When it comes to whiskey, most people are either a bourbon fan or a Scotch fan. My first awareness of the spirit was as a child during the holidays, when a clear family division was drawn between my father, who was in the Bourbon camp, and my uncle, who was resolutely a Scotch man. (Both of these Texans dismissed rye as a Yankee whiskey.) Not being able to taste them, I would stare at the glasses of amber as they slowly faded into light honey tones from the melting ice and think, “Could they be that different?”
I realize now that my confusion was not unlike what a lot of adults have about the different styles of whiskey. If you simply take a sip of each, you’ll quickly find a stark contrast between bourbon and Scotch. But the taste is only the beginning of what sets these whiskies apart—the same goes for rye. But what about the different sub-categories of whiskey, which include straight bourbon, wheated bourbon, blended Scotch, 12-year, 15-year, aged in sherry casks, single barrel, single malt, among many others? Wading through the selections can quite frankly cause a girl to drink.
And let’s not forget that whiskey—whether bourbon, rye, or otherwise—can be made anywhere. Bourbon outside of Kentucky? Yes. Single malt in Japan? Yes. Blended whiskey in India? Yes. Bourbon, rye, and single malt in Texas? Hell, yes.
In fact, you’ve probably noticed that a barrage of Texas bourbons have hit the market—and some pretty good ones, too. (Check out Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling’s .36 Bourbon, Ben Milam Single Barrel Bourbon, Firestone & Robertson’s TX Straight Bourbon, or Garrison Brothers’ Single Barrel Bourbon.) And for a quick primer on bourbon as a whiskey category, check out our 2014 story on the Bourbon Boom.
Since bourbon has been widely covered, let’s take a look at the other side of whiskey, the side that’s one of the oldest styles produced and the most widely consumed around the world: single malt. It also happens to be the one and only style of whiskey made by Central Texas couple, Nick and Amanda Swift of Swift Distillery. (Note: I didn’t say Scotch, which can only bear that name on the label if actually produced in Scotland.)
Whiskey is the only spirit made of cereal grains, which can include malted barley and/or wheat, rye, or corn. Single malt whiskey has the distinction of being made in a single distillery—rather than being a blend of whiskeys from multiple facilities as with blended whiskey or malt. Malted barley is the only grain used for the mash bill, or recipe. In Scotland, it must be distilled at least twice and then aged for a minimum of three years in any variety of barrels, including previously used bourbon, sherry, or port. But while single malt whiskey has a long-standing history in Scotland, it is not exclusive to that country.
Single malt is all about the purity of one spirit produced from one place. While it absolutely takes on the character of the barrel in which it is aged—which could include traces of sherry, bourbon, port, or brandy—its overall simplicity in production makes it a reflection of the producer.
This kind of purity and attention to detail drew the Swifts to produce their very own single malt just outside of Austin in Dripping Springs.
“For us, there was something elegant in the simplicity of a single malt,” says Amanda Swift. “It’s as simple as water, malted barley, and yeast. We love a lot of different whiskeys, but single malt has been the staple spirit in house for a long time.”
Young and eager to begin their careers in something that inspired them as a couple, Nick and Amanda, both native Texans, used their combined masters degrees in liberal arts, food, and biology from the University of Texas to devise their own way of honoring the more than four-hundred-year-old Scottish tradition. Wanting a little first-hand experience of their own, the two spent a couple of years in Ireland and Scotland researching the best ways to make the spirit and, in 2012, returned to Texas to commit all of their resources and efforts into making their very own.
“When Nick suggested we try to make our own in Texas, it was a hair-brained idea we just couldn’t shake,” Amanda says. “Our best times together were spent cooking and sipping whiskey after a meal, particularly Irish and Scotch. After a while, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea to try making it ourselves.”
Reclaiming the former Dripping Springs Distillery location, the two brought in stills and built their own small-scale operation, living off of their savings to wait two years for their first batch of single malt to age properly.
Their twice-distilled whiskey is made completely from an heirloom barley variety that is malted and exported directly from Scotland. The spirit is distilled and modeled after a traditional Speyside Scotch, a region of Scotland heralded for its complex single malt whiskies. Using Amanda’s biology background, the water for distillation is even controlled down to the molecular level to match the composition of Scotland’s water. From there, the single malt is aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels for one year and and finished for at least eight months in Oloroso sherry casks that the Swifts hand-selected from Spain.
In 2014, Swift Single Malt was released, and the reception was warm and encouraging. Wine Enthusiast magazine gave it 95 points in an early review, and countless other spirit media outlets lauded its classic style. Today, the whiskey is distributed all over Texas and in other states, such as New York and California, for about $55.
In the glass, the Swift single malt is deep golden in color, lighter than a lot of toffee-colored whiskies you see on the shelf. Toasty aromas of malt, honey, ripe pear, and yellow apple fill the senses and lead to a broader palate with stone fruit and toffee. The finish is spicy and smooth. “We really wanted to make something that was subtle, but sophisticated,” says Amanda. “This is something you should be able to enjoy all year round, not just by the fire when it’s cold and moody outside.”
Swift recently released a second single malt that has been finished in Sauternes barrels rather than sherry barrels. (Sauternes is the golden honeyed dessert wine from the Bordeaux region of France.)
“Sauternes-finished single malts are my favorite,” says Amanda, who journeyed to France a year ago to select a couple of barrels. “But the barrels are expensive. Too expensive to produce something you’re not happy with in the final product. We worked really hard to select barrels that would pair well with the whiskey we’ve been making.”
Based on a sampling from the barrel, the honey notes from the Sauternes are indeed more pronounced and coat the palate with a longer finish that is still dry and spicy. On cooler days, it’s a pleasure to simply enjoy single malt neat in a glass, but when the temperatures rise, the classic High Ball approach with a splash of good mineral water and a cube of ice is just the ticket. At least, that’s how Amanda enjoys her single malt.
For the record, there are other wonderful single malt producers in Texas. In fact, Balcones Distilling and Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling both have single malts that have received national and international accolades. (The Balcones single malt is one of the most sought-after whiskies in the country and is often pre-sold on allocation before it’s even in bottle.) But both Balcones and Ranger Creek make other products. The Swifts’ “all-in” approach took a considerable amount of determination, and it’s a bet that has finally begun to pay off.
This holiday season, I choose to make peace by offering the whole family of whiskies: bourbon, Scotch, and even Rye, because after all, bringing the family together is what the holidays is all about.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about whiskey at Texas Monthly’s Whiskey Affair in Houston Feb. 8.