American Whiskey's Next Big Thing?

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Rick Wasmund is the Doc Brown of distilling: a rogue tinkerer, a mad scientist, the guy working in his basement on crazy inventions no one understands and no one expects to work. Until one day they do.

Wasmund is the owner, and just about the only employee, of the Copper Fox Distillery, a microscopic outfit nestled against the Shenandoah Mountains in Sperryville, Va. The operation was born from Wasmund's dream to create a Scotch-style whiskey in the States (Scotch has to come from Scotland to bear the name). Wasmund is not alone: A half-dozen craft distillers, mostly on the West Coast, are churning out malt whiskeys, and most are faithful versions of their Highland brethren.

But Wasmund didn't just want to recreate a style; he wanted to revolutionize it. Instead of aging the whiskey in barrels, letting the wood flavors seep into the liquor over years and years, Wasmund figured he could get unique results much more quickly--six months--by steeping a teabag of woodchips in the distillate, and that doing so would give him unique control over his whiskey's flavor profile.

Wasmund's is getting better with each batch. Wasmund continues to improve his skills and process. And skepticism is turning into grudging appreciation.

Another key part of the Wasmund technique: It's all by hand, and all by him. Wasmund claims to be the only American distiller to roast his own barley, and he is the lead guy, often the only guy, working each step of the whiskey-making process (a few friends chip in, and he has an assistant). Unlike the big distillers, Wasmund doesn't age his whiskeys in a federally bonded warehouse; instead, he has to pay a bond on each barrel individually. In the long run that's more expensive, but the scale of operations he'd need in order to afford a bonded warehouse would mean removing him from much of the distilling action.

A few years ago, after several false starts, Wasmund's Single Malt started appearing on whiskey shelves along the Mid-Atlantic coast. It sold out rapidly, in no small part because Wasmund has the hustle of a big-top showman. I once met him by chance at a Georgetown liquor store, late on a Saturday night. He had just wrapped up a tasting at a nearby restaurant and was chatting up the store's owner. He should have been done for the night. But when he saw I was listening, he ran next door and brought back a bottle of his whiskey for an impromptu sales pitch.

This was 2006, just as the first bottles were hitting the market, and my thoughts then tracked the reviews that started appearing in subsequent months. Scotch expert Kevin Erskine, who blogs at www.thescotchblog.com, wrote, "A peculiar sweetness from the combination of fruit woods gives me a hint that this could be something interesting if it were allowed to mature longer." The Wall Street Journal concurred: "[It is] lacking in the deeper, more complex flavors that give fine whiskeys their structure." Wasmund used primarily applewood to dry the barley and in his teabags, and it showed: much too sweet, almost treacly--think of Calvados, or an aged grappa.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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