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Taste Test: This Distillery Received the Wrong Barley and Then Turned It Into One of Its Best Whiskeys

Making whiskey is a science, and like most things that require careful formulations and measurements very little is left up to chance throughout the process. But sometimes serendipity enters the picture, resulting in a happy accident that actually works despite a potentially major screw-up. Such is the case with the new Westward Whiskey Vienna Malt, which only exists because of a delivery mistake.

That’s how the story goes, anyway. It’s hard not to be a little dubious after hearing so many stories about misplaced barrels that are suddenly discovered tucked away in a warehouse, given the careful tracking systems major drinks companies employ to monitor their inventory. But let’s not be cynical for once and take the distillery at its word. So here’s what happened: Westward Whiskey, a small craft operation that’s been making single malt in Portland, Oregon for about 20 years, received the wrong type of barley in a grain delivery. They got Vienna malt instead of the two-row pale malt they usually use—an important distinction because each varietal provides a different flavor. I suppose they could have sent it back, but in an act that they describe as being near heroic (“the embodiment of bold, decisive action”), they made whiskey out of it. Whatever the case, I’m boldly, decisively glad that they did.

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According to master blender Miles Munroe, Vienna malt is popular among brewers who use it in Oktoberfest beer and some IPAs. He credits the team’s brewing background as being the reason why they were able to pull this whiskey off, and why they are able to make the whiskey they do in general. To be totally transparent, I respect Westward and have tried many of their whiskeys, but they are generally not my go-to in the American single malt category. What I usually don’t love about the whiskey is likely the same thing that so many people are drawn to it—there’s often a hoppy character to the palate (though there are no actual hops used) that is kind of similar to what you taste when drinking an IPA, a type of beer I generally avoid.

That floral, hoppy note is still there to some degree in the new Vienna Malt expression, but there is so much more going on here. This whiskey, bottled at 90 proof, is one of best I’ve tried from Westward. There are rich notes of caramel, chocolate, cocoa, toasted almond, apple, raspberry, and just a hint of mint and anise on the palate. It was distilled in 2019, and after spending nearly five years in new charred oak barrels the whiskey feels properly aged and balanced.

The American single malt category continues to expand, with new (but lesser) releases from big brands like Bulleit and much more interesting expressions from craft distilleries that have been doing this for a long time. Westward recently launched another new whiskey called Milestone to celebrate its 20th anniversary, an unusual expression in that it falls into the luxury category at $250 a bottle. I think Vienna Malt, which was released as part of the distillery’s Whiskey Club series, is even better—and it’s less than half the price. This is a whiskey worth trying whether you’re a longtime American single malt drinker or a newbie to the category.

Score: 90

  • 100 Worth trading your first born for

  • 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet

  • 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram

  • 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market

  • 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable

  • Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this

Every week Jonah Flicker tastes the most buzzworthy and interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back each Friday for his latest review.

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