TERROIR IN SPIRITS
We use some of the inspiring work done in recent times exploring terroir in spirits to crystallise our own thoughts and opinions on this sometimes contentious subject. We think some of this pioneering work will be highly influential in the future.
What’s all the fuss about with this hot terroir topic?
Terroir is the French notion that geomorphology and environmental conditions such as terrain, soil and climate can affect flavour in crops.
It is a concept well adopted (and defended) in wine and cognac, for example. Let me first say, I share some of the cynicism around the use of terroir in marketing. Every wine estate seems to project terroir, yet we know good and well that grapes can be sourced from all over the place in the wine industry. We have even seen some interesting claims toward terroir in the gin industry, where it is highly unlikely that botanicals are being foraged in the surrounding farms!
Yet we all know terroir is a thing, right?
As a brewer, let me use a less widely known example, hops. About 75% of the USA’s hops are grown in Yakima Valley, there is something about the American conditions that wants to express citrus fruits in hop oils. The recent boom in cloning of fruity hop varietals was borne of this region’s tendency to exhibit piney, citrussy, fruity notes in hops. This has transformed the craft beer world in the last 30 years, and now “American style” IPAs by far dominate craft beer sales by style. It is a very well documented fact that Cascade hops grown in the USA differ vastly to Cascade grown in Germany. New Zealand produces a hop called Nelson Sauvin, so named for its propensity to produce sauvignon blanc-like flavours, and most of us know that amongst the best sauvignon blancs come out of New Zealand. There is something about the growing region there that intensifies this particular crop’s flavours.
So, unlike some pundits, I won’t let the dubious claims of boardroom marketing teams tarnish the concept of terroir in its entirety, or the use thereof by certain brands. I find that lazy, disingenuous, even. Why won’t I right off terroir in spirts? Well, because I have experienced it so compellingly.
Tasting Waterford distillery’s carefully pot-stilled new make (white spirit) straight from the still, the barley from different farms announces itself as singular in the flavour profile of each single farm distillate. This experience forever wrote into my consciousness that if a spirit producer takes care to respect that raw material through their choices and processes, it will be there in the resulting spirit. Loud and clear.
For me this experience ended the debate, and has been backed up by scientific research, which proves what most should implicitly know. I feel, instead, that it is more important to attempt to frame what terroir is and isn’t, so that you might be able to distinguish those products that truly express it.
Barley field in South East Ireland.
For us, terroir can be expressed by paying focussed attention to your site specificity and its resultant crop, and respecting this raw material throughout your production choices, whether that crop be grapes, hops, sugarcane or barley. This focus and traceability can be labour and cost-intensive, and limit production efficiencies, which is why many brands, in fact, are not truly expressive of terroir.
Of course there is much more to spirits than terroir. Most strong brands are an expression of all the provenance, unique history, traditions, culture, process, innovation and more that make up their identity.
For us the most compelling spirts are those that reflect this identity, or terroir, or both!