In some whiskey circles, terroir is a dirty word. Or, maybe not so much ‘dirty’, as laughable. When it comes to whiskey and terroir, there is one camp that is open to the idea, and one camp that is decidedly not. There is no middle ground.
Terroir in this context is the concept that a place of origin asserts its character on a final product. Most often, terroir is heard of in the context of wine; the environment in which the grapes are grown is widely accepted to have an effect on the flavour of the resulting liquid. However, when it comes to whiskey, many argue that it’s far-fetched to apply the same logic to grains’ terroir influencing flavour.
While grapes are fermented and the wine subsequently aged, wine making is still a very different process from whiskey. Grapes are not cooked, for starters. Grains have to be cooked to be fermented and the beer distilled, and even then, it is entered into barrels to age for many years. One side of the debate argues that whatever distinctiveness the grain might have derived from terroir is surely long gone after all that processing and ageing.
Except that, when a mash bill is changed, the product is noticeably different, and when a type of corn other than the standard yellow dent no.2 is used, the end product is markedly different from its corn-standard counterparts. If grain variety can have such an important impact, and the location in which a grain is grown influences its character, perhaps there is something to this terroir business.
"Just like heirloom tomatoes, heirloom grains offer flavours and aromas that are distinct from – and often simply better than – modern hybridised grain varieties,” said New Riff Distillery co-founder Jay Erisman, talking about a new Turkey Red wheat bourbon. “We wondered what wheated bourbon would’ve tasted like 100 years ago, before modern agriculture bred so much flavour out of wheat in exchange for ever-increasing yields and ease of transport and storage.”
Many distilleries have turned to heirloom varietals of corn in an attempt to create new flavour profiles in their finished whiskeys. Some producers are also now looking into heirloom varietals of other grains,
from the aforementioned wheat to barley, rye and even things like oats and triticale.
Oftentimes, what is readily available on the open market is what is easily grown. To continue with Erisman’s example, the tomatoes we buy at the supermarket are often hard, watery, and tasteless; they’ve become like that through decades of hybridisation to make them economical to grow and easy to ship. Grains have undergone a similar process, with ease of growing and harvesting as well as yield (both in the field and in the distillery) at the forefront of decision-making. Indeed, modern commodity grains often contain more starch and less protein than their heritage counterparts, which delivers greater spirit yield.
A great way to look at the impact of terroir is to compare whiskeys made with the same heirloom grains in different locations. Jeptha Creed, Widow Jane, and Wood Hat Spirits are just a few of the companies using the gory-sounding Bloody Butcher corn. There are also several distilleries across the US producing blue corn whiskey, from Balcones to Snitching Lady. Assuming that the corn in
these whiskeys didn’t travel very far, looking at the differences in the flavours of the final products could provide some insight.
Maker’s Mark is currently experimenting with growing wheat on the distillery property, but what will be learned from this project remains to be seen. There are also lots of distilleries making promises about getting grains from local growers, potentially a risky move as climate change continues to intensify, but if distillers are successful, there may be opportunity for further study into how growing conditions impact flavour.
Unless a distillery or group of distilleries carries out methodical experiments looking for the answer, we may never know for sure whether terroir is a thing in whiskey. Regardless, there will always be a large swath of whiskey geekdom that believes whiskey terroir is the gospel truth.