Terroir in Spirits
So a couple of years ago, during an impromptu Cognac tasting that I put together while on a river cruise in Bordeaux, I was asked the following question by then Director of the American Wine Society, David Falcheck “Does terroir in spirits end with distillation?” My initial answer, with minimal thought, was yes and no. “Distillation does not create additional congeners, but captures and concentrates the congeners that the grain released during mashing for whisk(e)y, and new congeners created during the fermentation stage with the addition of yeast, and a pot still will capture them differently, and more effectively than a column still. If a spirit is bottled following distillation, such as an unaged eau-de-vie, then terroir does end. For barrel aged spirits, the majority of which utilize oak, I would say no, because the wood for the casks is entirely terroir, and will yield different characteristics depending upon the type of oak, toasting, aging climate, etc.”
Terroir is a French term that has generally been associated with wine, and can be defined as the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate. The characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced. I would concur with that, and would also add that terroir is generally applied to a specific region, or location, such as a winery. Wine sensory attributes are influenced by terroir. For high terroir expression, the precocity of the grapevine variety should be suited to the local climatic conditions in such a way that full fruit ripeness is reached by the end of the growing season.
Since that conversation, I’ve read different articles on terroir and whiskey, but it had me cogitating beyond those. Rye grown in Canada, western Pennsylvania, and Germany will yield three different flavor profiles off the still if produced exactly the same in a controlled environment, and has shown terroir variations in whiskey and vodka experiments conducted by craft distiller Wigle and Belvedere, respectively. Barley that has been grown in two or more different locations of Ireland, with similar climates, but different soil compositions, will yield different characteristics, as shown in an ongoing study led by Waterford Distillery and Oregon State University. But can terroir, as it is defined and has been applied historically to wine, be applied similarly to spirits, or more specifically, whiskey, or barrel aged spirits? There are great arguments to be made on either side, and my perspective has changed on certain aspects.
Consider this, most of the distilleries in Scotland purchase malted barley from commercial malting plants, and most of the distilleries that do floor malting also purchase additional malt from commercial malters. Kilchoman is one of the few who uses 100% estate grown barley in their flagship Islay Malt, and produces several tons of malt each week from its own estate-grown barley via floor malting. Several other distilleries, such as The Balvenie, Highland Park, and Bowmore, grow and malt a proportion of their own barley, while still purchasing the remaining commercial malt. Japanese Whisky, which has seen a boom in recent years, imports the bulk of its barley from Scotland. Indian Whisky, which has also seen a rise in popularity, utilizes homegrown barley for its whiskies. However, that barley is grown in the north of the country, mainly near the borders with China and Pakistan. For the southern distilleries (Amrut and Paul John), the barley has to be transported around 1,500 miles by road to the distilleries. For Japanese and Indian whiskies, either peat or pre-smoked barley is imported from Scotland still.
In America, agriculture/farming and distilling used to historically go hand-in-hand. Regardless of the spirit, whether it be whiskey or vodka, something has to be grown to produce it. Today, most distilleries in America purchase their grains from either large commodity brokers, or local farms, but are not necessarily raising their own estate grains. Many distilleries won’t admit it, but also add enzymes, such as glucoamylase, to their mashing to speed up the conversion process. It can break down cellulosic material that ordinarily isn’t fermentable, but can also give a lot of off flavors, and also deter from the terroir of the grains. Also in America, the Column Still is relied upon heavily, usually in conjunction with a Doubler, for most mid – large size distilleries.
For me personally, as it pertains to whisk(e)y, I think that a distillery should be farm to glass to promote terroir. Craft distilleries in the US, such as Whiskey Acres in Illinois, California’s Corbin Cash Sweet Potato Spirits, and Washington’s Sidetrack Distillery, whose roots started in farming, can promote grain to glass spirits. A relatively new distillery in Scotland, Arbikie, is an estate distillery and boasts field to bottle. For these distilleries, terroir can certainly be applied similarly. Jeptha Creed in Shelbyville, KY utilizes 64-acres that make up the distillery property, and are covered in crops that are producing the grain, corn, fruits, and other ingredients that will go straight into the Jeptha Creed bourbon, vodka, whiskey, and moonshine. Rozelieures in France is another true farm to glass whisky distillery. They do everything in house, except get their peat since harvesting peat is illegal in France (unless peat is found on a construction zone). They grow, harvest, malt, brassage (beer), fermentation, age, bottle, etc. They have a new series of whiskies called “Parcellaires” aimed at showing differences in young whiskies based on soil type. What a concept!!
That being said, I still believe that terroir in whisk(e)y diminishes significantly, if not entirely while it’s aging, depending upon the final age. Another legitimate question is when, and how much does terroir diminish, especially in new toasted and charred oak barrels for Bourbon, and a few other American Whiskies, which are the only whiskies to require new charred oak containers (barrels) for aging, and upwards of 60% of the flavor in a bourbon can come from the barrel. Given that, where does terroir from the grain, yeast, etc. start to diminish because of the new charred oak and ageing? I ponder this while gazing at a label touting Bloody Butcher Corn in their bourbon, which roughly 15 distilleries promote. For more insight, I posed this question to Alan Bishop, Master Distiller of Spirits of French Lick, whose motto is “Respect the Grain”.
As Alan says, “Good Question. I agree, oak itself can impart terroir as you said and I certainly agree. The rest depends on distilling technology, ingredients, and methodology. For example, a pot still is exquisite at expressing terroir, on the other hand in a column still it is minimal. Pot stills in particular do break down long chain fatty acids into esters and phenols, but those are just more refined versions of terroir. Our methodology at Spirits of French Lick is all about a blend and balance. 50% raw material, fermentation, and distillation and 50% maturation. At some point will the terroir diminish with age? Yes, but so will all other positive aspects of a spirits character. For Bourbon in a traditional warehouse, I’d say 8 years at the max. But that’s just me.”
I also believe that to promote, or market terroir in your product, you should be using pot stills in batches, with an experienced distiller. As Alan Bishop, Master Distiller with Spirits of French Lick, says in his article, A love letter to the simple pot still, “Although the pot still is one of the oldest forms of distilling equipment it’s place in the modern distilling industry, despite myriad technical advances, is very secure and for most of the world pot distilled spirits are the mark of quality and craftsmanship. Pot stills are widely recognized by producers and imbibers because of their built-in inefficiencies which when well executed can produce superior products which require the trained senses of an experienced distiller in the process of distillation.
If one thinks of the humble moonshiner, they think of the pot still. If one thinks of Single Malt Scotch they think of the pot still, if one thinks of Cognac they think of the pot still, and if one delves into the history of any potable spirit with the exception of high proof ethanol the pot still will have no doubt have shaped the history and the taste profile of each of those spirits. Pot Stills at their core are most simply about the retention and concentration of flavor, and more importantly, aroma derived from the raw material of fermentation.”
In France, spirits such as Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados can make strong arguments for being terroir driven. Cognac and Armagnac both have defined wine-growing regions, and within those defined Departements, there are separate defined wine-growing crus, each of which has its own unique terroir, due in large part because of the different soil compositions. The Armagnac and Cognac production areas were delimited by the decree of May 1st, 1909. Based on the soil features described by the geologist Henri Coquand in 1860, 6 Cognac growing areas (Crus) were delimited and then ratified by decree in 1938. For Cognac, excluding the big boys, who may dominate the stat sheets, but also rely heavily on blending, and perhaps boise for their mass produced VS and VSOP expressions, they are only but 4 brands. Many smaller and/or family owned houses offer vintages and/or single cru cognacs that reflect terroir due to spending the bulk of their time in well used barrels. Vintage and single grape expressions can also be found in Armagnac. Thérèse Bertrand, Sales Director for Bertrand Cognac, a family owned producer since 1731, explains;
“Yes, the terroir definitely has an effect on the final product. There is a notable difference in the Cognacs from the Grande and Petite Champagne versus the outlying crus (Borderies + les 3 Bois). This is due in large part to the Champagnes’ terroir having a much higher concentration of chalk and limestone, versus the outlying crus. If a producer does everything ‘right’, then the resulting cognac will be good regardless of the cru. However, in objective terms a mature Champagne cognac will always display a bigger character than a mature not-Champagne cognac. In exchange, the Champagne cognac requires a much longer period of aging in order to reach maturity. A ‘mature’ cognac is well rounded, having good balance, and without any aggressive notes from the alcohol.”
Calvados, of course, is the region’s world-famous apple “brandy”, distilled from cider just as Cognac and Armagnac are distilled from wine. Although appellation laws permit the use of a limited percentage of pears as well, most quality producers eschew them. Calvados is made in delineated regions within the departement of Calvados and portions of the departements of Manche, Orme, Eure, and Seine-Maritime. The most celebrated of these regions, and the one that produces the highest quality calvados, in my opinion, is the Pays D’Auge—famous for the quality of its apples and for the chalky soil in which they grow. All fruit used in the production of calvados must be grown within the delineated Calvados region.
Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados are generally aged with the eau-de-vie or cider starting their journey in new toasted barrels, and then transferred to well-used barrels after roughly one year to minimize the oak influence. However, that is not always the case, as all of the calvados at Busnel goes into wooden casks, as much as 200 years old. “New oak kills the apple,” says Busnel director Michel Hamon. “Our object is to re-find the apple.” Because these spirits have defined growing regions, and can be aged extensively in well-used barrels, a case can be made that the majority of flavor in the end product is from the terroir. Marie-Emmanuelle Febvret, marketing and communications manager at Hine, has been quoted as saying “The oak doesn’t interest us. It’s for the structure. If you taste the oak, we have failed.”
I do believe that oak is terroir, and while many aspects come into play for barrel aged spirits, we will examine why certain oak is preferred for its characteristics, which is a result of terroir. French Oak contains the highest tannin of the oak types, and wine has easy access to an array of compounds in the more porous sessile oak, providing multiple extractives. An example is the popular spice notes that stem from extractives such as caryophyllene and copaene. Hand splitting following the grain is required. Logs sourced from the Office National des Forêts make for more expensive timber, and results in a more expensive barrel that is appreciated by winemakers for its flavor characteristics rather than its price. Structural differences in American oak’s hemicellulose and lignin result in more intense vanilla, wood sugars, and toastiness. Its density, and straight grain means higher yields, machine cutting, and lower cost barrels with popular traits. American Oak historically had been primarily sourced from the Ozarks and the Appalachian mountain chains, both of which offer a rich source of flavorful extract via their hemicellulose layer, or the “Red Layer” that is formed in a new charred barrel. This layer is composed of many different sugars with lower molecular weights than those found in cellulose, which accounts for its easy solubility in alcohol. The toasting level will determine how much flavor and aroma is extracted. Common flavors such as caramel and vanilla are due to the Red Layer, along with some spices. American Oak also offers high oxidation potential due to the porous nature of the oak, and over time, oxidation can create additional esters. Each year that a spirit ages in new charred oak barrels, terroir from the grain and yeast diminishes because of the sugars and flavors being extracted from that layer.
This writer is of the opinion that terroir in whisk(e)y is best captured and displayed in its raw form, as new make spirit right off the still, and not after it has been aging for any length of time. I believe that the above mentioned studies support that so far.
Tony Menechella, CSS