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Roasted Malt's Role in the New Whisky Frontier

Roasted Malt's Role in the New Whisky Frontier

By Matt Hamill

Big, roasty, chocolaty notes in whisky are something that I can’t get enough of! So, I interviewed the distillers that I thought were doing it the best. It just so happens that some of the best examples are close to home!

History of Single Malt

Single Malt Whisky is a spirit that is rooted deeply in tradition. Adherence to stringent standards creates products that are sought after around the world. Scotland has a massive head start on the rest of the world in having methods and ingredients perfected: barley that is intended for whisky production (non-gn, flavourful), wood sources and coopers, peat bogs and mature spirits / blending stock. In Canada, our whisky is known for being distilled in continuous column stills as single grains (often rye), aged (often in ex-bourbon charred American oak barrels) and blended into a mainstream, ultra-consistent product.

It's a challenging market to break into, but we’re seeing progress. Younger, Canadian distilleries are showing they have something to add to the world of local, single-malt whiskies. Of course, we should have a prominent role in crafting single malt whiskies, our rich, black, prairie soils, warm summer days and cool evenings provide ideal conditions for growing some of the world’s best barley. We have access to pristine glacial water sources and a wide range of climates for maturation facilities.

Canada’s first round of craft distillers making single malts have done a great job producing whisky Canada can be proud of: Glenora, Two Brewers, Shelter Point, Macalony Caledonia and others have well-regarded single malt programs. They, and the next generation of craft distillers are now seeking ways to further innovate while remaining true to the single malt tradition. Roasted malts provide a whole arsenal of tools for this sort of innovation. Bringing in stronger flavours of coffee, chocolate, caramel, and baking are welcome additions to aged spirits. We interviewed a handful of distillers to find out how they’ve incorporated roasted malts into their single malt programs and what we found is that we are truly at the start of a new frontier. 

 

Who We Talked To

Our panel included Alan Hansen and Tyson Baxter from Two Brewers Whisky in Whitehorse, YT. They are whisky pioneers in Canada and one of the first to bring their beer brewing expertise to the world of whisky. Their releases are categorized into Classic, Peated, Special Finishes, and Innovative. Within their Innovative program they have already released six offerings using roasted malts. 

Next on the panel is Garret Haynes from GrainHenge Whisky/Troubled Monk in Red Deer, AB. Garret was from the first graduating class of the Olds College Brewmasters Program. He was the first head brewer at Troubled Monk where he quickly made a name for himself picking up a World Beer Cup award for their Open Road Brown Ale. This recipe, with its substantial inclusion of roasted malts, was the inspiration for their first whisky release which was met with critical acclaim.

Matt Strickland is a distiller, author, consultant, and all-around expert in the world of whisky. He's the brain behind Dram Science, and is also headed towards a new project: Iron City Distilling in Pittsburgh, PA (using a 3-chamber still to make rye in a very traditional way.) His impressive distilling resume includes stops at Cotes des Saintes Distillerie in Quebec and Corsair Distillery in Tennessee where he helped develop one of the most widely recognized whiskies using roasted malts: Dark Rye.

Julia Le is the head distiller at The Fort Distillery in Fort Saskatchewan, AB. She is a rising force in the Canadian distilling industry. Julia and the Fort Distillery will enjoy a lot of increased attention for landing a contract with Rogers Place to showcase their spirits at the home of the Edmonton Oilers.

With a background in farming, Patrick Evans was always familiar with barley production. Initially interested in getting the most from barley as a nutrition source for livestock he spent his second career using the highest grade malting barley to craft single malt whiskies. Shelter Point Distillery's beautiful location on Vancouver Island in Campbell River, BC offers the opportunity to age whisky next to the Pacific Ocean. An in-house built smoker has allowed them to play around with infusing flavour into spirits through grain, and through barrels.

Stephane Pilon, is virtually unknown in the distillery world as Diony Distillery does not have a product on the market yet. Located in Red Deer County, AB, their singular focus on whisky means they don’t have a vodka or gin providing a product to open a tasting room or having a product on the market while the aged spirits mature. But expect to get to know Stephane and Diony Distilling as a quick riser in the Canadian world of whisky as their products have reached the minimum aging requirements and are nearing bottling and release. Some of his first products will be whiskies with malt bills that lean heavily on roasted malts.


The Interviews

What roasted malts have you used so far?

Tyson Baxter - Two Brewers Whisky: To date, we’ve used Black malt (Pauls), Chocolate malt (Pauls/Dingemanns/Bairds depending on supply) and Brown malt (Bairds) in whisky mashes. Notably missing from that list is anything grain sold as “Roasted Barley”, which one might think is the first thing we’d reach for to get a roasted profile. That’s simply because most Roasted Barley products we’ve found use un-malted barley, and we use only malted grains in our whiskies in order to call our whisky “single malt”.
The whiskies that we’ve released that included roasted malts were all done with Black and/or Chocolate malts, the Brown malt is something we’ve only begun to use recently. The whisky made from Brown malt is still too young to be meaningfully sampled but just going by aromas, I’d say that all three malts
provide similar roasty profiles. A lot of the time, we’ll vary something just a little, like which roast malt is used, so that if we ever combine them, they are at least partially additive to the flavour profile, rather than just being younger or more mature versions of the same thing. If we’re going to go to the trouble
of blending each release, we may as well give ourselves a broader spectrum of profiles to use.

Garret Haynes - GrainHenge Whisky: We have used a wide variety of roasted malts in our whisky projects so far, including: Biscuit, Victory, Amber, Brown, a variety of Crystal malts, Crystal Rye, Chocolate Malt, Chocolate Rye. 

Matt Strickland - Iron City Distilling: Admittedly, it has been a few years since I've used roasted malt of any type in whisky, though that has more to do with the various products I just happen to focus on these days. Roasted malt, when used judiciously can add some really nice flavours to whisky. In the past I've used chocolate rye, coffee malt, roasted barley and a few others that escape my memory.

Julia Le - The Fort Distillery: We have used Kananaskis, Biscuit and Chocolate Malt so far

Stephane Pilon - Diony Distillery: Light Chocolate


How much of the grain bill being roasted malts have you experimented with?

Tyson Baxter - Two Brewers Whisky: We have essentially tried two versions of the roast levels in our grain bill. For something very roast-forward, we use about 30% roasted malts, and for something where the roast is intended to be more complimentary, we use 8-10% roasted malts. And we don’t necessarily just use a base malt for the rest of the grain bill, we’ve combined roasted malts with Munich malt (light and dark), Wheat malt and even Beechwood Smoked malt.  

Garret Haynes - GrainHenge Whisky: With lighter roasted malts we can use quite a bit.  We have already laid down a couple of barrels using 100% Red Shed Biscuit Malt which smell absolutely lovely and we can't wait for the mature spirit to come out of those barrels.  Our GrainHenge Meeting Creek release was just over 33% roasted
malts and we have a couple of projects in barrels with as much as 30% roasted malts.

Matt Strickland - Iron City Distilling: In my experience it varies from recipe to recipe and HOW the whisky is mashed and fermented can have an impact on this as well. For instance, on grain mashes and fermentations seem to take up quite a bit more of the roasted flavours than off grain ferments, so lesser amounts of the
grain are needed. In off-grain recipes, I've used percentages ranging from 4-22% (the upper range was quite intense but it did win some really nice awards). In on-grain recipes I found that I needed to stick to under 1% or else the flavour could be too overbearing. But a lot of this has to do with style as well and what the distiller (and their customers) deems acceptable.

Julia Le - The Fort Distillery: I have experimented with up to 40% roasted malts. The sugar content really drops when you get the really roasted malts, the enzymes also decrease significantly. I find if you use somewhere between 10-20% you can get maximum flavour. If you go above 10% and use raw grains (wheat, oats, rye) I find
that you need to add enzymes. If you don't, I tend to see the conversion rate drop

Stephane Pilon - Diony Distillery: 35%


Are you putting away barrels of whisky with strongly roasted flavours and blending with other whiskies? Or are you putting it in barrels with a roast level you intend to have in the final product?

Tyson Baxter - Two Brewers Whisky: We are mostly putting away barrels of whisky that have a stronger roasted flavour than the finished whisky. In general our default with flavours like that, whether it’s roast or peat smoke, is to lean
heavy with the flavour profile, knowing we can blend the flavour back a bit at the end. We’ll frequently want to be blending our whiskies regardless, having barrels with “too much” roasted flavour allows us to think about where the roasted whisky may be lacking, whether that’s body, aroma, the front or back of the palette, and select non-roasted whisky to blend in and fill those gaps while still retaining a good level of that roasted flavour profile. Our two releases of roast-focused whisky, Release 14 and 32, were 63% and 60% roasted whisky respectively.
 
All of that said, we do have a recent roasted mash that’s been earmarked as a potential single-barrel or single-mash release, which would mean that if it continues to mature nicely it could be released to the market without being blended with anything else. And that mash was designed intentionally to have a
level of roast flavour that would be suited to a finished product, rather than being designed to be blended with other whisky.

Garret Haynes - GrainHenge Whisky: When we conceive a whisky project, we start locking into the flavour profile from the moment we start writing the wash recipe.  We make adjustments to our vision as we get to taste and smell the product at each stage but typically the new make spirit enters the barrel as something we feel will make a whisky we can be proud of all on its own.  However, I feel that the blender can have at least as much of an impact on the final flavour of a whisky as the brewer and distiller.  Therefore, almost every barrel we have is viewed as a tool and is fair game for blending to make the best whisky possible.  We also love to experiment so there are exceptions to every rule.  Sometimes we will fill a barrel knowing we intend to blend it into other projects but also quietly hope that it develops into something amazing in its own right so we have to re-evaluate its destiny.

Matt Strickland - Iron City Distilling: I'm sure some folks are doing that, but no. I never felt the need to blend anything out or down. We always released products on their own.

Julia Le - The Fort Distillery: We have some barrels of single malts that will be ready in a few years that have both chocolate and high kilned malt, the toasted flavours are definitely the most prominent flavour. They are being aged in ex bourbon barrels so I'm hoping that the malt is the star and the barrel has a lower influence on taste.

Patrick Evans - Shelter Point Distillery: Both, some cask have a char of 1-4 and depending on the type of finished product we are looking at we may choose to mash in / distill 100% chocolate malt ****which is not easy ** but we will
have a concentrated spirit 

Stephane Pilon - Diony Distillery: No blending so far. Marriage plans for barrels are being explored. The plan thus far is to use the roasted malt as part of the mash bill to replace any and all barley. We have a 3 grain spirit and if we use roasted malt, we ensure it is the case for this grain for the entire amount of this particular grain for the
mashbill.

How do roasted malts and peat levels interact?

Alan Hansen - Two Brewers Whisky: I took this question to mean how do they compare in their interactions, as opposed to interacting together. The roast flavours I have found to be very delicate in nature; although they can be quite pronounced, they are very easily overpowered and can disappear in a blend. Peated malts are quite the opposite, with a very strong and lingering profile, which makes them ideal for blending, as usage in quite small proportions can add complexity in blends that you wouldn’t know Have peat content in them. 

Garret Haynes - GrainHenge Whisky: I love the way you think.  We haven't had a chance to learn the answer to that question but you can bet we have asked it.

Matt Strickland - Iron City Distilling: This is an interesting question! To be honest, I'm not sure. To make it work, you'd need to find the right source of peat, probably something with a lot of floral character.

Julia Le - The Fort Distillery: At low concentrations, the roasted malts interact really nicely with any roasted malt. Mixing peated malt with a heavier roast, like chocolate malt, gives a very unique flavor. Some people might find this off-putting because the flavor is very intense and complex. I am hoping that with time in the barrel, the product will be much more mellow and palatable 

Patrick Evans - Shelter Point Distillery: Scotch has peat from decomposed heather bogs, On Vancouver Island we have sourced our own peat, our objective is to create our own terrier for our region 

Stephane Pilon - Diony Distillery: This can be a complex answer as the char of the barrel, and environmental temperature variations surrounding the cask can all impart different influences during the aging process. So far, the roasted grain will not necessarily impart peaty or smoky flavours but rather a coco bean flavour. 

How has the roasted flavour changed between young and mature spirits?

Tyson Baxter - Two Brewers Whisky: The roasted flavour is pretty persistent in our whisky. It does mellow a bit over time, as most of the whisky flavours do, and become more cohesive with the other whisky flavours but in our limited experience (we’ve only had two batches of roasted whisky reach maturity) it’s largely the other whisky flavours that change around the flavours that you’d associate with roasted malts. That’s not insignificant, the introduction of mature oak flavours goes a long way to rounding out the roasted flavours that can otherwise be a bit abrasive (although young whisky as a whole is pretty abrasive).
Alan Hansen - Two Brewers Whisky: I have found the mashes we have done take some years for the roasted character to actually develop in the liquid. In the early years it is difficult to determine if the roast character is actually distinct, but after 4-5 years in the barrel that character, dry cracker and toast, really starts to shine through. It really is a delicate flavour profile, one of my favourites so far!!

Garret Haynes - GrainHenge Whisky: Our maturation program is still pretty young so I don't have a lot of information to base my thoughts on but in my experience the roasted malts do feel a little sharper at first and mellow a bit over time. I often get a nuttyness from those malts that can start with a sort of raw edge to them like peanuts or walnuts that becomes more hazelnut and almond over time. The chocolate character also starts a little bit more bitter like dark chocolate in the new make but softens with age. Not quite like milk chocolate but it feels more complex like a blend of chocolates rather than one note of bitter chocolate. The roasted malt character also seems to diminish a little as more barrel character develops.
I am not sure that they are actually dropping off or just sticking out less as other flavours come up.

Matt Strickland - Iron City Distilling: It typically comes off a bit rough in young spirit, but the sharp angles tend to smooth out with the addition of oak and time. A couple of years can do wonders for those whiskies.

Julia Le - The Fort Distillery: The roasted flavour definitely changes over time. Our oldest spirit with roasted malt is about 2 years old. We have some samples of it when it was a white whisky. Extremely sweet with a hit of nuttyness. The aging spirit is very warm and toasty. I would say in the barrel the sharpness of the roasted malts decreases, or that the spirit mellows out. The roasted malts add a completely new
dimension of flavour. Currently, the whisky we have ageing with roasted malts are single malts. The plain single malts are typically just sweet. With the roasted malt, it adds a whole new depth of flavour, it adds lots of nuttiness, grainy, cerealy taste.

Patrick Evans - Shelter Point Distillery: Whisky is what beer wants to be when it grows up :) experiments and casks we do today we will not see the results for us minimum 5 years 

Stephane Pilon - Diony Distillery: Roasted flavours can be more pronounced over time. Oak notes complementing the roasted flavour will also impact the complexity the roasted flavour has to offer. 


What whiskies have you released featuring roasted malts?

Tyson Baxter - Two Brewers Whisky: Most recently we have released Two Brewers Release 32, which was a roast-focused release. It’s sold out at the distillery but there are still some bottles out there at private retailers, especially in Alberta. We’ve also used some roasted whisky in 5 previous releases - Releases 11, 14, 15, 16 and 27. None of those older releases are likely to be on shelves anywhere but some bottles may still be out there in whisky drinkers’ home collections.

Garret Haynes - GrainHenge Whisky: Our very first release, GrainHenge Meeting Creek, contained over 33% roasted malts. The rest of our projects using roasted malts are still in barrels but keep your eyes peeled because they are coming and we are very excited.

Julia Le - The Fort Distillery: Our Whisky release next summer (hopefully) will be a single malt with chocolate and high kilned malt aging in a recouped wine barrel. It is an absolutely unique flavour that no one in Alberta has done yet

Patrick Evans - Shelter Point Distillery: Smoke Point has been a whisky that has done very well , not your traditional peat ed type but rather west coast beach fire....

Stephane Pilon - Diony Distillery: We are truly excited to feature Red Sheds Light Chocolate Malted Barley in a future release. We believe this whisky will offer a depth not seen in most unflavored whiskies. Our samples have revealed an evolving taste through time. The full benefits of this malt has yet to reach its peak, continuous sampling and tasting is telling us that the aging process is still not complete.

 

What’s next?

Whisky is, of course, a sensory experience that is subjective to the taster. For many people, experiencing these roasted and chocolate flavours in a well-rounded whisky is sufficient, however, there are those who are diving deeper to try and quantify and explain the impact to help other distillers succeed in catching lightning in a bottle. Whiskey Flavour Scientist and Heriot-Watt PhD student Rutele Marciulionyte has released a paper "Roasted Malt for Distilling: Impact on Malt Whisky New Make Spirit Production and Aroma Volatile Development" quantifying some of the impact of roasted malts in whisky. Increased levels of roasted malts have been associated with increased levels of heat-derived, flavour-active molecules. More studies are underway to further determine how to best control and take advantage of these flavours in whisky. Of course, it will take years for the studies to be completed and their findings to be implemented at distilleries, in the meantime, Canada is showing it is the place to experience these flavours in great whisky.

 

I can’t wait! 

Since some of the whiskies mentioned in this article are not yet in market or were released a while ago and most bottles are stashed in well rounded whisky collections, here are some other products from these fine distillers that you can get your hands on now!

Two Brewers Whisky: Release 27, this release features some dark roasted malts, it has long been sold out at the distillery, but somehow there are still limited bottles available at Kensington Wine Market (along with several of their other releases) in Calgary and Sherbrooke in Edmonton. This whisky won a gold medal at the Canadian Whisky Awards earlier this year.

GrainHenge Whisky: Alliance, this corn whisky is available exclusively at Wine & Beyond

Iron City Distilling: We were so lucky to have Matt contribute his knowledge to our article. Corsair’s Dark Rye can take credit for getting me onto the trail of spirits with roasted malts, if you find yourself in Tennessee I strongly recommend tracking down a bottle (or a mini can!). If you’re in Quebec, track down some Cote des Saints products. If you’re patient, follow Matt to his next venture Iron City Distilling in Pittsburgh. If you want to hear more insight into whisky production, get a copy of one of Matt’s books or
check out his website dramscience.com

The Fort Distillery: Heartwood Whisky Release 2. Release 1 is long gone, Release 2 is getting released just in time for Christmas and is also an exclusive at Wine & Beyond.

Shelter Point Distillery: Monfort Single Malt, grown, distilled and bottled at a single location! This single grain whisky was awarded a best in class, gold medal with distinction and an award for merit in terroir at the 2022 Artisan Spirit Awards.

 

 

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