Classification: Malt Whiskey
Company: Orcas Island Distillery
Distillery: Orcas Island Distillery
Release Date: Ongoing
Age: NAS (Company states 26-28 months in new oak followed by 3-8 months in used Cognac barrels)
Mashbill: 100% Malted Barley
Color: Light Bronze
MSRP: $125 (2022)
Located in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, Orcas Island Distillery is truly a family affair, being run by father and son Charles and Morgan West, along with their spouses Carie DeRuiter and Diane West. The distillery owes its origins to a one gallon home still kit that Charles’ family purchased for him post retirement from his first career. From there, Orcas Island Distillery was founded in 2014 and has since released an Apple Brandy Eau de Vie, gin, and in 2018, a malt whiskey. The whiskey is produced by first aging in new 53 gallon charred oak barrels that use a #3 char with toasted heads. From there it is transferred to used Cognac barrels for finishing. The company’s mission is to “resurrect delightful spirits whose flavors have almost disappeared from the American palate.”
An interesting combination of scents starts with light layers of warm oak mingled with barley, a touch of barrel char, vanilla, shelled peanuts, and hay. These are propped up against a noticeable scent of pink bubble gum. The scents are light yet defined, producing a warm opening to the sip.
The lightness of the nose carries over the palate. Notes of toasted barley, salty sea air, hay, and hints of baking chocolate make an appearance. Laying underneath these flavors are traces of oak. The combination works well together yet due to its lightness, it leaves you wanting more pronounced flavor definitions. It’s a nuanced palate and one you’ll need to really take your time to focus on to get the most out of it.
The finish ramps up the intensity of flavors as toasted barley, baking chocolate, white peppercorn, and oak come alive. Propped up by a light heat, this sudden intensity of flavors is a welcome contrast to what the palate delivered. As the finish goes on, the initial flavors mellow out and a malted chocolate flavor bubbles up. Joining the malted chocolate flavor is a warm lingering heat that hugs your chest. The old saying of leaving them wanting more applies here, as the finish is easily the highlight of the sip.
Distilleries located on an island are always a rarity, and Orcas Island Distillery is no exception. Orcas Island is part of the San Juan Islands located in the Pacific Northwest near the Canadian border. Being on an island presents logistical challenges in terms of getting raw resources to make whiskey. In Orcas Island Distillery’s case, the company utilizes farmers located in the Skagit Valley to source their organic grains. These then must be shipped to the island itself. The same concept applies when getting the whiskey off the island. All this is to say that placing a distillery on an island isn’t something you see very often.
While an interesting backstory is always fun to talk about, at the end of the day it’s all about the whiskey in the bottle. The American Malt category has been rapidly growing over the last few years, and West Island Whiskey finds itself in the mix of other distilleries large and small including Westward Whiskey, Copper Fox, Balcones, and Stranahans to name a few. Compared to other American Malts in the market, West Island Whiskey is able to hold its own, however, it also has a hard time distinguishing itself from the pack.
The whiskey itself doesn’t come across as youthful as you might expect knowing how long it’s aged for. Morgan West states that “the finishing barrels are technically old Cognac barrels, but they have been used extensively and do not impart much flavor any more. We finish in them to avoid over-oaking, rather than to add any flavor.” This is surprising to hear since the company is initially using 53 gallon barrels to begin with. However, the end result works well in helping to remove overly youthful traits from the resulting sip while also not carrying any typical Cognac barrel finishing notes. Instead, it seems that the finishing time does a nice job of tempering any youth that might be present and balances out the overall blend.
Small distilleries usually charge a premium for their whiskey. The cost of paying the startup “tax” is real, and that is often passed onto the consumer. While prices of $50, $60 and even $70 are common, rare is do you see the first whiskey from a distillery cross the $100 mark. That’s why it’s surprising to see West Island Whiskey sporting a $125 MSRP. While I appreciate the fact that this is a small family run operation, so many of the small distilleries out there share similar beginnings. In Orcas Island Distillery’s case, they both deal with startup costs and with the cost of operating on an island. American Malts tend to be priced higher than other forms of American Whiskey, and while West Island Whiskey is pleasing, it doesn’t come close to justifying its cost.
Orcas Island Distillery is both a rare combination of island distillery and young craft distillery that is able to put out an American Malt that can hold its own with more well established brands.
West Island Whiskey is interesting when you consider that the family distilling it didn’t take up the craft until the last decade, and that the distillery itself is located on an island in the Pacific Northwest. The sip produced comes across as more defined than you’d expect for its age and while lighter at times than preferred, it will please most whiskey drinkers who are fans of the American Malt category. The downside is that it’s priced higher than the majority of its competition, and it is hard to justify the $125 for casual drinkers. That said, those who are fans of the American Malt category will be drawn to its interesting background and nuanced, pleasing sip. West Island Whiskey has me looking forward to seeing what Orcas Island produces in the future.