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Does Single Malt Scotch Whisky Express True Terroir?

Is there a useful definition of terroir that has any real meaning for single malt Scotch whisky?

The concept of terroir was made famous by the French in marketing their wines (even though the Spanish had created local growing regions over 100 years earlier). This term is used to designate the unique qualities of a place as it affects the growth and final character of the grapevines planted there, their harvest of wine grapes, and the wine that results from that year’s harvest.

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Terroir is the unique fingerprint of a unique local place (even micro-plots within the same vineyard). It reflects its soil composition and chemistry, climate, weather, sun latitude, farming practices, craft, culture and history. Terroir tells how well a wine “expresses” the terroir of its constituent grapes, and enables the drinker to judge it unfavorably if he or she cannot discern any character indicating where it was made.

Yet when it comes to fine whisky, and here the focus will be on single malt Scottish drams, drinkers are unlikely to hear a description of the local terroir where the whisky was made. They are more likely to find descriptions based on flavor profiles that refer to qualities such as smokiness, honey, heather, nuttiness, peat, brine and grassiness.

All labeled single malt Scotch whisky must be made by a single distillery in Scotland. It must meet all legal requirements of being classified as a single malt offering (which may be a blend of selected spirits distilled at different times at that one distillery).

It is well known that most of the complex flavor of a single malt whisky comes from the interaction of the spirit in wood barrels through ageing for several years.

Does a fine spirit that derives anywhere between 2/3rds and 3/4ths of its final flavor from aging in wood casks have any right to claim it is in any real way influenced by its terroir? And could we taste any real difference?

This question was put to the test at a recent tasting at the Dillard Room in Seattle, Washington. Four offerings from Laphroaig were hosted by Simon Brooking, Master Ambassador, and Vicky Stevens, Master Blender. Sampled were Laphroaig’s classic Ten year old, Quarter Cask, Triple Wood, and Select (a new offering).

A lot of information can be gathered about these and other offerings, including excellent tasting notes and the colorful history of Laphroaig (founded in 1825 on Islay, Scotland), from the official Laphroaig website at www.laphroaig.com.

The tasting revealed that there was a recognizable flavor character underlying the individual flavor profiles across all four drams. This unique Laphroaig character forms the backbone of the distinct Laphroaig family tree, and is immediately recognizable within each dram with its combination of rich peat, hint of honey, briny iodine and nutty toasted barley.

While this character resembles other neighboring fine Islay whiskys such as Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, as one might expect since they share many environmental similarities, nonetheless it is also distinct and has a unique and memorable quality all its own.

This back-to-back tasting confirmed this uniqueness as very real. Perhaps part of the secret to its unique character is the fact that Laphroaig not only uses local water from its glen but also is one of the only distilleries in Scotland using its own locally grown barley.

Combined with traditional small copper pot stills which are used to make the spirit and on-site ageing in select wooden casks in the cool and damp gray Scottish salty coast climate, one can identify the local Islay coastal terroir which is given fine expression in the various offerings from the Laphroaig single malt whisky family tree.

Even though much of the final whisky flavor is imparted through interaction with wood barrels in ageing, a unique family profile can still be identified. This profile is in part grounded in the specific local geologic, environmental and cultural history of the unique land, people and place where the barley is grown and the whisky is made.

The character of the local water, peat and influence of the nearby salty sea also add to the defining character of a particular distillery style. This unique family quality of Laphroaig’s character gives rise to some unexpected wonderful pairings with foods. For example, in addition to savoring it neat, the classic Ten Year Old pairs perfectly with Totten Island Virginica Oysters with their strong complex briny flavor profile.

Hence an expanded understanding of terroir is helpful both in appreciating the many offerings of a single distillery and in being able to identify the underlying family character, style and history they all have in common.

This local terroir based family identity is unique, recognizable and contributes to the present expression of the many complex qualities we value and prize in the resulting single malt Scotch whiskies.

While the individual flavor profiles of the four representative offerings from Laphroaig were easily identifiable, one can also recognize that they all belong to the Laphroaig family and share certain defining qualities we associate with that brand.

These include a unique combination of the local peat, smokiness from roasted local barley, brininess and iodine from proximity to the sea and an overall richness with balancing sweet notes from locally grown grains and cool wood barrel ageing.

One can instantly recognize a member of the long lineage of the Laphroaig family of fine Islay whiskies, and their fine expression of a unique terroir.

Fine whisky is not all in the wood. It is possible to define an authentic expanded notion of terroir which is expressed in unique styles of single malt Scottish distilleries and their family of offerings.

A definable regional single malt terroir gives rise to regional style similarities amongst unique whisky brand families, each with their own unmistakable styles.

And the entire world is that much the better for it.

Your Culinary World Copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel  2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey Charts a Path to More than Food

The best food films ask the viewer to consider questions beyond fixed recipes and easy menus. Rather the films with lasting value probe deeper asking why community matters and to what use talents should be put.

                Produced by  Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom at DreamWorks Studio

               Produced by Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom at DreamWorks Studio

DreamWorks Studio has recently released just such a film: The Hundred-Foot Journey. Based on worldwide best-selling book of the same name by Richard C. Morais, the film’s producers include the Hollywood power house team of no less than Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake.  

Yet it is the value of the film itself that merits a trip to the theater. The film consists of circles of relationships that overlap between cultures and kitchens and finally the human heart.

The film begins in India where Hassan Kadam (played by Manish Dayal) learns from his mother in the family restaurant that adding spice to both food and life results in delight. But Hassan’s peaceful world is suddenly destroyed when angry members of an extremist political party smash the family’s restaurant and he sees his beloved mother die in the resulting fire.

Fleeing India’s political turmoil, the family relocates to Europe, hoping to find both peace and a new safer location for both their restaurant and their way of life. A broken car and an inspiration from above prompt the father, (played by Om Puri), to settle in the quaint village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the south of France. 

There is only one problem: The location for Papa’s new Maison Mumbai restaurant is directly across the road from Le Saule Pleureur, a Michelin rated restaurant. Madame Mallory, the owner, (played by Helen Mirren) is not amused to say the least. She is the embodiment of tradition, restraint, classic technique. From her point of view, here is just too much music and too many spices being used in that new 'foreign' restaurant across the lane.

Soon a feud of culinary tit-fo- tat breaks out between the two restaurants escalating in a second fire and hate graffiti on a wall. Though traditional, Madame Mallory is horrified at the violence and a tentative truce is declared between the 100 feet that separate the two restaurants (hence the name of both the book and the film).

With peace comes romance between Hassan and Madame’s sous chef, Marguerite (played by Charlotte Le Bon) and the awareness by Madame Mallory that Hassan has the potential to be a culinary great – if he adds professional culinary training. to the skills his mother taught him.

Again cultural limits are strained as Hassan’s father struggles, but finally, releases his son to the larger world of fame and fortune. Will the young chef succeed and what will be the cost? What will be the relationship between the two restaurants, between the two owners once Hassan reaches for his own Michelin stars?

The answers to these questions makes the film well seeing (and owning when available) but be assured lovers and cultures do eventually meet over the final truth of cuisine: What matters in the end is not critics’ stars or cultural superiority but rather understanding the nature of fellowship, both in kitchen and at the table.

This thoughtful film, which contains no car chases or X-rated sex scenes, offers a reminder that diversity is a gift, not a curse. Diversity provides an opportunity to learn, to change, to create a new - in short, an opportunity to widen our circle of understanding to include the whole world. 

Your Culinary World Copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel  2014