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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Nate Brown

Terroir in spirits: the myths and the marketing

Nate Brown says that the word ‘terroir’ is becoming increasingly meaningless as producers and marketers deploy it to describe a whole range of inappropriate products. It’s time we stopped using…

Nate Brown says that the word ‘terroir’ is becoming increasingly meaningless as producers and marketers deploy it to describe a whole range of inappropriate products. It’s time we stopped using it.

Terroir is like quantum mechanics. Nobody can fully understand or explain it, though we are all aware of its existence. And much like the refusal of a quantum particle to be independently measured, as soon as I hear the word terroir in spirits, I know it isn’t at play. It vanishes at the sound of its name, like the opposite of Beetlejuice.

But for the purposes of this article, I’ll offer my own interpretation. Terroir is the flavour imparted by the idiosyncrasies of the location of its production. It’s a word owned by the wine world. It speaks not only of microclimates, polycultures, soils and sunlight, but also of tradition, culture, history and identity. Terroir is introspective. Terroir is retrospective. 

All very lofty. Perhaps I should explain what terroir is not. Terroir is not foraged local botanicals thrown in with sourced imports. Terroir is not a meaningless buzz-word employed by uncreative creatives. Terroir is not synonymous with small batch. Or ethos. Or foraged. Or local. Or mountainside. Or handmade.

Grace O’ Reilly from Waterford in Ireland

“The terroir, [is not] the process and the people ensure passion, innovation and tradition are poured into every bottle of Caorunn Gin”, according to a certain master distiller. There. I fixed it. 

Just for the record, claiming terroir in gin is pretty much always nonsense. Chances of you growing your own source material, fermenting it with wild yeast, then undoing all that hard work by distilling to 96%+ ABV, before sourcing juniper form Macedonia and orange peel from Seville pretty much makes a mockery of your idea of terroir. Because let’s face it, you’ve bought in your spirit, and your handful of locally-foraged botanicals aren’t going to cut it.

Similarly, rum has little claim to the word. I shan’t argue that some distilleries display characteristic styles, but where does the molasses come from? Some may be local. Most of it is shipped in bulk from Guyana. A rum company that imports spirit from a plethora of islands, making no reference to the molasses source, and part ages the product in Europe in French oak, should not be using the term terroir, grand or otherwise. 

As for whisky? Not likely. The overwhelming majority of Scotch produced uses barley from outside Scotland. There are those, like the chaps at Bruichladdich who source individual fields grown by local farmers, and as these ferment there’s a case for terroir. But if the distillation wasn’t destructive enough, the distillate is then aged in mostly American casks, or ex-sherry butts, all of which are most likely made from quercus alba, which isn’t even grown on this continent. Don’t tell me there’s terroir after all of that. 

That’s why vodka can probably use the term. There’s so little of anything else, that if the source starch is from a unique place, then its shadow grows long and reaches the bottle. Vestal does this well with some niche expressions made from individual potato varieties. Belvedere does it too. The other 99.9999% of vodka does not. As for Tequila & mezcal? Well, OK, maybe they have a claim, the blancos at least. 

Terroir can exist in spirits, barely, like fading colours of a painting left in decades of the afternoon sun, but until the likes of Waterford start delivering it in whiskey, it just doesn’t yet.

Not that any of that matters. It doesn’t take a genius (or a well-funded PR campaign) to see that a change in the source material will indeed change the resulting product. Stills aren’t that efficient (thank goodness or we’d all be drinking vanilla flavoured vodka). But, terroir exists in wine because there we have fermentation, followed perhaps by some subtle ageing, (and the low ABV of the ferment minimises cask influence) followed by bottling. Sure, there may be some filtration and other manipulations, but in a good wine there should be no greater influence than the grapes and the fermentation, without distillation to eviscerate terroir’s legacy. 

Nate Brown

Nate Brown in action behind the bar

So yes, talk about local provenance, sure. Incorporate your heritage and your surroundings by all means, but don’t use terroir. Try ‘sense of place’. Or ‘parochial’. Wouldn’t parochial spirits be a nicer term to band around? Because we really have to draw the line at a terroir-inspired (glass, blue highlighted) bottle design. Give me a break. 

I personally believe that terroir in spirits is possible, but I cannot reconcile this scale and commercialisation. I can fantasise about a poitin maker in the hills of Galway, growing his own grains and spuds for his tea, putting a bushel aside to ferment with wild yeasts, a rough, basic single distillation to ‘up the burn’ to ‘make something worth drinking, boy’, all done on a homemade still made from scrap parts and an old bucket. This is how his Daddy did it. And his Daddy before him. This is how he’ll teach his nephew to do it. This is terroir, it’ll be found in the place where the word has never been mentioned. See? It’s quantum. 

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

 

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Meet Scotland’s new make innovators

If you’re a new whisky distillery, what do you do to bring in a little cash while you wait for the spirit to mature? Make gin? Boring! Nate Brown looks…

If you’re a new whisky distillery, what do you do to bring in a little cash while you wait for the spirit to mature? Make gin? Boring! Nate Brown looks at two producers doing something a bit different. 

The economics of opening a whisky distillery are not for the faint-hearted. Years of planning, design, construction, commissioning of stills, bottling contracts and a hundred other factors are to be tackled even before the long wait for maturity begins. As it is, a cool £10m should cover the initial phases of the build for a good-sized operation. With perhaps as long as ten years of waiting on the cards before you can start to see any money coming the other way. Don’t expect your bank manager to do anything other than cackle in your face whilst bashing the under desk alarm. Mix into this the depth of competition and the unpredictability of future markets and you enter a kingdom of risk where few individuals dare tread. 

Ncn'ean Distillery

A watched cask never matures

So it’s no wonder then, that once the ground has been broken, walls erected and spirit has flown that distilleries explore any and all options at off-setting the huge cash deficit. You could, of course, release a gin, but please don’t. The world does not need another cynically-conceived on-the-bandwagon bottling. Gin fatigue, ironically, is alive and well.

If you really want to do something other than twiddling your thumbs and wait (which I strongly recommend), there is always the opportunity to play with the alcohol you are producing in-house. Indeed, it is the new-make spirit that makes a distillery unique, the casks used are pretty much ubiquitous. Just don’t expect to make any money. 

To be frank, it’s a darn shame that nobody just drinks new make. It’s a trillion times better than boring vodka (and I do mean the boring variety, not all vodkas are created equal). I know this because some new make spirits are already on the market, quietly gathering dust on shelves. Which begs the question, just what can be done with new make spirit? Here are two distilleries leading the way.

Lindores Abbey Distillery

Lindores Abbey Distillery in Fife

Lindores Abbey the infusers 

Does the name sound familiar? Good on you, my little geek. Lindores Abbey is mentioned in the first written reference to whisky (well, almost it’s written as Aqua Vitae) in Scotland (we know the Irish got there first). Appropriately then, Lindores Abbey has released an Aqua Vitae made from its new make spirit and infused with botanicals according to an ancient recipe (or close enough). 

The AV seems like a no-brainer. Although, as anyone in the sales and marketing side of the industry will be quick to point out, the ROI (Return on Investment) here is dubious. But we’re not here to make money, folks! No, no, this is an exercise in brand-building. 

As the man tasked with the education of the bartender community, brand ambassador Murray Stephenson plans to straddle both gin and rum drinkers by using AV as the hero spirit in classic cocktails, rather than as a modifier. It stands up in Espresso Martinis, Mai Tais, and Negronis, and all manner of tiki serves, should wish to don a grass kilt and pretend you’re more Bob Marley than Bobby Burns. Each to their own, I say. I’ll have mine in a highball. 

Ncn'ean Distillery 5

The stills at Ncn’ean Distillery

Ncn’ean the progressives

The folks at (the extremely unpronounceable) Ncn’ean do something similar. Again we have foraged local botanicals, only this time it’s distilled rather than infused. Yes, I know this sounds like a gin, but it really isn’t. There’s no juniper for a start. 

In fact, there is nothing gin-like in the new make from Ncn’ean; it’s really all about the rich, malty, stone fruit character of the spirit. Well, almost nothing. Yes, the signature serve is with tonic (and bitters). Yes, the bottle looks like a gin. Yes, some of the botanicals in the mix are locally foraged. But this is not gin. Nor is this terroir. This is a reflection of local provenance. There’s the key difference.

Ncn’ean distill the new make but its distilled with botanicals off-site. There’s no point in installing an expensive new still for a spirit that right now has a limited application. Ncn’ean, much like Lindores, isn’t balancing its while-we-wait-please-give-us-a-tiny-bit-of-cash releases on a pedestal of bullshit about apparent standalone integrity. 

I hope more newcomers pay attention to Ncn’ean’s (are we sure that word isn’t Elvish?) and Lindores’ models. What works here is the integrity. Goodness knows we could do with a tonne more of that in this game: we make fools of our guests when we are made of fools of by the marketers. Most of what makes a distillery unique is the new make, let’s celebrate it, even if we don’t drink it. After all, as any good brand engineer will tell you, if you’re not making money, make friends. 

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

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The art of slow drinking

Bartender Nate Brown asks why we try to cram our drinking into certain designated time slots but shun alcohol at all other times. That’s not how they do things on…

Bartender Nate Brown asks why we try to cram our drinking into certain designated time slots but shun alcohol at all other times. That’s not how they do things on the continent. . .

Hemingway once said that drinking was a way to end the day. Clearly, old Ernest didn’t spend enough time in 21st century Europe, where Croatian fishermen begin their daily routines with a tall Karlovačko, or where French farmers drink Picpoul like water under the afternoon sun. To true Europeans, the ‘it’s 5 o’clock somewhere’ mentality is a grotesque excuse: the clock is not the gatekeeper of the gullet.

Ricard pastis

Savoir faire, innit? (photo credit: Pernod-Ricard)

Besides, it isn’t much of a stretch to feel that Champagne was made for mornings and Martinis for lunchtime. When, if ever, is a Negroni an unwelcome addition to your day? A Highball in the afternoon, or a pastis at sundown, this laissez-faire timetable is when drinking is at its best, not crammed into a few blurry nighttime hours like Claphamites on the tube.

We’ve got to hand out to our continental friends, they know what to drink and when. A recent trip to southern Spain confirmed our differences. Not only do they actually have weather (as opposed to dreary old England’s perpetual grey), but they also know how to handle it. Siestas, two-hour lunch breaks, cafes that spill out onto the town square, and best of all, bucket loads of the grape and the grain to stave off the heat noon and night.

Alas, to the modern Brits anything more than a ‘cheeky’ glass at lunch is obscene. The sight of a lonely chap nursing his afternoon Boddingtons evokes feelings of pity and dread. There but for the grace of God drink I. Don’t believe me? Suggest a chilled Beaujolais over breakfast to your nearest and dearest and await the intervention.

It wasn’t always this way. The restrictive licensing structure as we recognise today was brought in to allegedly aid the war effort (I trust the terrible irony of Dutch Courage is not lost here). The Defence of the Realm act (which is not actually from Game of Thrones, who knew?) restricted the sale of alcohol in public houses to ‘luncheon’ and ‘suppertime’ as if the feast mentality of the barbarians still held true. David Lloyd George, the teetotal Chancellor of the Exchequer reportedly said that Britain was fighting “Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink.” And so he more or less brought to an end the afternoons of whisky sodas that had lubricated decades of social affairs. The taboo is a recent fancy, I don’t think the men and women of Victorian England had any qualms with an afternoon’s tipple, mother’s ruin or no.

Nate Brown

Nate Brown, making his usual breakfast cocktail

But since then we’ve learned to cram our drinking into designated time periods. No wonder most of us drink too quickly. I say it’s time to return to the past and slow down a bit. When in Rome, do as the Romans do: have a Negroni at 11.30am before embarking on a four hour lunch. And by slowing down, we can learn to recognise that what’s in your glass has been patiently grown, crafted, and rested (if it’s been rushed, don’t drink it).

Think about this. The years that it takes for an agave plant to reach maturity before catalysing into a spirit can be an astounding 10 years, often more. And we shoot it down like a penance to be paid en route to delight. The minimum three years of solitary silence endured by the Palomino grape in a sherry butt can only command prices of less than £15 per bottle. It’s madness. Fermentation can be aided, but there is no fast-forward button. These things take time, time that we cannot get back, time that is so rarely appreciated. The patience practised in alcohol creation is a virtue beyond parallel. Who’d be a producer, eh?

After all, time is the one vital ingredient that is almost always overlooked in the world of drinking. I dare say that if the hospitality industry began a campaign of education surrounding the time that goes into creating a spirit, a wine, or a beer, the world would be a better place; a place where we can drink cans of Mojito (or preferably something tastier) on the tube home, or where a glass of something sparkling can welcome the day, or where the awkwardness of meetings can be dissolved in a glass of gin. That’ll be the day.

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

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