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Whisky infused with a sense of place

Advocates argue spirits such as whisky also can have terroir that enhances its appeal

(From left) Alex Grelli, Meredith Meyer Grelli, Mary Ellen Meyer and Mark Meyer are the founders and owners of Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh. No one is sure whether spirits can convey "terroir" like wine does, but distillers are actively seeking out, and banking on, the nuances on the palate of provenance.


IN RECENT years the Strip District, blocks of warehouses running north from downtown Pittsburgh along the Allegheny River, has become a hub of innovation, including a research centre where Ford is developing its next generation of driverless vehicles.

But the ideas don't stop at cars and computers.

Nestled among the laboratories and startups is Wigle Whiskey, a craft distillery with a reputation for off-the-wall experimentation. On a recent afternoon, Meredith Meyer Grelli, one of its owners, showed off its latest offering: three small flasks of rye whisky, identical save for the words Saskatchewan, Minnesota or Pennsylvania - the sources of the grain used to make it.

Other than the grains, each whisky is made the same way. And yet each tastes subtly different: The Saskatchewan whisky is smooth and nutty, the Minnesota a bit earthy, the Pennsylvania fiery and fruity. Initial chemical analysis, Ms Grelli said, supports those impressions: The Pennsylvania rye, for example, had elevated levels of ethyl acetate, which imparts flavours like pear and bananas.

Those differences, Ms Grelli said, indicate that spirits like whisky can have something that the distilling world has long dismissed: a sense of place, drawn from the soil and climate where the grains grow and the whisky is made - in other words, terroir.

Wigle's whisky trio, called the Terroir Project, goes on sale this fall in select markets and is among the first in a wave of place-specific spirits - whisky, vodka, rum and others - coming out over the next few years. The producers range from small, regional distillers to global names like Belvedere, the Polish vodka owned by LVMH Mo√ęt Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

The new spirits are part of an international movement by distillers, plant breeders and academic researchers to return distilling to what they see as its locally grounded, agricultural roots.

"A lot of people think that when they drink a craft whisky, they have to ask how it compares to a bourbon from Kentucky," Ms Grelli said. "We like to ask, 'Does it taste like where it came from?'" Terroir is a concept usually associated with wine; it's what makes a Burgundy from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin taste different from one made the next village over, in Morey St-Denis. It is an untranslatable and often imposing term for a very basic idea: that agricultural products are shaped by the soil, climate and culture where they are grown.

Conventional wisdom, and most distillers, contend that the rigours of the distillation process strip out whatever nuances a grain might carry with it. And it's true, Ms Grelli and others concede, that these days there isn't much difference between a bourbon made in Kentucky and one from New York.

But that, they say, is simply the result of the industry's overreliance on a few giant suppliers of commodity grains. They believe that spirits with a sense of place can be made by cultivating regionally specific varieties, along with farming and distilling techniques that emphasise a spirit's local character.

The most ambitious distillers predict a time, not far-off, when discerning drinkers will seek out, say, a Hudson Valley rye in the same way they might a Stag's Leap cabernet sauvignon.

"We imagine a whisky future where half the market is made up of small, regionally driven producers," Ms Grelli said.

Advocates for the idea argue that terroir was once a given in spirits-making - that well into the 19th century, American farmers grew hundreds of varieties of corn, rye and other grains, and distillers used whatever was nearby.

"Before the Industrial Revolution, everyone had their own varietal of corn in their backyard," said Scott Blackwell, an owner of the High Wire Distilling Co in Charleston, South Carolina. Had someone rounded up corn whiskys from different parts of the country, he said, they would have tasted remarkably different spirits.

A similar effort is underway at High Wire, where Blackwell and his wife, Ann Marshall, produce estate-specific rums and whiskys, drawing on crops grown along the South Carolina coast, and inland along the Pee Dee River.

Working with farmers across the state, they make their bourbon using a variety of corn called Jimmy Red, which they selected with the help of Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, a South Carolina company that sells heirloom grains.

As with Wigle's rye whisky, there seem to be subtle differences among High Wire's bourbons - the corn grown along the coast produces a funky, vegetal tone in the whisky, while the corn from further inland produces cleaner, sweeter notes.

Some of this, of course, may be a matter of autosuggestion. That's one reason, like many distillers in the movement, High Wire works with a plant geneticist - in this case, Stephen Kresovich of Clemson University, which operates a 300-acre agricultural centre outside Charleston.

"Our relationship with Dr Kresovich and the research team at Clemson has been invaluable," Mr Blackwell said. "Their expertise and advanced lab techniques confirm and quantify aspects of terroir that we can only surmise from sensory experience." Distillers aren't just looking at terroir for curiosity's sake; they're seeking an edge to help them compete with cheaper established brands, and set themselves apart from the hundreds of other craft spirits released each year. "We have to differentiate ourselves because the costs are higher, so our focus on local, on the taste of a place drives that," said Alex Grelli, an owner of Wigle Whiskey.

For all its energy, the terroir movement in distilling is still small, and many of the industry's leading figures remain unpersuaded.

"When I think of terroir in wine, I 100 per cent get it in terms of soil and flavour," said Brian Kinsman, the malt master at Glenfiddich, one of the largest producers of single-malt Scotch. "When it comes to whisky, it's a little less clear, because distilling has such a big impact on flavour." Adherents disagree, but they admit that so far, laboratory testing, while promising, is inconclusive. Wigle's Terroir Project, for example, didn't control for the varieties of rye, which could also explain flavour differences. And even if tests did show a difference, it's not a given that drinkers used to industrial-scale whisky would appreciate it.

"We have to balance geeking out with how much this all impacts the consumer," Ms Marshall, of High Wire, said.

What both terroir sceptics like Mr Kinsman and advocates like Ms Marshall and Mr Blackwell agree on is the importance of learning to talk about regionally specific spirits - whether that uniqueness comes from the soil and the climate that foster the crops, or the culture and techniques that manipulate them into vodka, rum or whisky.

"William Faulkner liked to say that even his postage-stamp of soil in Mississippi was worth writing about," Mr Blackwell said. "If we can find something special about this place and suspend it in a bottle, then we've found something honest and delicious and pure." NYTIMES