Taking The Whiskey Terroir Debate Beyond Scotland

by
November 5, 2017

In part one of this story, we looked at the debate over terroir raging away on Islay in Scotland. Both sides are equally entrenched in their own beliefs, and the debate seems poised to continue.

Here in part two, we look elsewhere around the world, to the craft distilleries of the United States and beyond. Whereas the merits of terroir are very much hotly debated on Islay and elsewhere in Scotland, there are far less disagreement in other locales. In fact, for young distilleries and those that are either doing new things, or starting production in new geographical areas, terroir is far more widely accepted and appreciated. Not to mention, location is touted by brands as key points of differentiation.

Whiskey TerroirFarmer Craig Knutsen inspects new barley varietals for Westland in Skagit Valley, WA / Photo Credit: Westland Distillery

PACIFIC NORTHWEST

The obvious starting point is with Seattle’s Westland Distillery. Outside of Islay’s Bruichladdich, there’s no place flying the terroir flag higher than they are. That’s why their acquisition by Rémy Cointreau made so much sense; aligning brands that share so much in common.

Master distiller Matt Hofmann wants to deep dive into all things local, using a “combination of Washington State barley, Washington State peat, Pacific Northwest oak, that’s what we have a real possibility for here.” He also relishes their “cold-Scottish-rainy-wet-climate,” and believes each of those factors plays a role in the whisky that results.

“All of those things add up into your local ingredient terroir,” says Hofmann. They’re not stopping there, either. “We’ve got the maltsters and the farmers who are willing to explore those things with us.”

Whiskey TerroirBarley from Skagit Valley, WA / Photo Credit: Westland Distillery

“To explore, you know, this is the same varietal but grown on two different fields on opposite ends of the valley,” he continues. “So what difference is that going to make in this whiskey? Same thing with the peat. We’re going to explore different areas of our peat bogs depending upon what’s growing, what vegetation has been there and begin to really isolate those things.”

THE BRUICHLADDICH RIPPLE EFFECT

Look elsewhere around the whiskey world, and the reach of Bruichladdich has other rippling effects. For example, there’s Ireland’s Waterford Distillery, spearheaded by Mark Reynier, the former Bruichladdich CEO. And guess what—they’re placing a huge emphasis on terroir! Take a look back to Islay, and the under-construction Ardnahoe Distillery. Former Bruichladdich distiller Jim McEwan has signed on as their production director. One would wager murmurs of terroir and barley varietals could soon be popping up there, too.

THE SOUTHWEST

Back to American single malts, as it’s an ideal place to look further into terroir with the entire category just recently emerging. Ask others involved in that realm about terroir and you’ll get a lot of similarly excited answers.

“We’re passionate defenders of the notion of terroir,” says Ranger Creek’s Mark McDavid. “We’re a Texas single malt, and we smoke ours with mesquite which is such a local wood to Texas.”

Whiskey TerroirTexas Mesquite Tree

Other southwestern producers are also using mesquite to imbue their spirits with a proud local flair and flavor. There’s Sante Fe Spirits and their Colkegan Single Malt, as well as Hamilton Distillers and their Whiskey Del Bac. Of course, perhaps the most well-known to use local oak is found back in Texas. Balcones Distillery uses shrub oak for their award-winning Brimstone Whisky.

REGIONALIZATION

“Absolutely, whiskey more than any other spirit lends itself to that regionalization,” says Tom Mooney of House Spirits, which produces Westward Whiskey. “Whiskey has a very strong sense of place. It’s not just the country, it’s the land, the specific place that the grain comes from and how it’s treated and where the barrels come from and what forests those trees grew in.”

On that final point, even large American producers agree. Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris points to the terroir differences of different forests, and how that affects the barrels made from the trees grown there. “You will see terroir specificities and terroir differences because of growing conditions,” says Morris. He breaks down American oak into three main sourcing regions, the Appalachians, the Ozarks, and the northern forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

All the world’s whisky producers may never agree on terroir, its importance, or even what constitutes it. Yet, it seems as if more and more are placing a premium on it.

Does terroir tell a story? Sure. But even if it told a story while making minimal impact on flavor—and I believe that terroir on the whole is indeed capable of making a large and legitimate impact—I’d rather be told a story of true locality and real regional roots, than a back label tall tale of Prohibition origins and secret family recipes.


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