What is terroir in spirits?
In the world of wine, terroir has long been a critical point of discussion and distinction between different wines. What is terroir? The word literally means earth, in French. And most often it is a term used to describe the differences in character and flavor between wines that are an expression of the soil, growing conditions, and growing practices a grape was raised in. It conveys the idea that a sense of place carries through into the flavor of something grown there.
Not only can you distinguish a Cabernet sauvignon grown and fermented in Northern California from a Cab grown and fermented in Bordeaux, you may be able to distinguish a Chardonnay grown on one side of a hill in Chablis from a Chardonnay made at a vineyard on the other side of a hill. Of course, most wine these days is mass produced and augmented to make it absolutely consistent from batch to batch, completely eliminating any expression of terroir. When I’m speaking about terroir I actually find it easier to demonstrate it with single origin chocolates or coffee. It is remarkable how chocolate from Madagascar bean tastes of red fruit while Dominican beans tend to be earthier and darker, for example.
The word literally means earth, in French.Emily Vikre
A new weight of importance
Terroir has not had the same weight of importance in the world of spirits until recently as craft producers have begun to take hold of the idea and explore what it could mean for everything from mezcal to vodka. Even before terroir became a point of discussion for craft distillers, it is true that connoisseurs have made note of how Scotch from different regions has distinct personalities, some displaying notes of seaweed and brine, others heather and currant buds. But, the idea of terroir in spirits is more complicated because of the distillation process itself. Even if a distillery uses raw materials from a single place – say, grains all grown on in Wrenshall, Minnesota for one of our whiskies, or agave all from a single ranch on the side of a volcano to make an estate tequila – that raw material is not only fermented, it is also boiled and separated multiple times, an inherently destructive process. Can terroir really survive?
Can terroir survive?
The short answer, in my opinion, is yes, but you have to think about it a little differently than you do with wine or chocolate. There are more points of potential impact of terroir in the process of making distilled spirits than just how the raw materials are grown. The soil and growing conditions can definitely impact the chemical structure of what you are fermenting. So does the yeast you add and the yeast that is floating in the air. Distillation strips much of that away, but you’re still left with an assortment of non-ethanol compounds, called congeners, that can be heavy and silky, or fruity and light or meaty and structured, and change the way a spirit tastes, even in a spirit as heavily distilled as vodka. If you are making a spirit that has herbal infusions, like gin or aquavit, you can reintroduce more flavors of place. We use local spruce tips and rhubarb in some of our gin, for example, and while it’s a very different way of introducing personality than when you grow grapes in limestone heavy soil, it still conveys a strong sense of the nature and culture of our place.
The aging conditions of barrel-aged spirits can impart terroir as well. The place-based vagaries of temperature and humidity fluctuation make potentially un-replicable differences in a spirit even from one barrel in a rick house to the next. And the air that seeps slowly through the micro pores of a barrel can impart a seaside salinity to Scotch from Orkney or a humid thickness to Jamaican rum.
Last but not least…
Last but not least is water. After a spirit is distilled, it has a much higher alcohol content than it is normally drunk at. Water must be added back to the spirit to bring it down to the proper proof. Proofing water can make up more than 50% of the final spirit. At Vikre Distillery, we are lucky to have the amazingly pure water of Lake Superior as our water source, and it absolutely gives a distinct character and sense of place to our spirits. Research by Yamazaki Distillery in Japan would agree. They conducted an experiment where they sent their proofing water to proof whiskey at another distillery and found that after adding the water, it tasted like Yamazaki whiskey. This impact of water does not apply in many cases where water is treated through reverse osmosis to remove its impurities but also all of its character. But, if you are lucky enough to have an excellent water source, it can make for a spirit that is truly special.
Place is expressed differently in spirits than it is in wine, but it is no less critical and no less pervasive. So do spirits display terroir of sorts? Absolutely.