to supply the local and global markets. This all changed when production ramped up with the new Portland distillery.

Embracing the "farm to table, grain to glass" phenomenon worldwide, Westward is brewed and distilled using locally malted Pacific Northwest barley and ale yeast. The style takes inspiration from Portland's craft brewing culture and in fact, if you research Westward notes, it has often been said that Westward does exhibit beer like profile which makes it quite distinct though may detract some from the product. The production sees Westward double pot distilled and matured in American Oak newly charred barrels for a couple of years before being mingled in batches and bottled at 45% ABV (the ABV has remained the same since its single barrel days).

In September last year, Westward, shared similar news to another distillery with a similar name, Starward - they announced a strategic investment from Diageo via Distill Ventures; Diageo's independent spirits accelerator entity. The investment has accelerated investment in the brand, enabled capacity expansion by around 40% and allow Westward to meet its growing demand.

I sat down with Miles Munroe last month to hear more from him on the brand and what we can expect.
1. How did you become the Lead Distiller for Westward? 
As a bit of history, I've got a biology background but really I wasn' using it that much until I started managing this whisky bar in Kansas City, Missouri at the top floor of this ancient steakhouse, a classic roost there. I was given an opportunity to work with lots of single malt whiskies that I have never come across. 
Growing up in the states it was bourbon and if you wanted something nice, it was small batch bourbon so it was exciting to experience this massive collection so I decided to taste my way through. 
That's when I had this epiphany, it was something that I wanted to get involved with, to create and be part of. What struck me the most about single malt was its variability. Not only from region to region but from producer to producer, you can sense their style, technique and it's something I've ever experienced with whisky before. The whole thing actually started with Edradour, back in 2005. 
There was a lot kicking around at the time and I had this realisation on the limitless possibilities in the way you can modify barley during the malting process and how it can be handled in different ways. There are really limitless ways to create just from the one raw material. Growing up in the states, there's a lot of corn whisky and it's not something that really featured in the final spirit and this contrasts with barley where it does feature in the final spirit. That was what really kicked it off. 
The journey with Westward started when I became a brewer, going to tasting, eventually hosting tasting, talking to any brand ambassadors, reps I could find. I was reading this quote, essentially a good single malt is a beer first. If I wanted to be a great single malt maker and have something to contribute to the world of single malt,  I should become a brewer first, understand fermentation at that level, understand the nuances of the different yeast strains and what those can do as far as flavour profiles go. I went to Portland and studied at the American Brewers Guild and studied Brewing Science and Engineering and became a brewer. But the intention has always to get to distillation, single malt specifically. 
I brewed beers for a few years in Portland and worked for some great craft breweries. The idea was to brew in Portland for a while then move to Scotland, potentially Japan. But in the meantime, I started to hear about Westward. Whispers around town was about this distillery that was starting a single malt label. So obviously I was immediately fascinated and I started knocking on their door and bugging them about it and eventually I was brought on. 
It was an interesting time for Westward, they were just starting to build up the stock so they've started to bottle these half bottles, single barrel, half bottles, it was what was available at the time because we had do one barrel at a time. It wasn't an exvluexcl thing, it was what was there. 
When I was hired in March 2013, they actually hadn't turned the whisky still on since the previous October. I was brought on because of my brewing experience to help develop the flavour profile of Westward a bit more and actually produce a lot more of the spirit. At the time I was the only Production Distiller and there was a Distiller that hired me on but he had to take on operation duties so it was just me and the stills. I had no idea whether it was going to work. The Distiller that brought me on was an ex brewer, the founder, Christian Krogstad, was also an ex brewer so I knew I was in good hands. 
2. The number one challenge facing Australian whisky is the lack of supply. What are the biggest challenges you're facing at the moment? 
The first bottlings were put out six months before I was hired on. It wasn't very well known but for people that spotted it, it attracted an influx of collectors thinking it was a very exclusive thing but in fact it was our (limited) supply so we had to raise the price, almost to an absurd amount to slow down people from snatching it all up. 
We were conscious of that from the beginning, your supply needs to meet demand from the market. That's tough with whisky when you're not sourcing the spirit and when you're making it from scratch, grain to glass, that takes time, that takes money, takes patience and so I don't think we were ever short in supply as we never had overreach but over the six years that I've been there, we had fits and starts. There have been a few times where we had overreach a little bit here and there. 
I'm very thankful that I've always been trusted with the final say on when the whisky is ready. Even when we were trying to grow a little more in certain markets, in certain ways, it was up to me to decide when it was actually going to hit the bottle. Which I think is also a rarity, especially when you're talking about putting all this money into this product that just has to sit there and take time without a whole lot of revenue, without return on investment but I'm privileged to be in that position to have the final say.
On the contrary, we have also had other issue growing up as a distillery, there's this funny role reversal recently. In 2015, we built a distillery that was designed specifically to make a lot more of Westward. It was great to grow and design this facility the way we want to. The Director and I studied at the same Brewing School and we studied how to grow a distillery, the logistic and it was great to sit down and plot your dream distillery. We moved into there and started hiring more Distillers and we grew from about 4-6 barrels of whisky a month to 20 barrels a week, huge expansion. But that stock wasn't going to be ready for more years. Fast forward to early this year, there's almost a role reversal now where the stocks have been maturing for around 3 years and as of the last few months the view have changed from "when's the whisky ready, when's the whisky ready, please package more" to now where we are opening the floodgates. 
3. What do you think will be the next big thing on the whisky scene? and the American whiskey scene? 
I know what we would like to see people become more savvy, to rid of this stigma against blended whisky. In the US, we associate blended whisky with cheap Canadian whisky. There's demerit there. 
But I love what the Japanese have been doing for years now. It would be amazing to see more craft blended whisky in that (Japanese) style, some triple aged grain spirit with great old malt which makes some fantastic whisky. Because I think that's something that people, at least in the states tend to baulk at, we have access to so much whiskies and at such a low price. You can try something else, craft whiskies at a bit higher price but people get put off by it 
As far as the trend goes, and once people become familiar and shake off the idea that more age is better quality, they can then enjoy younger whisky. We are also featuring more of the raw material aspect and not age the whisky too much otherwise various elements will disappear. To see more blended style, make it more approachable, great entry whisky and you can bring the price down 
4. Without giving away any secrets, what are some of the styles or trends we might expect over the next couple of years? More finishing, more multi-cask bottlings, more single cask bottlings etc? 
We built this new distillery to build our core, our flagship. It's a lot of work to make that consistently at our scale. We get creative here and there. We're also Distillers, ex-Brewers and always keen to try something new. A couple of weeks ago we tried stout cask finish. 
We're also developing a partnership with a brewery in Oregon, Deschutes, to make a lot more of the stout cask finish bottlings. I'll be sending a couple hundred of recently empty barrels to them where they age the stock and they'll send back and as a second expression, get it outside the states and eventually outside the country and I'd love to send it here. 
Portland is in the Willamette Valley which is known for its Pinot Noir, excellent, excellent Pinot Noir and so there's plenty of winemakers and they also want to give us some of their barrels too and in the spirit of new world whisky and in the spirit of American single malt. Rather than putting our whisky in sherry or port, why not put our whisky in a local winery that is more renown. 
I find younger whisky responds a little better and again, we're so careful to not want to over oak or mask any of those grain and fermentation flavours that something a little less assertive than a sherry, something like pinot noir barrel elements, it's got a nice light toast on it, I think pairs perfectly with whisky and allow attributes to shine through without stepping all over it, like sherry flavoured whisky. we're doing some finish with some pinot 
We've also experimented here and there with 10% malted rye, 30% midnight wheat, just to see what comes out. 
As brewers, we have an idea of what the mash and fermentation are going to be like and we have a pretty good idea of what the new make is going to be like. 
We have been collaborating with other brewers around the city and around the states where we actually invite them and sit down with them to drink our whisky and rink their beer and we talk about what beer would make a good single malt. 
5. You've been with Westward, since 2013. If you had to pick one highlight moment, one moment that made you proud, what would it be? 
Highlights, I think, I have to say, the biggest highlight for me was being a part of the team to plan out and plot the new facility. Getting in there was exciting but our hands were tied financially, equipment wise, capacity - so being able to build the new facility ground up, that was incredibly exciting!

Here are my notes on the new Westward 'blended' single malt whiskey:

Westward 700mL (45% ABV, NAS, Blend, Portland, Oregon, A$129)

Colour: Bronze

Nose: The nose is striking, rich and sharp - you can smell a bit of beer here. Honey, molasses, treacle, cinnamon scroll, oak, caramel, vanilla, orange peel, mint

Palate: The palate is soft and light with growing orange citrus note, peppermint, dark chocolate butterscotch followed by cinnamon and black pepper,

Finish:  The finish is drying, waxing, there is a subtle herbal note that  slowly disappears leaving a trickle of, fresh peppermint

Rating (on Hendy's very non-scientific scale): 91/100

Westward makes its Australian debut via an exclusive partnership with Baranows Emporium, a premium spirits distributor that has been behind the rollout of brands including Diplomatico rum, Monkey 47 gin (prior to the Pernod-Ricard takeover), and Tapatio tequila.

Thanks to Miles Munroe for travelling all the way down to Australia and sharing his stories with us. I'd also like to thank Margo Jamieson from House Spirits, the team from Barranows for inviting us.


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