whiskey terroir and why it matters, square whiskey glasses, distilling, location, the character of place

Whiskey terroir & why it matters

We had published an article or two on “terroir.” It’s a reference to location (here is a link to an article titled “Whiskey, Location, Location, Location”). To explain, it is about the idea that the place where a liquor (be it wine, tequila or whiskey) is made and from where its ingredients are sourced, are important.  They matter.

It’s simple: there is a unique character in the place where ingredients are born. There is character in soil, in barley and peat. So whiskey terroir & why it matters, is an interesting topic. We’re not trying to convince anyone. Just sayin’… ; )

But before any detail, let me just mention (click on the name) Laphroaig 10 yr old from Islay, Scotland. You all know it, if not, here’s a chance to correct the situation. And while you’re at it, check out our article on the Bezrat Whiskey  Glass Set.

Terroir is a French word, like blasé

Unfortunately for xenophobes, terroir is a French word, like blasé, or amour. If you don’t care for wine, or you are suspicious of people who put accents over letters in their language, you may resent the whole topic…  And you’ll be in plenty of company because many older (cough) whisky/whiskey lovers insist there is little reason to think location contributes to taste.

Wine, yes, most folks will admit the place of origin matters. That is to say, the location of vine cultivation and wine production have strong and indelible influences on how it tastes. But, say people, that’s wine — experts can taste the location a wine comes from, but that is because of how wine is made.

The vapor machine

We can see how the earth, water, and the conditions of a vineyard, what the environment of production is like,  will leave a gustatory imprint on the wine that is made there. The magic of viticulture is involved in these elements. The chemistry of the soil; the sun and shade; and the slope of the colline, these all end up in the taste.  They are modified by the art of the winemaker, and she/he begins and ends on location.

But distilled stuff like whiskeys? barley or rye or corn imported from wherever? There are given steps and refining that is the whiskey-making process. The malting, the mashing, the fermenting, the distilling, the maturing…. Partly, it’s the scale of mass-produced whiskeys, and how ingredients are sourced from far places in quantity.

But what really kills the role of place and location, some insist, is the process of distilling. The earthiness and local history are processed out in distilled products. The big vapor contraption removes minerals, impurities, all local traits. Hell, we can analyze it chemically and we see everything (or so we think… ). Distilling refines, purifies step by step. It strips electrons, it ionizes, and depersonalizes everything. You end up with vapor that could be from anywhere.

Or could it?

The chemistry of it all

The chemistry of whiskey — its molecular and atomic composition — comprises a huge continent. With advances in physics, it is even more exciting.

But also there are pitfalls. The fact that we can provide an inventory of the elements in a whiskey, does not mean we understand how that exact experience and taste are there. Nor how our experience of it is the product of those particular elements. The inventory is always incomplete. To paraphrase the great Karl Popper, there are only two kinds of truths in physics: those which have already been proved false, and those which have not yet been proved false. It’s his theory of falsifiability: in order for something to be considered scientific, it must be open to being shown to be false.

For example: none of the chemical assays can say at this point whether any of the particles in whiskey are quantum-entangled with particles elsewhere. Well, we won’t go down that particular rabbit hole BUT, we also don’t understand taste really. We don’t know what those elements are connected to. The candlelight in which we drink whiskey on a given evening, that plunges us in a mood, that candlelight is not in the bottle. But it influences the taste. We are bathed in the situation of the tasting. It’s not only the chemistry of the whiskey, but also of the persons tasting it. There is no taste without someone tasting; no experience without an experiencer. Those relationships influence our experience,  and for science, they are still terra incognita, largely.

Well — more later. In the meantime, let’s drink from good glasses!

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