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The Importance of Making Local Whiskey

By Jeff Kanof

"Local whiskey" isn't just about a locally-owned company making whiskey. It's like winemakers who want their wine to represent the place where it's created, the terroir. For a distillery to make genuinely local whiskey, it must start with a farm and the grain that is being grown on that farm. In the case of Copperworks Distilling, founded by brewers, we start with malted barley to make our American single Malt Whiskey.

It's extremely atypical in the whiskey world to use barley from small farms, or trace the year the barley was grown, the variety that was grown, and the plot of land on which it was grown. Massive producers control the malting industry and barley varietals for malting are chosen based on factors such as yield, disease resistance, uniformity for malting, and performance during beer and whiskey production. Nowhere on the list of attributes is flavor. Barley is typically aggregated from many locations and malted in huge malthouses. By working more directly with small farmers and malting their barley at local malthouses, Copperworks can shift the focus away from solely economic factors and include flavor as a center of the conversation.

Farmers work harder than most and often end up with very little revenue for their crops. Crops like barley are important rotational crops for farmers to help regenerate the soil between higher-dollar-yielding crops. Crop rotation has plenty of advantages for the farmer and prevents farmers from needing to put costly and harmful additives into the soil. Along with practices like proper crop rotation, farmers are focusing on the environment through programs like the Salmon-Safe certification, which essentially challenges farmers to protect the water quality around their land by limiting runoff and the use of certain chemicals. While these ideas may sound simple, economic factors can make it hard for farmers to make these choices since their barley is often sold at a low value for feed. By focusing our whiskey local, we are able to provide a much higher financial yield for their crop by creating a new market for their barley: premium single malt whiskey. In turn, it makes it easier for them to make those choices that protect the environment around us all.

For us, the primary goal is to make something that tastes great and features interesting flavors that people can enjoy in the glass. By working with small farms and local malthouses to explore different varietals and different growing regions within our state, we can explore flavors that aren't found in the typical barley supply chains. By producing these single variety whiskeys, we can discover what varietals produce the most exciting flavors in Washington, just as winemakers have found the best grape varietals to grow in particular regions of the world.

Another way to focus on flavor is through locally-sourced peat, decomposed organic plant matter compressed in the ground for thousands of years. When burned during the malt drying process, it imparts a distinctive smoky flavor to the barley. While the focus of this technique has typically only been in Scotland, a local malthouse called Skagit Valley Malting has worked to develop a process to use locally-sourced peat to smoke barley grown from small Washington farms. The peat used by Skagit Valley Malting (photo) was harvested from a lakebed on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. It's the only peat bog we're aware of in the state that can be commercially harvested. However, we are certainly looking to find additional peat sources to explore the possible flavor differences. This malt is the first peated malted barley produced entirely from ingredients sourced in Washington. The smoky flavors we get from using this peated barley are different than what you find in a Scotch that uses Scottish peat. Why? Because the decomposed plant matter in Washington is different than the decomposed plant matter in Scotland. Using Washington-sourced peat gives our whiskey flavors of roasted almonds, toasted bread, hickory, smoked meat, and wet earth - different from the notes of iodine, creosote, and seaweed often found in Scottish peated single malt. In other words, this is another way that the land around us influences the flavor of the whiskey in our glass.

December 2021


Jeff Kanof is the co-owner and vice president of Copperworks Distilling Company. In 2020, around 90% of the barley they brewed for their whiskey was grown in Washington state, the vast majority from small farms. Copperworks is located at 1250 Alaskan Way on Seattle's downtown waterfront. Check their website to find tasting and tour availability.


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