Can Liquor Have a Local Taste? They’re Banking on It

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PITTSBURGH — 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 center 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 start-ups 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 whiskey, identical save for the words Saskatchewan, Minnesota or Pennsylvania — the sources of the grain used to make it.

Other than the grains, each whiskey is made the same way. And yet each tastes subtly different: The Saskatchewan whiskey 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 flavors like pear and bananas.

Those differences, Ms. Grelli said, indicate that spirits like whiskey 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 whiskey is made — in other words, terroir.

Wigle’s whiskey 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 — whiskey, 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 Moët 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 whiskey, 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 rigors 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 emphasize 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 whiskey 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, S.C. Had someone rounded up corn whiskeys from different parts of the country, he said, they would have tasted remarkably different spirits.

Over the last century, though, industrial farming and large-scale spirits production have encouraged distillers to focus on a limited range of grain varieties, grown not for taste but for alcohol yield, with much of the flavor coming later, in the barrel-aging process.

“This whole idea of terroir has been bred out of us by the large grain producers because it’s inimical to mass production,” said Mark Reynier, who built the Bruichladdich Distillery in Scotland around terroir-specific whiskeys before selling it to Remy Cointreau in 2012. (He is now at work on another terroir-driven project, the Waterford Distillery in Ireland.)

For example, almost all the corn used to make bourbon is a high-yield, relatively flavorless variety called Yellow Dent No. 2 grade, grown by the millions of bushels across the Midwest.

“When I was learning to distill, all I was taught was ‘buy Yellow Dent, Number Two Grade,’” said Rob Arnold, the head distiller at the Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. in Fort Worth, who is also pursuing a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics at Texas A&M.

For his dissertation, Mr. Arnold is examining how soil and climate in different parts of the state affect the flavor characteristics in corn, and whether those qualities come through in a distilled and aged spirit — a project that, he believes, will help him make whiskeys that can be identified with specific parts of Texas. “What I’m hoping to do is tap into flavors that have been forgotten,” he said.

A similar effort is underway at High Wire, where Mr. Blackwell and his wife, Ann Marshall, produce estate-specific rums and whiskeys, 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 whiskey, there seem to be subtle differences among High Wire’s bourbons — the corn grown along the coast produces a funky, vegetal tone in the whiskey, 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 center 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.

The same concern motivates Allison Parc, the owner of Brenne, a French single malt whiskey aged partly in used Cognac casks. It tastes unlike anything one might find in Scotland, in part because its distillers use barley varieties from the Cognac region of France and produce it using Charentais stills, which are common in France but rare in Scotland.

“If all we’re trying to do is copy Scottish single malts, then we’re going to bore the consumer and flood the retail shelf with similar products,” Ms. Parc said.

The terroir movement has even hit vodka, a spirit known for its lack of defining characteristics. The Belvedere brand recently released two terroir-driven vodkas: One, using rye from northeast Poland, is crisp and clean, with a minty bite; the other, using rye from a forested region near the German border, is sweet and savory — imagine salted caramel draped over mushrooms (or don’t, though it is quite tasty).

“For the last five to 10 years, it’s been challenging for vodka,” said Matt Pomeroy, Belvedere’s global director of education. “There’s been nothing to talk about with bartenders and consumers, because there’s been no innovation. Now, there’s a conversation to be had.”

Other distillers are pushing the terroir conversation beyond grain. Gable Erenzo, a former distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits in the Catskill Mountains of New York, recently opened Gardiner Liquid Mercantile, where he makes fruit brandy using ambient yeast — whatever happens to be floating in the air around his distillery.

“The combination of things in the air create such a different type of flavor,” Mr. Erenzo said — flavors that might be different if he had set up shop even a few miles away.

Matt Hoffman, the master distiller at Westland, in Seattle, goes even further, using not just local barley but a local species of oak, Quercus garryana, to make the barrels for aging his single malt whiskey. (Most American whiskey barrels are made from white oak, or Quercus alba.)

“We take a holistic approach,” he said. “We have to build up a whole system around us.”

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 one-hundred-percent get it in terms of soil and flavor,” said Brian Kinsman, the malt master at Glenfiddich, one of the largest producers of single-malt Scotch. “When it comes to whiskey, it’s a little less clear, because distilling has such a big impact on flavor.”

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 flavor differences. And even if tests did show a difference, it’s not a given that drinkers used to industrial-scale whiskey 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 skeptics 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 whiskey.

“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.”

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