Terroir is making its way to the whiskey conversation. The concept of terroir was borrowed from the wine world and encompasses the natural environment in which wine grapes are grown and how those natural features affect the final product. While terroir certainly has an effect on both wine and whiskey, it’s more pronounced in wine and much more complicated in whiskey.
For starters, much of the winemaking process is designed to maintain the flavour of the grapes, while much of the whiskey- making process is aimed at removing certain flavours and adjusting what’s left through the maturation process.
I’ve spent the last year talking about corn, from heirloom corn to how climate change will affect corn crops and thus whiskey production. The more I learn about corn the more I realise what an integral part of our everyday lives it is, even for those who do not imbibe. It’s in everything.
Part of the reason for this is that it’s the backbone of monocrop agriculture. Historically it has always grown well in North America, and its abundance has led to a plethora of uses. The United States is the top producer of corn in the world, so it follows that our native spirit, Bourbon, is made from a minimum of 51 per cent corn.
So what does this have to do with terroir? I would argue that terroir is a small piece of the overall process that influences the final product that ends up in your bottle.
The United States is the top producer of corn in the world, so it follows that our native spirit, Bourbon, is made from a minimum of 51 per cent corn.
Corn definitely displays elements of the environment in which it was grown, and this is even more true when it comes to heirloom and hybrid heirloom or beyond heirloom varietals. These flavours are apparent in the final product, but it took a lot more than some sunshine and minerals in the soil to get them there.
In the frontier days of early America, distilling was a way of preserving an excess of crops. Distilled corn became currency for local and regional trade. Eventually someone decided to put corn whiskey into a charred oak barrel to meet consumer demand.
Then came the bad actors, putting things like battery acid and tobacco juice into grain neutral spirit. Trade groups and government officials worked to protect the integrity of Bourbon by introducing the first consumer protection laws. These laws defined what could and could not go into your Bourbon as well as how it needed to be aged, processes which have added far more distinction to the general flavour of Bourbon than the terroir of the corn alone.
Culture, consumerism, business interests, distillation processes and politics have had just as much influence over what comes out of the barrel as terroir does.
Still, it is often said that you can distill the same mash bill with the same yeast at a different distillery and get a different result. The water might be different or the microclimate in which the barrels are aged might be different. There can be slight variations in the process: cooking temperature; number of days per mash; sweet or sour mash; and many more. There can be variations in the aging, right down to different racks or levels of the warehouse or whether a barrel is stored on the sunny or on the shady side. Every little variation in the process has an effect.
Culture, consumerism, business interests, distillation processes and politics have had just as much influence over what comes out of the barrel as terroir does. Even as newer distillers try to set themselves apart from the crowd through their masterful use of terroir, the parameters in which they must operate have already been set. The main flavour profile of Bourbon has been set through a standard process, but it is still possible to achieve variation within the confines of this process.
While terroir isn’t necessarily a new thing in whiskey, the understanding and ability to assert control over it is. As distilling spreads across the United States once again, new environments will have different results on the maturation process.
The use of different strains of corn that thrive in different regions or climate conditions will also change the end product.
As new distillers learn and innovate in areas where distillation has not been done in a long time, terroir is one of many tools in their toolboxes that will help them come up with their signature style and flavour profile.