American single malt maker Westward Whiskey has grown quickly in line with rising appreciation for innovation in its home market, and has now singled out Australia as its next opportunity.
Westward, which is one of a growing band of so-called 'new world' distillers to settle in the craft brewing hub of Portland in Oregon, has risen to become one the largest independent distillers of American single malt whiskey.
The construction of its new distillery in 2015, when it became the anchor of Portland’s Distillery Row, enabled it to increase capacity six-fold, and in September last year, things ramped up again. Thanks to a strategic investment from Diageo via its craft spirits accelerator Distill Ventures, Westward announced an ambitious expansion plan to increase production by 40 percent this year.
With new markets in mind, Westward's first major export push is now kicking off in Australia. The reasoning behind this choice, according to CEO and co-owner Thomas Mooney, is that Westward brings a style that is “both familiar and revolutionary to whiskey enthusiasts in Australia”.
According to Mooney, Australia is considered a “thought-leader within the global craft whiskey community”. Australia, along with Canada and the UK, is also one of the top three markets for both US spirits exports and American whiskeys, with US exports to Australia growing 64 per cent over the last decade.
In Australia this week to launch Westward was lead distiller Miles Munroe, who manages the Westward distilling production team and oversees all operations within the distiller's warehouse, a 28,000 square foot facility that maintains an inventory of more than 3000 barrels of aging whiskey.
Munroe was hired by Westward in 2013 to increase production, and although he started out as the company’s only production distiller, making up to two barrels per week, today he manages a team six distillers who collectively produce 25 barrels per week.
Munroe was recently inspired to incorporate stout beer into a cask finish, which he felt would pair well with Westward’s signature characteristics, resulting in a four-year aged Westward resting for eight months in an Imperial Stout barrel that will launch later this year.
Munroe told Food & Drink Business that collaborating with other Portland distillers was an important part of Westward's growth story, with the company helping to forge a strong business support network there, along similar lines to the collegiate approach found in Tasmania's whisky industry, led by pioneers such as Bill and Lyn Lark of Lark Distillery.
“Westward has been around since 2004, so we started a collective with other distillers as they popped up around us,” Munroe says. “It has officially become a group, and we still meet once a month, and we continue to add new members.
“In the States, this is unique to Portland, this culture of support that we give each other. There's strength in numbers, and together we can do things such as share knowledge and push for new legislation.”
By working together, Munroe says, Portland's distillers have also managed to gain more visibility, by collaborating on events such as whiskey festivals.
As one of the larger distillers in the area, Westward has also been able to help smaller distilleries in the group on things like securing better pricing on raw materials such as whiskey barrels.
Carrying on this tradition, Westward specifically sought to collaborate with Australian distillers, including Sydney distiller Archie Rose and Victorian distiller Starward Whisky, on the launch of its whiskey here.
“We've had wonderful support here from the beginning on events, and I think that ethos is something you find across craft distilling,” Munroe says.
“It's so fascinating to see what everyone here is developing. The innovation aspect of new world distilling here in Australia matches perfectly with that Portland ethos.”
Baranows Emporium, an independent, premium spirits distributor in Australia, has added Westward to its portfolio after receiving “stellar feedback” during its initial trade previews at the Drinks Industry Show in June last year.
Westward Whiskey is now being served in cocktail and whiskey bars in Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania and Perth, and is available at fine liquor stores and wholesalers nationally.
Bending the rules
In a nod to its Portland roots, Westward Whiskey embraces the American craft beer philosophy, fermenting at low temperatures for extended periods of time using ale yeast to produce spicy, bright and fruity notes. It is brewed and distilled using locally malted Pacific Northwest barley and ale yeast, paying homage to whiskey distilling techniques from its single malt-producing counterparts in Scotland and Japan.
Westward is double pot-distilled, starting with a 3000 gallon pot still that is one of the largest in the country and was hand-crafted by Vendome Copper & Brassworks, and finishing in a 700 gallon custom pot still designed by House Spirits and built by a local metalworks. The short, open heads ensure that both pot stills produce a distillate that is robust and rich in congeners.
It is then aged for several years in new American oak casks, more in the tradition of bourbon. Westward is aged to taste in the new charred American oak barrels, allowing Oregon’s dry, warm summers and wet, cool winters to add to its rich, smooth flavour.
Westward is 90 proof (45% ABV), and has an RRP of $129.99 for 700ml.