Does it matter where your whiskey is made? in other words, can you taste the place where its ingredients come from? It’s not a trivial question, but increasingly, the answer seems to be a resounding Yes. “Terroir” is a word derived from French — it is the name for the effect of ingredients, nurture, and place. In short, it refers to the role of the location where something is made.
Generally, terroir is used by reference to wine, when the “biochemistry of the soil” is more important. It’s also increasingly perceived as essential in other products we consume: food and drink, whiskey included. Like in real estate, whiskey means location, location, location. My whiskey knows where it’s from.
It’s the phenotype, kids
Wordnik defines “terroir” as the aggregate characteristics imparted by environment or location. A chemist or geneticist might say it’s the phenotype (“perceived traits and character”) as opposed to the genotype (“the blueprint”). Nature shaped by nurture. The phenotype says that whiskey terroir is about where it was made, from what it was made, how it was made. We did an article about a French single malt (Kornog) a while back, touching on the same theme.
Rob Arnold, a head distiller at a Texas company, put it succinctly: “I consider terroir—in its most basic sense—as simply a synonym for environment, and its ability to influence flavor is not debatable.” (The quote can be found in an article in Forbes.)
Mass production versus local crafting
A couple of decades ago, the idea of terroir in whiskey was shrugged off. It was too intellectual, involuted. A little too French. The concept belonged in a conversation about wines. Today it’s very different. The most interesting whiskeys I taste, often, are often those that strongly represent the place of their origin.
Mass-produced whiskey had neglected its local flavor because of the equipment, practices and ingredients of companies producing it, focus on being able to scale the output to the market. Bourbon was largely made from Yellow Dent Number 2 Grade corn. The result creates a somewhat hard-to-place generic product — where the flavor is added at the end by barrel-aging in various charred, oaky, aromatic vessels, including wine and brandy barrels.
With a little help from my friends
The whole terroir thing came into focus for me when a friend of mine introduced me to two comparably priced (both under $50 per 750 ml) Kentucky bourbons: 1792, and Longbranch. The former is from smaller batch distilling* and feels more direct; the latter is more sophisticated. And although I like and enjoy both of them, there is a difference. (Note: 1792 bourbon production has been owned, since 2009, by The Sazerac Company, which operates in more than 100 countries.)
1792 imparts a strong sense of place. I can feel something about where it was made. The Longbranch is more slick, more engineered and thought out. It is also a Kentucky bourbon, no doubt, but its home is harder to place. Longbranch is made by a larger company (Wild Turkey). Mesquite from Texas is added to its flavor and it has a blended feel.
Like with anything else, the science of taste is the deep end of the pool. The relationship of taste and smell is well known. But, place and time and context, who is doing the tasting, from what culture and background, in what setting — all these things also influence taste.
To acquire a quick knowledge of the issue, you can read NYT from August 2018: Can Liquor Have a Local Taste? — They’re Banking on it.