Let me bring you love from the fields is one of my favorite lines in Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Wood” which is not about romantic love or platonic love but one of the natural world. One of winds and the smell of mosses and reeds. The other day I was walking through the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary on a bone chilling, damp morning. My winter coat was foolishly left on my bed as I rushed out of the house knowing I only had a couple of hours before I had to get my daughter from school. When I arrived and realized I had no wallet (which was in my jacket) and no jacket (which was surrounding my wallet) I sat in my car for about 3 minutes and thought of what my next move would be. As I really needed some fresh air to relax a very busy mind I put on my winter boots (thankfully in the trunk of the car), zipped up my hoody and walked through the murky, damp mist. I walked in silence (in mind as well as in body). Then a thought entered my head and I became encapsulated with my surroundings. I started thinking about, of all things, scotch whisky. I began envisioning the mossy grasslands, the damp cold chill of the Highlands but mostly, probably because I was ankle deep in it, water.
I often use the term “terroir” when I discuss spirits, wine and beers but, what does it really mean? What are all those fancy pants wine snobs referring to? Is it an earthy quality? Napa Valley is said to have terroir but for them it is luscious, lip smacking fruits and sweetly tannic oaked qualities so earthiness is right out. What it means at least in the literal is the effect of the elements. California has ample sunshine and dry mild weather which can make for a deeply fruity and yet mildly complex wine, but does Two Buck Chuck offer terrior? Some would say no, but I say yes. Why? Even though this is a factory jug wine that is sourced through the entire state of California there is still a sense of place. And that sense of place is very straight forward. It is in the lack of pretense. It’s the sociability of drinking wine. The everyday for the every body. For the forgotten art of simple conversation among friends. Mostly on how cheap the stuff is. But to me that is as much about terroir as is the great hills of Burgundy. Yes, it is in the soils, the sun and winds but it can also be found in a Jewish deli in Brookline, a barber shop in Harlem, a pub in Southie. But there is also the full embrace of terroir. The complete understanding of the literal and the figurative. It is the elements and the elemental that is often unthought of. It lays in the streams and rivers throughout the Lowlands and Highlands of Scotland. It is in the tributaries of Isaly where peat moss is king and even the barley that is not dried by this medicinal and smoky smelling moss, the flavors live in the waters and in the mentality of distiller.
The legacy of history. It is in the height of the stills at Glenlivet, the broad, onion stills at Aberlour and the sweet salty air in Islay. Scotch to me is all about terroir. It is a single pin prick on the map. It is an iconic sense of being. It is the strong water.
North by North West
There is nothing like a great Highland single malt. Even the word “Highland” gives such a feeling of strength and pride. This is quite evident at the 1st inhalation of the intense, broad shouldered power of the oily distillate. What is odd is that an area with so much regional stance is so very vast. The Highlands comprise most of Scotland, but within it’s corners lies the subtle arms of great whisky. It can be a striking contrast to the sub region of the Highlands where the most prevalent single malts are produced.
This is the region of Speyside where the great river Spey cracks the top of the region off of the North Sea right down the center of Eastern Scotland. From this river runs many small tributaries that house iconic names like The Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenrothes and Aberlour What is most striking is that producers like The Glenlivet and Glenrothes which to me make two of the most iconic Speysides are nestled right next to The Macallan and Aberlour who are known for big, punchy flavors. As I stated earlier, terroir is as much nurture as it is nature. The nurture is often times the work of the stillman and the still itself. The great potstills of Scotland are made of copper. Copper is a natural purifier so the larger the still the softer your whisky will become. As the fermented liquid evaporates in the still the vapors that travel to the condenser come in contact with the copper of the still neck. As it does the copper strips away oils, fats and acids. The resulting distillate will become lighter and delicate so the larger the still the more the vapors connect with the copper. Distilleries like Glenlivet and Glenrothes have large necked stills, in fact Glenlivet has the tallest stills in Scotland which are about 15 feet.
In sharp contrast their neighbor The Macallan has the smallest stills in Scotland with Aberlour coming in right behind them. What this does is give the whiskies an oilier and fuller flavor profile as it comes off of the still. It is the still masters job to decide at what point he will separate the foreshots or heads (the high octane, fruity spirit) the hearts (the cleanest, purist part of the distillate) and the faints or tails (the vegetative, funky and low octane distillate at the end of the run).
Even though distillers like the Macallan and Aberlour are in the heart of Speyside, they choose to create a dram in the style of the highlands, rich, bold and powerful. It is there sense of terroir.
Then of course there is the water. Distilleries historically have set up shop next to water sources that they think will give them the best whisky. Hard water which comes from softer minerals has a sweeter, minerally backbone. The best way to really understand this is with Kentucky Bourbon because it is the intrinsic base of Kentucky whiskey not corn which most people will think. Kentucky has a ton of limestone. The springs that filter through the limestone which is a sedimentary rock, strips away the calcium, phosphorous and potassium from the rocks. This now gives the water a sweet, deep and rich flavor profile. This is evident right from the source. There is nothing like tasting spring water from Kentucky. It is the backbone and bass tone to Kentucky whiskey. Scotland is no different although the water sources are much more varied. The Glenlivet is known for having sweet, rich water and even though a dram of Glenlivet can be delicately nuanced, the mouth feel can be powerful in a subtle way.
Aberlour on the other hand has a softer water source which means that the stones that the water runs through is harder rock like granite which is much tougher to erode. This makes for a sligh tly drier distillate. The strength of Aberlour comes from the smaller stills which make a richer spirit on the palate with a dry, light finish. So where does that deep color and sweet palate come from when you are talking about the Macallan or Aberlour, that would be the intense Olorosso oak that is used. This gives the whiskey as sweetly spiced, nutty and dried fruit note. The sherry barrels (or butts) used pack a huge punch of flavor and color so you will get notes of the sweet, fortified Spanish wine on the nose and front of the palate but the finish in both of these whiskies are incredibly soft and subdued. This compared to the delicate aromas of the Glenlivet 16 year Nardurra which uses ex-bourbon barrels develops a soft toffee and honeyed tone with hints of sweet, purple flowers and butter. There’s almost a creme texture without the brulee. But where the sleeping giant gathers its footing is on the finish. It is long and lush. And of course past the water, still man and barrel selection there is also the elements that your barrel will age in, sometimes for decades.
Where There’s Smoke
One of the most identifiable aromas and flavors of Scotch is the intense, smoky, medicinal smell of peat and no place wears this like a suit of armor as does the small island of Islay. Islay (Aye-la) is off of the south western coast of Scotland where the chilly, salty winds permeate aging barrels. It is also home to a decomposed moss that when harvested is as thick as a brick. Once this moss is dried it is used to fire the kilns that are used to dry barely on what is called “the malting floor.”
Lets step back a bit here for some explanation. When barley is in its raw form it is hard, starchy and dry. To get out those rich, maltose sugars you need to soak your barely in water. Once it begins to germinate a small little sprout will burst from the hard husk of the grain.
This is the sweet, golden promise of what will be rich, heady whisky. Now the grain has to be dried for if it is left to germinate too long it will lose that maltose sugar and develop too much starch. Although Scotland has a rich supply of forests, it is overwhelmingly the grasslands that dominate the nation and below these grasslands lies the fossilized moss that was once the sweet, purple flowers known as heather. This moss is called peat.
Peat moss is not the most efficient way to heat your kiln as it burns really fast but it also burns a hell of a lot hotter than wood causing a quick drying and it also leaves behind an intense, smoky almost campfire aroma with notes of iodine, dried tobacco and the subtlety sweet, purple flowers it once was. The stanch, powerful, salty and lean Islay whisky is born.
This is the Island where Laphroaig, who’s cellar is literally below the shore line create a salty, medicinal whisky. It is where Lagavulin makes a sweet, broad, smokey Scotch, but there are two distilleries where the intrinsic terroir sleeps in the waters and floats in the air around the aging whisky. The subtle salty aromas and herbal peat are present because they are present on the Island. I am referring to Bunnahaibain (Boon-ah-ha-vin) and Bruichladdich (Brooke-law-dick) who both make whiskys that are unpeated meaning they don’t use peat moss to dry their barley.
Bunnahabain has been distilling since 1881 but they have only been bottling their whiskys for since the 1970’s. For the first part of their distilling history they sold off their whiskys to blending houses. When I 1st tasted Bunnahaibain I loved the sweet, delicate notes of peat and the flavors of dried fruits from the old sherry butts. However I was skeptical on putting this on a list. You see when people see Islay on a bottle of Scotch the immediate emotional response is the hefty, peaty whiskies of Ardbeg or Bowmore. Those that think that terroir is only of nurture rather than nature might be disappointed. This is a whisky that carries very subtle flavors of peat and salt which comes from the sea air and the naturally peaty waters. Bruichladdich makes some of the most exciting Scotches I have had in many years. They are one of the only major distillery using 100% Scottish barely. Most other distilleries get their barely from eastern Europe where it can grow like a weed. They also source out the specific farms where they get the barley from. The Rockside Farms which I am drinking now has a bright, peaty aroma with notes of Bergamot tea, smoked almonds, vanilla cake, dried apricot and well, the actual distillate. You can get a sense of what actually came off of the still. It is not masked with intentional peaty notes, or overly rich, oaky notes. Bruichladdich can make intesely peated whiskys like the Octomore which has 3 times the peat of Laphroig but the majesty of the dram is in the unpeated, single sourced, pure, sweet and salty goodness. This to me is terroir at its essence. It is understanding the relation between the farm, the waters and the air. It is a model of earth, wind and fire.
What I have learned over the years of researching and most importantly, drinking my way through understanding culture is that there is no clear answer for understanding people. Everything is hidden in a murky layer or history and regional identity of ones place in the world. In the case of Scotch whisky it is understanding 1st of all your location, the air, the stills handed down to you, your self proclamation and sometimes anointed identity. It is understanding that even though you work next to the bold and rich, you can be soft and delicate. Knowing your terroir is the reconciliation of those before you, those around you and those to follow. The only way to really know is to crack the bottle so you can understand this world and bath in its waters.