Based in Portland, Oregon, Westward Whiskey is the largest craft distiller on America’s West Coast, and a pioneer of American single malt whiskey.
In this episode of the Drinks Adventures podcast, I speak with Westward CEO and co-founder Thomas Mooney.
- Click here to open episode in your podcast player
We hear about Westward’s efforts championing the nascent single malt category in the home of bourbon and rye; the keen response from Australian drinkers; and the 2018 minority investment in Westward by Distill Ventures, the same accelerator fund that backed Starward Whisky (see S1E4 of the podcast).
Westward American Single Malt Whiskey CEO Thomas Mooney: Full transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Thomas Mooney, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures Podcast.
THOMAS MOONEY: Thanks for the invitation. It’s a pleasure.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now you actually got involved with the Westward business a little bit down the line, didn’t you? Maybe you could tell me about when you joined Christian at the business and what the circumstances were.
THOMAS MOONEY: Yeah, absolutely. Christian Krogstad, who’s my partner at Westward Whiskey and with whom we co-founded our whiskey brand. I met Christian now a little over 10 years ago. Back then Christian had recently founded a craft distillery in Oregon that back then went by the name of House Spirits. I had spent some time as the Chief Marketing Officer at Fiji Water and was in the drinks industry through Fiji, but had a personal love for whiskey. And so he and I met, we connected immediately. I developed a very strong interest in going into the whiskey business as a producer instead of as a consumer as I had been and Christian was actually looking for a partner to join them in growing the business.
THOMAS MOONEY: So back then we had produced a few barrels of whiskey. By a few, I literally mean the 12 that were standing against the wall. And so it was very early times for us as whiskey makers, we’d actually never bottled anything under the name Westward, that came later. We were really very much focused on the product and what would become kind of that iconic American single malt that today is Westward. And so 10 years ago we got together and we’ve been working together, growing the business and coming up with crazy, big dreams ever since.
JAMES ATKINSON: And so when you met up with him and you were talking about the future of this whiskey business, were you already settled on this idea that we’re going to be making American Single Malt? You weren’t thinking to yourselves, let’s make bourbon or let’s make rye.
THOMAS MOONEY: Our whiskey vision was around single malt from the beginning. We believe very strongly that whiskey is a cultural product and it really is something that comes of a region and the climate and most importantly people. And the Northwest is North America’s great barley growing region. The American Northwest is one of the, I’d say, most legendary brewing regions in the world. And so here we were in Oregon, surrounded by fantastic barley, surrounded by a wonderful brewing culture, the maltings that support that, from that regionally grown barley. So it would have almost seemed bizarre to try to do something else. There’s a reason bourbon is bourbon and it has to do with what grows in Kentucky and the culture around the time bourbon really began. For us, a truly authentic American Northwest whiskey could only be a single malt.
JAMES ATKINSON: When you first brought those whiskeys to market early on, what was the reaction in the market to the concept of American Single Malt? Did people understand what it was you were doing?
THOMAS MOONEY: Westward has been very well received from the beginning. And granted we took a very deliberately slow path to bringing it to market. We’ve made every drop of it ourselves from scratch, so in an era where many of our peers got started sourcing whiskey while theirs matured, we really wanted to be only about what we had made ourselves. And so by design that meant, the very first few years of Westward were an entirely tasting room experience. We weren’t trying to create fake scarcity, we just didn’t have enough whiskey. And so we barely had enough to keep it in our tasting rooms. And that turned out to be a huge advantage in the long run because we were able to literally meet in person, every person, whoever learned about our brand and took a bottle home.
THOMAS MOONEY: And I would say just from the very beginning, people really enjoyed the fact that that malt character, that makes it that, have iconic Northwest whiskey is there. But also decisions we’ve made that are a little closer to the bourbon tradition, like maturing it in new American Oak were things that made Westward very familiar to somebody who might have grown up, if you will, with bourbon but was looking for something a little more sophisticated, but still with that kind of hint of sweetness that they enjoy from bourbon. So it was always very well received, but we learned a ton from that early experience through our tasting rooms around how to tell people who perhaps have not tried it, why it’s something they would love and why they should go out and try it.
JAMES ATKINSON: And the American Single Malt category, how big is that and what do you all have in common, and what sets you all apart?
THOMAS MOONEY: American Single Malt is the single fastest growing segment of whiskey in the US, admittedly off a small base because it’s a much newer phenomenon, but it’s a very fast growing category. And a good illustration of that is, five years ago when we and four other producers met to create the American Single Malt Commission, we laid out some principles on what we hope the category would grow up to become, but it was really five like-minded distillers sitting around, not even a table, but literally a barrel. And so you fast forward to today, we’re coming up on a 100 producer members of the commission. And this isn’t because we went out and marketed and recruited, it’s just become something that craft distillers are very interested in producing and something that consumers really seek out and want to bring home.
THOMAS MOONEY: We’re United to some extent by a certain level of respect for the tradition of single malt whiskey. We’re not trying to replicate in America what has already been done in Scotland, or in Japan, or in other whiskey producing markets. We wanted to leave enough space for us to yes, respect that tradition, but take it that step farther and to really be able to innovate and to not become each other’s barrier to trying new things and experimenting. And so what you find in the principles that that American Single Malt Commission laid out is, fundamentals that ensured the quality of the product and that protect the consumer who sees American Single Malt on the label and can therefore expect that this is a whiskey made at a single distillery from barley. That’s about it.
THOMAS MOONEY: Not overly prescriptive in terms of how we make the whiskey, or how we age the whiskey, or how long we age it, or what we age it in, because that’s the fun. We want you the consumer to have the opportunity to discover many different things. And so we really aren’t united from a flavour or style perspective, I think there are probably as many expressions of American Single Malt as there are producers of it, but I think that’s the fun. It’s really to allow experimentation and to bring something new to the world because what’s already been there for centuries is being done well, and the last thing the world needs is us trying to recreate scotch in America.
JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah. But then, this country has a very powerful appellation in bourbon, its own style of whiskey that no one can make anywhere else. And that’s not something that you’ve sort of discussed about whether we can come up with something similar for American Single Malt?
THOMAS MOONEY: We definitely want there to be a standard of identity for American Single Malt that is more than the Commission’s website. And earlier x So yes, of course it’s something that we would like to protect in a more affirmative way. But ultimately, and this is probably more the marketer in me than the person who thinks legislatively, categories are only as strong, or as interesting, or as compelling as the brands in them. And so the best thing we can do for American Single Malt Whiskey is to get Westward out there and to always protect the quality of the product, and to tell a compelling story and to bring our whiskey to people around the world.
THOMAS MOONEY: And if we do that, and if 100 of our best friends who make American Single Malt Whiskey do that, then we’re going to have a strong category. If we don’t do that, no standard of identity is going to make the category compelling because people in the end don’t buy categories, they buy brands. People who love whiskey have relationships with the whiskey they love and with the people who make it, not with some government’s definition of what that whiskey is.
JAMES ATKINSON: During the tour this week and learning about the brand we’ve talked about brewing more than at any other distillery that I’ve ever visited or learned about. Is that always been a part of the Westward brand from day one?
THOMAS MOONEY: Yeah, it absolutely has. When we think of how we elevate the craft of making whiskey, it goes back to the if our own internal principle of minimalist distilling. And so that means bringing in fresh ingredients, making a pale ale from scratch that we then distill into whiskey. And so every one of those steps from the grain, to the slow, low temperature ferment, to the fact that we’re making very drinkable beer, but we’re doing it for the purpose of pot distilling it into whiskey is really all based on that philosophy that if we use the right ingredients, and if we’re patient, and if we treat them right, we’re going to, a) Get a lot better whiskey at the end of the process and b) Not spend a ton of time cleaning up mistakes or flavors we don’t want in there.
THOMAS MOONEY: I think wine makers often say that great wine is made in the vineyard, we say great single malt whiskey is made in the brewery and if the quality of that beer that goes into the stills is the best it can be, we know what’s going to come out the other side. It’s going to be amazing, delicious, Westward American Single Malt Whiskey.
JAMES ATKINSON: Why do you think that’s such a new concept in the world of whiskey seemingly?
THOMAS MOONEY: It is abundantly clear to us as business owners that making Westward the way we make Westward takes more time and requires more effort and costs more money than other ways we could do it. And so for us and for the people who love Westward, that works. But obviously that makes Westward a more premium price product than many whiskies out there. So I think there is a certain element of doing, I don’t think anybody would have principled opposition to how we make whiskey, it’s just really hard to do what we do from a cost standpoint. And fortunately, the quality of the product and the story behind it have been more than enough for people to be willing to make that investment and pay a couple more dollars for a bottle of whiskey. But again, everybody’s business is a little different and not everybody is solving for the most flavour and the greatest quality, sometimes it does come down to cost.
JAMES ATKINSON: Sure. Now, you had the investment from Distill Ventures, I think it was about 12 months ago now. That must be in part the reason why I’m here, the reason why Westward has sort of gotten under the radar of people outside the States. Has that been an important moment in the trajectory of the business?
THOMAS MOONEY: It’s now been a little over a year since Diageo made a minority investment in Westward through their Distill Ventures arm and and yes, I mean that has been a very important moment for our business in a number of ways. But I would say it has been that from the standpoint of accelerating what was already in progress. Obviously we have been making whiskey for a decade and a half and we haven’t changed the way we make it because we have a new minority partner. Where that relationship has made a huge difference is I’d say in a couple of different areas. One is out in the market, being able to bring our product and bring our story to more places in a more effective, more compelling way. The team at Distill Ventures with whom we work closely, day in and day out, has helped us enormously in terms of growing the business commercially and just telling a better story.
THOMAS MOONEY: Taking what we do, which we know is interesting and turning it into an interesting story that we can share with people who don’t have the opportunity you’ve had this week, to be at the distillery and see things firsthand. They have also been a remarkable partner from an operation standpoint. I mean, at the end of the day we run a busy distillery, we’re making whiskey every day. And because we make whiskey in a very beer forward way, being able to have, as our partner, the world’s leading producer of single malt whiskey and one of the world’s leading brewers is amazing. Because over the last 15 years, there hasn’t been a day when we wouldn’t have wished we could pick up the phone and call someone and ask a technical question, now we can and we do. And to their credit, they respond. So a lot of the most valuable part of that relationship with Diageo and with Distill Ventures has been behind the scenes in ways that help us be a more efficient producer, and in the long run an even higher quality producer.
JAMES ATKINSON: You obviously share Distill Ventures as a partner along with Australia zone, Starward Whiskey. Is that a company that you’ve sort of networked with or had anything to do with just through that Distill Ventures connection?
THOMAS MOONEY: Oh absolutely. There is a friendship within the Distill Ventures portfolio and with Starward in particular. I mean, we certainly think of David and his team as friends and they have done a number of wonderful things for us as we got our business started in Australia about a year ago. And now that they’re busy expanding in the US, we’re very much at their service to help in any way we can, sharing insights about the US market or just working together to find ways to grow our brands.
JAMES ATKINSON: And what’s coming up for Westward from an innovation point of view?
THOMAS MOONEY: For the last two and a half years that we’ve been distributing Westward American Single Malt Whiskey beyond our tasting room, it has been a single expression, one product brand. And I think all of us who know and love whiskey know that that’s fantastic and Westward is interesting enough in its own right that, it was out there and has been successful and compelling, but you’ve got to have more. So yes, finally, for the first time since launch, we released our first permanent extension to the brand, which is Westward Oregon Stout Cask, which is essentially fully mature Westward that we then age for an additional year in a cask that had been used to make stout that season.
THOMAS MOONEY: So we introduced Westward Oregon Stout Cask in Oregon in February. We just expanded that to New York and California in the United States in September of 2019 and it’s coming to Australia in early 2020. In fact, Australia will be the next market to get it after the three lead States in the US. And then soon after that we’re going to release a Westward American Single Malt Whiskey finished in Oregon Pinot Casks. Again, wine making is a huge part of our culture in Oregon and in the Northwest. We’ve had great partnerships with wineries in Oregon for many years. We know that again, fully mature Westward plus six to 12 months in a used Pinot cask tastes delicious. So that will be the third expression of Westward.
THOMAS MOONEY: And so about this time next year, we’re going to see three expressions of Westward living side by side, American Single Malt, Oregon Stout Cask and Oregon Pinot Cask. And then on top of that we’re going to really increase the accessibility to individual Westward barrels that have their own particular character. It’s a program that we’ve piloted in a few markets in the US where stores, or bars, or restaurants come, they work with us, they taste a barrel of Westward American Single Malt Whiskey that they love, we bottle it exclusively for them and it’ll sit side by side with our core expression at that restaurant or at that store.
JAMES ATKINSON: What about on the malt side? Because obviously you focus so heavily on the brewing and we visited the maltings yesterday and that’s obviously a close relationship that you have with Great Western Malting. So is there some experimentation happening on the malt side as well?
THOMAS MOONEY: Yeah, we do a fair amount of experimentation around malts and we do it in several ways. So one is through different grain bills. For example, we have a product that will be our next release for the Westward Whiskey Club. It’s called Oregon Two Malts. It’s Westward that is made from 70% barley malt, 30% rye malt. And so we’re combining two different kinds of malts and with that coming up with a product that is clearly Westward but is also a bit different from that core expression that most consumers would be familiar with. We also work with a few smaller, in some cases even have local family maltings. One example is a malting called Mecca who have really fantastic idiosyncratic malt from local grain. And so we’ve made a few barrels with various partners of that nature.
THOMAS MOONEY: One of the most fun things we do is we’ll have a “guest brewer”. So a brewery we love and probably visit frequently. We’ll invite the brewing team into the distillery to essentially make their beer for us to then distill into Westward. And so years later that is something that has its unique character and traces back to the specific malt choices of that brewing team when they came in to make the beer.
JAMES ATKINSON: With the hops added or just purely the malt?
THOMAS MOONEY: Purely the malt. Yeah, we have maybe one or two barrels where we’ve experimented with leaving hops in. It’s cool, but that’s just not where we’re going. We really want to express the malt and then do interesting things with the way it’s aged after that.
JAMES ATKINSON: You were telling me that the Australian market’s doing really well for you, I forget what the volume was. Maybe you could just tell me what you’ve achieved so far and what has been your read on why Westward American Single Malt Whiskey’s been so well received in Australia.
THOMAS MOONEY: Australia has been a remarkable success for Westward. We just couldn’t be happier or more excited. I mean, a year ago, back in September of 2018 we had not yet sold the first bottle of Westward American Single Malt Whiskey, and over the year to date, Australia has contributed more than 30% of the brand sales. So it’s a major market to say the least and if you look at it from a population adjusted basis, I mean by far our most developed market in the world. Why has that been? I mean we’ve certainly made every effort we can to support the brand and to tell the story, and for us who are behind the brand to take time to be in Australia. And I think if you add up all the different visits, we’ve spent close to two months in Australia over the last year where one of us is out there telling the story.
THOMAS MOONEY: So it all begins with, the product’s got to be great, but there has to be a story and people, someone can connect with. And so we love being in Australia and it’s not… People ask me when, when I’m in Australia, why did we pick this market? Because I like going to Australia and I know I’m going to have to go wherever we launch Westward American Single Malt Whiskey, so I’d rather launch it in the place I’d be happy going to once, twice, three times a year. And we all feel that way.
THOMAS MOONEY: I think also just structurally, Australia is a great market for Westward or any brand like Westward American Single Malt Whiskey because you have an extraordinarily educated whiskey consumer who knows single malt whiskey well and with enough of that population having the disposable income to invest in a premium product.
JAMES ATKINSON: Cool. Well, Tom, thanks so much for joining me on the program and for having me in Oregon this week and best of luck with building Westward and the American Single Malt Whiskey category.
THOMAS MOONEY: Thanks for being here.