This blog is in response to a recent article posted by Nate Brown, a distinguished figure in the spirits & cocktail world, on the Master of Malt blog.
As a small-indie producer, it’s probably a bit unwise to critique analysis like this from industry experts. However, it’s a topic dear to my heart and I’m not saying he’s completely wrong either and have to respect his drawing attention to whitewashing of terms like terroir in the spirits industry, but I wanted to set the record straight from the perspective of a distiller very much interested in terroir and how it can be used to make distinctive spirits.
You can read Nate’s article in full here. For the purposes of continuity I have quoted various sections of the article with my response below.
Nate Brown says that the word ‘terroir’ is becoming increasingly meaningless as producers and marketers deploy it to describe a whole range of inappropriate products. It’s time we stopped using it.
Agree that the term is definitely being ‘whitewashed’ and co-opted inappropriately, but far better to pushback and call out examples of this than stop using it. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! Terroir or ‘regionality’ has a place in food & drink in general not just spirits and we should not only be using it, but understanding it and seeking it out. This matters more today because of the pressures of globalised trade and international business. Traditional terroir is under threat like never before and commercially it makes little sense to invest in it in a world driven by who can shout the loudest and can operate on the slimmest margins, environment, people and place be damned.
Terroir is like quantum mechanics. Nobody can fully understand or explain it, though we are all aware of its existence. And much like the refusal of a quantum particle to be independently measured, as soon as I hear the word terroir in spirits, I know it isn’t at play. It vanishes at the sound of its name, like the opposite of Beetlejuice.
Maybe no salesperson can articulate it, but that’s probably because you need to live it to understand it. Yes, that sounds very grandiose, but natural connection & biocultural heritage is not something you can just force or come up with in a boardroom. It requires an ethos to pursue quality, flavour & character above all else, a deep connection to place and takes lifetimes to observe, refine and build as a community. In time it becomes part of that communities story, culture and heritage. That is precisely why it has value and we should be protecting and working to re-establish it.
But for the purposes of this article, I’ll offer my own interpretation. Terroir is the flavour imparted by the idiosyncrasies of the location of its production. It’s a word owned by the wine world. It speaks not only of microclimates, polycultures, soils and sunlight, but also of tradition, culture, history and identity. Terroir is introspective. Terroir is retrospective.
Terroir is flavour & character on that we can agree, but I fear by putting location on a pedestal it invalidates the premise. As you mention tradition and culture are also important, in fact the people, process and place are all entwined. This matters more today because of globalisation. Regional food & drink grew up in a world that was far less connected and was often a case of necessity rather than choice due to what ingredients or materials were cost-effective and locally available. That said, we should be thankful for that, as necessity is often credited as the mother of all invention. We certainly wouldn’t have many of the finer things in life if it had not been for many clever folk’s innovative and often serendipitous experiments.
So, what does terroir mean in the context of a globalised world? The premise is the same, but now we have the luxury of choice and the fog of marketing to peer through when searching for something authentic. It’s pleasant nostalgia to imagine a return to the times of old, but any modern business will know well that there is an opportunity cost to everything they do. If they invest into one aspect of the product, will they have the time and resources for another? That’s why from a terroir perspective you need to test, observe and carefully consider what aspects you can control and invest time and resources in those that will have the greatest effect on the flavour & character of the final product. It’s also why harnessing terroir to make something unique is an ongoing process; a journey, a story. The more information you gather, the more refined the process becomes, the more resources you have the more levers you can pull to create unique & distinctive produce. Again this is why terroir is not about extracting profit from the land via a soulless business, it is about creating a wider shared value by understanding land as a community and how to interact with it best and, ideally, most pleasurably. These days the size of that community is often only limited by how much of the world you can reach.
All very lofty. Perhaps I should explain what terroir is not. Terroir is not foraged local botanicals thrown in with sourced imports. Terroir is not a meaningless buzz-word employed by uncreative creatives. Terroir is not synonymous with small batch. Or ethos. Or foraged. Or local. Or mountainside. Or handmade.
Terroir is difficult to achieve, especially when it requires investing in doing more processes ‘in-house’ and working more closely with the local economy. Much production and manufacturing has been lost from ‘mature economies’ due to globalisation. It is usually far cheaper and easier to import or outsource most materials or processes. Terroir is about ‘doing it your own way’, again difficult in an increasingly interconnected world it’s easy to copy what everyone else is doing, but that road leads to homogeneity and boredom. Precisely why things like the artisan food & drink movement continues to be so popular, people want to know more about where their food & drink comes from, transparency about what’s in it and how it’s made and even the why it’s done that way, what is the story?
“The terroir, [is not] the process and the people ensure passion, innovation and tradition are poured into every bottle of Caorunn Gin”, according to a certain master distiller. There. I fixed it.
Just for the record, claiming terroir in gin is pretty much always nonsense. Chances of you growing your own source material, fermenting it with wild yeast, then undoing all that hard work by distilling to 96%+ ABV, before sourcing juniper form Macedonia and orange peel from Seville pretty much makes a mockery of your idea of terroir. Because let’s face it, you’ve bought in your spirit, and your handful of locally-foraged botanicals aren’t going to cut it.
I agree there is a lot of whitewashing in the gin category in general, perhaps the sign of a maturing market as everybody elbows for space. But let’s deal with the fallacy here. Terroir is about flavour & character. So, as you rightly point out, would growing your own heritage strains of barley for wild fermentation be a worthwhile investment of time and resources? Sure, if you’re making whisky or have unlimited resources, but if you’re making gin. No, not really. But if you’re to provide some more detail as to why, your argument against terroir in gin would start to fall apart. There are of course different processes and types of distillation. Selecting which to use matters hugely and producing a highly-rectified neutral spirit is pretty much the antithesis of terroir, but like it or not this is the legal starting point for gin production. Organoleptically suitable, neutral spirit of agricultural origin over 96% ABV. You essentially start making gin on an entirely blank canvass, all of the flavour & character you impart to it comes from the botanical ingredients used in the herb bill and the final distillation process. What botanical ingredients you use, where they come from and why, are about as direct an example of terroir in food & drink as you can get. The ingredients have a huge impact on the final flavour & character of the distillate.
I also agree there are few producers involved in gathering or growing their own botanicals, but there are some and there are many more that are sourcing ingredients locally. It is a grey area though because it’s simply not possible in many localities to obtain all the ingredients necessary to make gin, which brings into question the ethics of sourcing ingredients in general. I am far more concerned about those who are not transparent about these aspects in their products. For example, juniper is the core ingredient in gin and was once a common shrub across most of Northern Europe, but due to its utility, slow growth rate and incompatibility with grazing there are few wild, reproducing populations in countries like the UK and almost no commercial plantations. Also due to the hands-on nature of harvesting and sorting the cones the labour costs are high which has been a factor into why much of the juniper used in gin production is imported from areas with lower labour costs. In fact, in the UK, juniper is a priority species and requires support and careful management of existing wild populations. So, would it be ethical to harvest juniper locally in this context? Would it be worth investing in growing your own juniper plantation? Maybe. If the market is there to support it, if people put enough value in provenance and terroir.
Hopefully this illustrates that ethical producers who value terroir must also respect their environment and the law that defines the products they produce. Ultimately, I hope people will learn to see through the clever marketing and continue to support brands and products that they love, but I have to say that the sheer volume of choice does favour those who are truly unique or have the loudest voices.
Similarly, rum has little claim to the word. I shan’t argue that some distilleries display characteristic styles, but where does the molasses come from? Some may be local. Most of it is shipped in bulk from Guyana. A rum company that imports spirit from a plethora of islands, making no reference to the molasses source, and part ages the product in Europe in French oak, should not be using the term terroir, grand or otherwise.
Again a little pragmatism is needed here. Commercially growing sugar cane in the UK is not really possible, although I heard mention of a variety that had been developed recently so it maybe it is theoretically possible or will be soon. There are also other domestic sources of sugars that could be used, but whether this would be rum as we know it or not is another question. However, even if all the molasses used is imported, what matters from a terroir perspective is that the fermentation and distillation is done in-house. Rum like brandy and whisky obtains much of its character from the fermentation process. Particularly so in the case of rum as dunder – a yeast and bacterial mixture – is used in the fermentation. Many producers have their own unique dunder pits that keep generations of yeast and bacteria mixes evolving from batch to batch, generation to generation, producing many of the distinctive flavours transferred to the rum. This is like having a unique microbial signature to each producer wherever they are located, for a not dissimilar reason as to why lambic beers are cooled and fermented in open-topped wooden vessels in Pajottenland, Belgium or sourdough cultures as passed from baker to baker. There are definitely producers in the UK making rum like this. Unfortunately there are also start-up rum ‘distillers’ that crowdfunding lots of cash to basically import finished products and blend & bottle them too.
As for whisky? Not likely. The overwhelming majority of Scotch produced uses barley from outside Scotland. There are those, like the chaps at Bruichladdich who source individual fields grown by local farmers, and as these ferment there’s a case for terroir. But if the distillation wasn’t destructive enough, the distillate is then aged in mostly American casks, or ex-sherry butts, all of which are most likely made from quercus alba, which isn’t even grown on this continent. Don’t tell me there’s terroir after all of that.
Scotch is a heavily commercialised, mature industry now, but that doesn’t mean there are not terroir aspects to many producers. Bruichladdich, most of Islay in fact, and Edradour are examples, but I’m sure there are many and certainly several in Ireland too. But there is an error here. Distillation is not a destructive process. It is a process to separate liquids and gases based on their volatility. It does change the flavour of the distillate versus the ferment of course because it concentrates alcohol and more volatile flavour & texture components. For example, leaving behind complex sugars, acids & proteins that are more water soluble and simply too heavy. You could argue that temperature is destructive or more accurately can facilitate reactions that may change the nature of flavour & texture components, but you can also distil under vacuum at pretty much any temperature you choose – but this is not really necessary for whisky. There is definitely character imparted from the fermentation to scotch whisky, without a shadow of a doubt and there are regulations in place in this regard. The character is modified by the distillation and blending and significantly so by ageing in oak. Whisky wouldn’t be whisky without oak ageing, although you can find some expressions of ‘white dog’ spirits, in fact some of the ‘roughest’ distillates with the highest concentrations of congeners make some of the best aged drams if they are allowed the time to rest for slower processes like esterification to take place. I concede that in certain cases the effect of water on terroir can be rather overblown and this does happen a fair bit in scotch whisky marketing, but there are a lot of levers to pull along the way to prioritise terroir when making whisky. In Scotch, some styles have more and some less.
Could more be done, particularly around ageing? Yes, probably, but it’s more likely to come from innovative start-up distillers and most likely won’t be able to be called ‘whisky’ let alone Scotch Whisky as it’s highly regulated. I’ve tasted several experimental things like hopped ‘beer eau de vie’ (not bad!) and chestnut aged spirits and some things are well-established for a reason! I hope producers will continue to innovate even in categories like whisky, but where the law is concerned and mission critical factors that affect quality and flavour, perhaps unfortunately in some ways, what works wins out over locality. The misfortune is that a category name like gin or whisky needs protection, but also to allow innovation, otherwise producers make things that are ‘unclassified’ and have to be called things like ‘spirit drinks’ which has little or no meaning to customers and instead drives brands to try and crowbar them into categories they don’t really belong and without a degree of enforcement this just starts to muddy the waters and confuse everyone. This is exacerbated because it is very difficult to launch a new brand as well as creating a new category of spirit. It’s far easier for an existing, trusted brand to define a new category and vice versa.
That’s why vodka can probably use the term. There’s so little of anything else, that if the source starch is from a unique place, then its shadow grows long and reaches the bottle. Vestal does this well with some niche expressions made from individual potato varieties. Belvedere does it too. The other 99.9999% of vodka does not. As for Tequila & mezcal? Well, OK, maybe they have a claim, the blancos at least.
You really can’t have it both ways here. If making a neutral spirit for gin production by highly-rectifying a fermentation is not ‘terroir’ than neither is vodka production. In fact this is precisely why in EU law there are stipulations for how rectified a distillate can be for brandy, whisky etc. e.g. <83% ABV where taste is expected to be transferred by the distillation process, not eliminated. There are of course examples of well-made vodka that do start to express character and perhaps not so much flavour as texture resulting from the fermentation process. However, again this dives a bit deeper into different distillation and processing techniques, typically such vodkas are made from multiple pot distillations, which transfer almost all volatile flavours and some heavier components that affect texture and ageing potential, rather than column distillation which is very efficient at separating components and making very neutral spirits. However, you can probably find good examples of both that manage to capture aspects of terroir in their products. An evil of terroir, in vodka particularly, is an obsession with charcoal filtration which simply serves to trap the majority of any flavour & character that might remain.
Terroir can exist in spirits, barely, like fading colours of a painting left in decades of the afternoon sun, but until the likes of Waterford start delivering it in whiskey, it just doesn’t yet.
As you did above for Caorunn, I’ll try and correct this for you. Terroir barely exists in spirits that are highly rectified to remove most traces of flavour and character. However, it is easy to capture aspects of terroir in spirits it just tends to go against current commercial wisdom to do so. Thus, mostly it will be found from independent and typically smaller-scale producers. Not sure we should open the pandora’s box of natural ingredients being infused into spirits, but well, there’s that too!
Not that any of that matters. It doesn’t take a genius (or a well-funded PR campaign) to see that a change in the source material will indeed change the resulting product. Stills aren’t that efficient (thank goodness or we’d all be drinking vanilla flavoured vodka). But, terroir exists in wine because there we have fermentation, followed perhaps by some subtle ageing, (and the low ABV of the ferment minimises cask influence) followed by bottling. Sure, there may be some filtration and other manipulations, but in a good wine there should be no greater influence than the grapes and the fermentation, without distillation to eviscerate terroir’s legacy.
A change in ‘source material’, by this I will assume the source of sugars for fermentation, does indeed change the nature of the fermentation. However, all fermentations are not equal, you can encourage bacterial co-fermentations, create your own strains of yeast or stress them in all manner of ways to produce particular by-products for flavour development and equally you can optimise fermentations to provide high yields of alcohol with only small traces of residual flavour. Again it depends on what product you’re making, what distillation process you choose, as to how you control the fermentation and what you would choose to ferment in the first place. But most importantly here, distillation does not ‘eviscerate terroir’ if anything it concentrates the aromas and, thus, flavours caused by terroir. Ageing does not obfuscate terroir either, the complex nature of a white spirit will react in its own unique way to the ageing process depending on what flavour & texture components were originally imparted to it. It may change terroir, but it doesn’t destroy it. Examples of things that do ‘mess with terroir’ are adding colourants (like caramel) or sweeteners & chill or charcoal filtration. My concern here is that you’re pitching terroir as an ephemeral or ‘molecular memory’ issue like a homeopath when in fact it is a deliberate and layered approach to reflecting people, process and place in making food & drink that raises flavour, quality & character above all else.
So yes, talk about local provenance, sure. Incorporate your heritage and your surroundings by all means, but don’t use terroir. Try ‘sense of place’. Or ‘parochial’. Wouldn’t parochial spirits be a nicer term to band around? Because we really have to draw the line at a terroir-inspired (glass, blue highlighted) bottle design. Give me a break.
Unfortunately, pretty much every term that independent authentic producers use remotely successfully to differentiate themselves gets whitewashed by the larger industry. Craft, small-batch, handmade, artisan etc. Personally I prefer indie and terroir out of the lot, at this moment in time anyway, but while indie is fairly obvious terroir has no definition legally, not that that would necessarily help as enforcement seems to be a low priority anyway, but I suppose we have to hope people continue to see through the smoke and mirrors, ask probing questions & expect transparency, but crucially continue to support products they genuinely love. It wouldn’t hurt though if people with a platform gave a bit more of a nuanced point of view either.
I personally believe that terroir in spirits is possible, but I cannot reconcile this scale and commercialisation. I can fantasise about a poitin maker in the hills of Galway, growing his own grains and spuds for his tea, putting a bushel aside to ferment with wild yeasts, a rough, basic single distillation to ‘up the burn’ to ‘make something worth drinking, boy’, all done on a homemade still made from scrap parts and an old bucket. This is how his Daddy did it. And his Daddy before him. This is how he’ll teach his nephew to do it. This is terroir, it’ll be found in the place where the word has never been mentioned. See? It’s quantum.
You could be forgiven for thinking differently reading parts of your article! But I am pleased to hear it and honestly your central point holds, terroir takes huge investment and time to scale and commercialisation as it stands doesn’t seem to be very compatible with it. However, if people are willing to spend more on products that make terroir a central part of what they do then the commercial situation could change. Lastly, as quaint a picture as you’ve painted, terroir doesn’t have to be quite so rustic anymore. We understand far more about our environment now with advances in science and accessibility to measurement and analysis techniques than ever before. The days of selectively breeding crops generation to generation have probably passed. You might soon see brands designing and genetically engineering their own strains of grains perfectly adapted to their locality, or yeast and microbes, producing flavourings from new organisms or in vitro from bacteria. Producing their own water and power, perhaps even their own packaging from waste materials. Is this not also the pursuit of terroir? It sounds uncomfortably artificial to me now, especially without the story, the community & culture behind it, but I wonder what future generations attitudes might be like? I guess all great traditions started somewhere.
I can’t agree that terroir is quantum in nature, there are many small-indie producers where you can see & taste it in action and I hope to keep explaining the concept to many more people in time, but I do agree it takes serious work. How do independent spirits brands stand out then in this world of global brands? Perhaps we need a new term after all, how about, ahem, ‘graft spirits’? Will it never end!