Today's topic? The importance of "terroir" to the craft distilling industry in general, and in whisky production specifically. What is "terroir"? How does it apply? Is it worth the attention it is currently getting? Is it a buzz word or is it simply the latest FUD word that consultants use to scare you into thinking you have an issue that needs to be resolved, preferably with their help?
Underneath, I'll explain in depth what "terroir" is, how - if at all - it is applicable to craft distillers, and I'll come up with an easy model that allows you to decide if it is something you have or should aspire to have. Let's dive in deeper.
What is "terroir"?
"Terroir" refers to soils, on different locations, having different properties. And those properties influence the crop that grows there. Mineral content, moisture, wind, etc. make that the crop that's grown at a specific location is bigger, smaller, or maybe even tastier than that same crop grown on another location. Another location with different properties results in different flavor profiles and therefore, if we use what's grown on that location to make spirits, in differences in spirit quality. That's what consultants try to sell you, at least.
"Terroir" comes from France. It is used in the wine industry. Is it important to the wine industry? It is. Here's why. There are many varieties of grapes and there are many, many vineyards. All grapes have specific flavors and all locations have different hours of sun, rain, wind, and more. Grape production - at least for the wine industry - is both localized and compartmentalized. Many very small stretches of land with many different properties result in many different wines. The best wines come from great wine-makers and the "terroir" of where they make the wine must be a very good one. Better "Terroir" basically means that one location is a better place to make better wine relative to another location.
Just to be clear, "terroir" is not about Napa Valley wines being different from Burgundy wines. "Terroir" is about one small vineyard in Burgundy, in a specific city, on a specific hill, having a slightly different climate and soil composition than its neighbor. It is about my hectare of vines being different from your 0.8 hectares. We are talking micro here. Really micro.
Why "terroir" is of no importance to most craft distillers
There are two main reasons why "terroir" does not apply to most craft distillers that make whisky. First of all, grain is a commodity. It is grown on big, very big patches of land with the aim not to diversify flavors, but to maximize yield. Contrary to winemakers AKA grape growers, grain growers do not intently look for different, specific flavors. Grain yields carbohydrates and flavor is a byproduct. Contrary to vineyards, that produce specialty products, grain farming is about the mass-production of a commodity product. All grains, from a certain variety basically taste the same.
So craft distillers cannot claim "terroir" for their grain-based drinks, but how about brandy? Brandy is made from wine and wine has "terroir", so brandy could have "terroir", right? Well, it could, but it doesn't. Distilling a specific wine of great "terroir" taught us that it couldn't be reproduced in the brandy. In fact, great wines result in poor brandies. A brandy made from Petrus or Margaux wines is pretty unimpressive, as we established, where cheap wines from both Germany and France delivered excellent results.
What makes the difference, if not "terroir"? Higher proof wines result in lower flavor brandies, where lower proof wines result in high flavor-intensity brandies. The cheap 9 and 11% wines resulted in more flavor concentration than the 13 and 14% high-end wines. Did the amazing "terroir" of the high-end Petrus and Margaux shine through? No, not at all. Like as if it never existed in the first place. And that's the second reason why "terroir" does not apply.
There you have it: consultants and craft distillers talking about "terroir" are like the emperor's new clothes. There are no new clothes. "Terroir", in 98% of the cases, is complete BS, too often used by the consultant to get into your wallet. They want to consult with you so that you do not miss out on today's "opportunity", today's fling. It is not an opportunity for most, so please miss out.
We also see "terroir" being used by some craft distillers, that want to sell their inconsistencies as something good or intentional, instead of as the lack of craftsmanship it actually is. To those I say: get some proper training and purchase some proper equipment and try to produce some consistent quality drinks. Consistency is the precursor to quality. Inconsistency does not equal a claim to "terroir", it usually just signals minimal process control.
Side note: how many craft BREWERS do you know that claim "terroir"?
The exceptions to the rule
Let's be very clear: some craft distillers CAN claim "terroir". Here are the ones that I think can:
Drentsche Schans Distillery and Wieke Distillers from the Netherlands, and Distillerie de Soligny from France are three great examples of craft distillers that have "terroir". All three distilleries are farms that grow their own grains. These grains, and these grains only, are used for their whiskies. As the specific location consistently plays a role, as they actually use their "terroir", they can claim to have "terroir", where most others cannot.
Aristides Distillery from Cyprus uses locally grown Cypriot barley only, in their whisky. They use the "terroir" of Cyprus and are a great example of the second category that can claim "terroir".
Wood Hat Spirits, from Missouri, USA, grows specific varieties of white, blue, and red native American corn. His whiskies have "terroir", because this distillery only works with very specific grains that are even grown in-house, so locally. Dornoch Distillery, from Scotland, is another great example. They use older styles of barley, that have less focus on yield and deliver lower fermented ABV and higher flavor concentration.
I love craft distilled whiskies. Even though most have no claim to "terroir", some craft distilled products are just fabulous. And so are some of the craft distilled products that can actually claim "terroir".
The above iStill Blog post is not a rant against or in favor of "terroir", and those that possess it or those that don't. It is a rant against a new fake topic that I read too much about nowadays. It is not something anyone of you should be worried about. It is not something you should aspire to or miss out on. A specialty grain fits your story or it doesn't. You know best. You do grow your own grains or you don't. And maybe you don't, but your barrel aging is amazing. Or maybe your Whiskey Sour, that you serve in your bar, is unmatched.
Your whisky is about your choices and priorities, and that is what matters. That's the real TERROIR each and every craft distiller, that produces its own whisky, can claim. And none of you need a consultant to help "explain" that.
Gary Hinegardner and his wood hat and amazing whiskey...
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