Terroir in Booze
I really, really like drinking wine. I started working at K&L because of my interest in Bordeaux and Burgundy, rather than Bourbon or single malt. The spirits thing kind of fell into my lap. My current fascintation with booze was the rediscovery of an old passion, a nostalgic look back to my roots as a Scotch and gin guy in college. The thirst I had for wine, however, was as much pedagogical as it was literal. It was all so new! There were so many grapes, so many traditional ways of fermenting them, and so many different countries all participating in the fun. I love to learn and wine presented me with a whole lifetime's worth of educational work. What really got me hooked, however, was Loire Valley Sancerre and the sauvignon blanc that actually tasted like limestone and wet rocks – just like the soil in which the grapes were actually grown. It was terroir, as the French call it – the idea that a sense of place is actually palatable in the final product. That really blew my mind.
The idea of the land influencing the flavors of a grape isn't too difficult to comprehend. If you put an onion on your kitchen counter right next to the bananas, you end up with onion-flavored bananas. However, to think that these terroir-driven flavors could actually grow inside of a fruit, then maintain their influence through a fermentation process is hard for many to fathom. Add distillation and further maturation to the formula and you're really pushing it, but nevertheless it's there. Smoky Islay single malt, for example, maintains the earthy flavor of the peat phenols all the way through the fermentation, distillation, and maturation processes. The water used to ferment the mash, as well as proof down the whisky can also add local flavor to the finished product (which doesn't always cross one's mind when clamouring for more cask strength expressions). Despite these clear and palpable influences, terroir isn't really a term that gets brought up when people discuss spirits.
With booze, terroir isn't always a product of the source material. Most single malt distilleries use the exact same barley, malted at the same commericial plant, so there's nothing uniquely "Islay" or "Highland" about the barley. Even Kilchoman's 100% Islay single malt, made from home-grown barley right next-door, doesn't necessarily scream "Islay" the way its salty, peaty flavors do. While it's a cool idea and a wildly-different flavor profile, the difference in barley isn't really terroir because its flavor doesn't speak to a sense of place. Terroir doesn't have to be grown into the grain, it can make itself known via the fermentation or maturation stages. Campbeltown's Springbank distillery, for example, has the moldiest, muckiest warehouse I have ever seen. There are pools of blue, green, and white mud all over that building, sometimes swallowing your shoes if you step in the wrong spot. That earthy funk makes its way into the whisky and you can really taste it in some of their single barrel expressions (like our 14 year Madeira-finished cask). It's a flavor that can only occur in whisky aged in that particular place, which is the whole point of terroir.
ArteNOM's 1414 Reposado Tequila uses all native yeast to ferment its mash – a risky move considering that the various strains of yeast can produce all kinds of flavor variation (see the Four Roses' mashbill guide with its talk of yeast). Most winemakers and distillers ferment in a hyper-sterilized environment with commercial yeast they have evalutated and purchased. Feliciano Vivanco's distillery, however, lets the local yeast hovering freely within their environment do its work on the agave sugar. The result is sensational – a delicate, slightly-earthy flavor that could only come from a tequila being produced in that particular place. Flavoring a spirit with ingredients that are sourced from a specific area also speaks to the idea of terroir. St. George's Terroir gin is actually named after this very point! Using botanicals and plants taken entirely from California's Mount Tam region, they've created a flavor profile that represents one very special place. Even gin can be site specific!
Perhaps the most amazing example of terroir in booze I've ever tasted is in our very own Commandon Petite Champagne 30 year old single barrel Cognac. Our trip to France last year really opened my eyes to how difficult it is to be a brandy producer. You have to be a farmer, a winemaker, and a distiller! It's literally triple the work! Cognac's Petite Champagne region has calcareous, mineral-rich soil, which results in a mineral-driven white wine (much like I discussed above with Sancerre sauvignon blanc). While I've tasted eau de vie, grappa, and brandy that managed to beautifully translate the essence of fruit, I've never tasted another spirit that brought the mineral notes with it. Concentrated inside the Cognac, along with the caramel, vanilla, fruit, and wood, is a very clear, very precise, and very distinct mineral flavor that somehow made it up out of the ground, into the grape, into the wine, into the spirit, and lasted for thirty years inside of a wooden barrel. Absolutely amazing.