When Wigle Whiskey released the results of its Terroir Rye Series, three rye whiskies made with grain from three distinct rye-growing regions, spirits geeks took notice.
Although terroir, a French term defined as representing a sense of place, is a widely accepted concept in the wine world, there’s contention about whether it applies to distilled spirits. Critics argue that any characteristic related to where raw ingredients originated will be distilled out.
The Wigle project disputed that theory. The three whiskies are produced the same way which includes the use of similar barrels for aging. In a side-by-side blind tasting conducted by Wine Enthusiast, each rye showed subtle yet noticeable differences. Whiskey made with rye grain sourced from Saskatchewan, Canada, was the sweetest of the three, with hints of maple and orange peel. By comparison, the sample made from Pennsylvania’s Monongahela rye showed more oak, spice and an intriguing puff of smoke, while Minnesota-sourced rye was distinctly drying and mild.
But the base ingredient is just one potential way to impart that sense of place to a spirit. There are various ways that terroir is acquired and reflected in liquors from whiskey to rum, even in supposedly neutral spirits like vodka.
Terroir from raw materials
The base ingredients of a spirit produces the flavor, but where that raw material grew dictates terroir. It’s about the composition of the local soil, climate, even unusual conditions like sugarcane that’s grown in saltwater. All of this can make the difference between grains grown in two different countries, or even two different fields.
With rye, for example, the grain shows clear terroir variations in both whiskey and vodka experiments. On one hand, there’s the Wigle whiskey experiment. The Pittsburgh craft distiller focused on the relationship between geography and flavor in rye whiskey, with a keen eye on how Pennsylvania-grown rye presented when all other variables were strictly controlled.
The study found that whiskey produced from Pennsylvania rye had considerably higher levels of acetaldehyde, isobutanol and isoamyl alcohol than the samples from Minnesota and Canada.
“[These compounds] contribute fruity, apple-like flavor in the Pennsylvania rye whiskeys,” says Michael Foglia, director of new product development and innovation for Wigle. “There was a quantifiable flavor difference in the whiskey made with [Pennsylvania] rye compared with whiskeys with rye from other regions.”
Polish vodka producer Belvedere also spotlights rye from two different locations in its Single Estate Rye bottlings. The grain was sourced from two fields more than 300 miles apart.
The Smogóry Forest bottling is made with rye grown in the woodlands of Western Poland, an area with long, warm summers. The Lake Bartężek vodka is made with rye cultivated on the shores of a glacial lake in Northern Poland’s Lake District, where long, snowy winters yield a cooler climate.
The two vodkas show nuanced differences when sipped side by side. The Smogóry Forest vodka shows robust vanilla and spice, while the Lake Bartężek vodka is more neutral. It finishes with pronounced lemon peel and ginger.
“There’s 100% terroir across our rye fields,” says Brian Stewart, Belvedere’s national brand ambassador. Restrictions prohibit the brand from adding glycerin or mellowing agents, which allows easier comparison between the two regions. The producer is considering single-estate bottlings from other parts of Poland.
Terroir from yeast
After the raw material is crushed or processed into a mash, it’s fermented with yeast and other organisms. A growing number of producers encourage wild yeasts to propagate, often to capture terroir. Some use open fermenters to foster natural flora, while others plant flower beds around the distillery, then fling open the distillery windows to invite the airborne microorganisms indoors.
Wild yeast fermentation is typical among producers that work with traditional distillation methods, like those that make mezcal, rhum agricole and clairin. Even larger producers that work with lab-grown yeasts know the value of wild microflora. Kentucky Bourbon producer Four Roses was so concerned about the potential to disrupt the flavor imparted by local yeast that it halted plans to relocate its distillery.
Terroir from flavorings
Obviously, artificial flavorings don’t count as terroir. But in some cases, locally sourced botanicals or other flavorings should be considered. For example, most bottlings of amaro are flavored with herbs, barks and fruit peels that can suggest an Alpine mountainside or the citrus trees of Southern Italy.
Many gins also emphasize local or foraged botanicals. St. George Terroir Gin was inspired by a hike on California’s Mount Tamalpais. It’s infused with Douglas fir, bay laurel and coastal sage, and is meant to feel “like drinking a martini in a pine forest.” The latest crop of ocean-inspired gins, made with seaweed, samphire and other ingredients foraged from shorelines, offers a different type of terroir, or what some punsters have dubbed “merroir.”
Of course, the big daddy in terroir-leaning flavoring is peat, the compressed plant matter used to add smoky nuance to Scotch and other whiskies.
In addition to the smoke, saline and iodine notes added by Scotland-sourced peat, a handful of American whiskey producers experiment with local peat. Most notable among those is Seattle’s Westland Distillery, which is also exploring the use of locally grown barley, though none of the whiskey have been released to the public yet.
Westland uses Washington State peat for a uniquely smoky, peppery profile. Other producers rely on wood smoke like mesquite used in the Southwest. Producers work with what’s local and plentiful to create a form of terroir authentic to those regions.
Terroir from distillation
After all that work, how do you ensure that the terroir stays in the liquid? It’s an issue for vodka, noted for its multiple distillation runs and filtration through various materials in pursuit of absolute neutrality, the polar opposite of terroir. Belvedere’s Stewart concurs that over-distillation risks losing some, or even all, of the spirit’s character.
Beyond flavor, “terroir is about different mouthfeels, different textures,” says Stewart. Belvedere’s single-estate bottlings are distilled four times, but not filtered with charcoal.
“Charcoal is there to remove microscopic impurities, such as aromas or oils,” he says. “These residual oils stick around and give it a different texture. The Bartężek is lighter, airier in your mouth, while the Smogóry is chewier. It sticks around longer.”
Terroir from aging
For many spirits, maturation in oak barrels is the last step before they’re bottled. It’s also the final opportunity for distillers to add a sense of place, or, from the point of view of some distillers, to avoid detracting from the terroir already present. For example, Cognac producers speak at length about the specific regions where their grapevines grow.
“Terroir is the first step, and the most important step,” says Marie-Emmanuelle Febvret, marketing and communications manager at Hine. She scoffed at the impact that barrel aging can provide. “The oak doesn’t interest us. It’s for the structure. If you taste the oak, we have failed.”
Jérôme Tessendier is co-founder/owner/general manager at Tessendier & Fils, which specializes in single-cru, single-vineyard and single-cask Cognacs. He works closely with local coopers to ensure that tannins from the oak barrel won’t cover up the brandy’s profile.
“Then you lose the terroir,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you use [respected Cognac regions] Borderies or Grande Champagne if you do that.”
Other producers feel strongly that barrels can add a level of terroir. Barrel staves can be dried outside, where they are inoculated with microflora, not dissimilar to how wild yeast adds terroir.
Consider the required use of Limousin oak to age most French brandies, virgin American oak for Bourbon or fine-grained mizunara oak employed to age some Japanese whiskies.
On a smaller scale, some craft distilleries experiment with local oak sources. Seattle’s Westland has experimented with Quercus garryana, or Oregon white oak, to make barrels to age single-malt whiskey. Vermont’s Whistlepig uses Vermont oak to age its 15-year-old Estate Oak Rye and its Farmstock Rye.
“It’s like fine-grained wine wood,” says Pete Lynch, master blender at Whistlepig. “A lot of flavor compounds are available.” The distillery examines the impact of terroir in rye, some grown on its own farm, and some sourced elsewhere.
One of their long-term goals is perhaps the ultimate expression of terroir: a whiskey bottling wholly sourced from Vermont rye aged in a Vermont barrel. With some time and effort, Lynch is confident that can be achieved in a distilled spirit.
“It’s silly to think otherwise, that there’s no concept of terroir in spirits,” he says.