Q&A with Westland’s Master Distiller Matt Hoffman

An interview between our Head Spirits Buyer & Westland’s Master Distiller

In 2010, childhood friends Emerson Lamb and Matt Hoffman quickly became partners, embarking on what would, in very short order, become one of the most important new distilleries in America. Reflecting on their native Washington State with its relatively cool temperate climate, its prime coastal positioning near many bodies of water, and its barley growing reputation, it didn’t take them long to recognize their vocation to establish and nurture this county’s tremendous potential for what has been, until now, a job best left to our friends across the pond. Make no mistake though: this is a thoroughly American single malt we are talking about, with attributes you are not likely to find anywhere else in the world. In much the same way that Japanese whisky producers combine methods often associated with more traditional styles of whiskey (Scotch, Irish, American) producers like Westland combine tradition and innovation to create something utterly unique. In honor of our first exclusive single cask from them, we recently sat down with Master Distiller Matt Hoffman for an exclusive Q&A. Full distillery profile to follow.

Master Distiller Matt Hoffman inspecting 6 different types of barley at the distillery in Seattle.

Nima Ansari, Head Spirits Buyer (NA): At what point did you know you were going to be a distiller, and did you always know you’d be making spirits in Washington State?

Matt Hoffman, Master Distiller (MH): I knew that I wanted to be a distiller at 15-years-old. When I learned of the process that could take a relatively humble grain like barley and transform it into this beverage with incredible complexity, I was fascinated. I still am. I think the thought process is very similar to that of a chef and, indeed, I enjoy cooking a great deal as well. But there is a certain degree of performance that comes with distilling, almost like an escape artist. In cooking, you have many ingredients. We have four: malted barley, yeast, water, and casks. The difficulty and the restrictions are exciting and challenging. I never thought of making spirits outside of Washington State. I’m from this state and want to make products that reflect the culture and agriculture of my home.

Westland’s pair of custom made Vendome Copper Stills.

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NA: You have a saying at Westland: “We are the custodians of all we inherit.” Could you elaborate?

MH: For me, the saying, “We are the custodians of all we inherit” is reflected in how we make our single malt. We are continuing a tradition of whiskey-making that stretches back more than 500 years. It would be foolish of us to simply discount centuries of tradition and knowledge. We ask ourselves constantly, “How do we incorporate all that has been done to bring our industry to this point while simultaneously keeping an eye on the future?”

NA: You are very clear that what you are making is American single malt. What are some of the important differences between American single malt and Scottish?

MH: We believe strongly that the most compelling products need not only to taste good but also to reflect where they are made. It is possible for us to make a replica of Scottish malt whiskies in the United States, but while this may reflect our agriculture, it neglects the people who make it. The culture of Washington State is like a concentrated version of the rest of the United States: innovation, progressive thinking, creativity, and self-reliance. These are traits that brought people to North America to begin with and they’re traits that are at the core of our culture here in Washington State.

Our use of brewer’s yeast and roasted malts are a reflection of the strong brewing culture here in the Pacific Northwest. The new American oak we use for some of our whiskies is a reflection of the American style of maturation. The question is how do we take all of these things and still make a whiskey that respects the culture in Scotland that inspires us? To me, the way we accomplish that is through balance. Each dimension, with the roasted malts, in fermentation-driven esters, and in the cask flavors, is a bit bigger. But because we increase each dimension to a similar degree, the whiskies still remain balanced.

Our desire to make a truly American single malt is also reflected in our pursuit of local ingredients like Oregon oak and barley grown in the communities around us. Again, we’re not deviating from the four ingredients noted above, but rather investigating fully what we can do with these ingredients to push whiskey making forward. This kind of thought process is not just contained to our distillery but it inspires our suppliers as well. They want to push barley breeding, malting, and coopering to new heights. This is where we have a unique advantage in our industry as the entire supply chain is pushing forward simultaneously.

I believe that the combination of using raw ingredients that are matched to our climate along with a culture that relentlessly seeks to push things to the next level makes Washington State the greatest place to make single malt whiskey in the world.

Co-Founder Emerson Lamb inspecting a peat bog in Washington State that will eventually be used for Westland Peated Whiskies.

NA: You are incredibly and refreshingly transparent about your entire process. Do you worry about imitators?

MH: We do not worry about imitators. We do not fear competitors. To the contrary, we believe in our vision and our team to keep pushing forward. Even if someone took our recipes and process and tried to copy us, they would still have to execute. Someone with the skill to execute would doubtless rather make their own whiskey rather than just copy others. Instead, the more we show our customers how we do things, the better chance of people understanding the vision that we have and get just as excited as we are. If there is a fellow producer who learns our process, he or she may likely find it inspiring and want to put his or her own spin on it. Now we have a unique style and category developing. Personally, I think this is incredibly exciting for the consumers as they get to see the category of American single malt developing before their eyes.

Samples and Experiments in the trial lab.

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NA: I’m convinced that Westland is one of the most important distilleries in the country right now, not only for the quality of the spirits, but for how you’ve envisioned your company and entered the craft category. What are some of the keys to success as you see it?

MH: Our keys to success are to stay product-focused, to stay true to our vision, to push forward, and to stay thoughtful. It is our love of single malt whiskey that drives us; without passion you cannot make a truly great product. Our vision to show everyone that Washington State is a world-class place to make single malt whiskey must continue to be manifested in not just the four ingredients that go into our whiskies, but in the way we make them. Pushing whiskey-making forward may sound like a difficult thing to do for an industry as old as ours with such few ingredients, but we have some incredibly exciting projects that we are looking forward to sharing with everyone over the coming years. Lastly, staying thoughtful is crucial. It is an integral part of not just how we make our products, but how we talk to people about them, and how we run our company as well.

The entrance of the distillery in Seattle.

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NA: Any favorite drinks at the moment?

MH: Favorite cocktails right now are the WLD Peated Boulevardier (Negroni) and Flagship Manhattan.