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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Book Review: "The Terroir of Whiskey" by Rob Arnold

"Its origin, its heritage, its history. The identity is inextricable from the people who made it and the place that made them."
Rob Arnold is a master distiller and this is a book about his journey to find terroir in whiskey. We're not just talking about whiskey here though, because the fire that is ignited in his question can be traced back to the source of the idea. To see if there is terroir in whiskey, first Rob must grab the concept of terroir itself. And where does the idea of terroir come from and shine through the best? Wine!

Yes, this book has plenty to do with wine but it is still a whiskey book. So after Rob has experienced what terroir truly means and how it's expressed through grapes and its fermented juice, it's now time to see if terroir can be expressed in whiskey. We were always told that whiskey is about the water from where it's from, but what about grains? Can they have terroir too? And can terroir make it through saccharification, then fermentation, and then still show itself after distillation? Finding these answers is a much taller order than you think it is.

The grain farming industry is very, very different than the grape growing industry. Grapes grown for wine have been all about their place of origin for hundreds of years, where as grains have always just been about getting the most yield. The vast majority of grain are gathered from all over the place and put through grain elevators and then distributed out to all sorts of different businesses, whether they make bread, animal feed, beer, or whiskey. So how do you narrow it down? How do you research whether or not grains like rye, barley, and corn can take in a true sense of place and then express it after distillation?
"Wine and bourbon may look and taste different, but there is an impressive overlap between the chemical compounds that make up their flavors."
Rob has a scientific mind so he uses the scientific approach a lot, which as a man of science I appreciate and respect. For those who are not so much into chemistry but still interested in Rob's experiences and findings, I would certainly do a little research into the chemistry of wine and spirits first. There is going to be plenty of times that big words are going to be confusing and honestly wear you down here. Although I'm a science enthusiast who has done plenty of reading on chemistry, especially in the alcohol industry, this went over my head A LOT!

That said, it's not all about lab work, chemical compounds, and peer reviewed studies. There are plenty of down-to-earth, hit-home moments to go around. The feeling of sense of place, his experiences of actually being there, and taking in terroir through his own human senses are prominent too.

I learned a hell of a lot from this book. For example, it never occurred to me that yeasts create alcohol as an evolutionary trait to protect themselves from harmful microbes. But I'm not going to lie: there were some parts that I impulsively wanted to make corrections when it came to wine. However, the dude is a master distiller and clearly smarter than me when it comes to the sciencing so I'm absolutely taking his word on everything else. It's quite the interesting read and I recommend it.
"Here I was, in the middle of rural Ireland, drinking tea, eating scones with fresh butter, and drinking whiskey made from barley grown not more than a hundred yards from where I was sitting. And I was enjoying it with the farmer himself, basking in his pride. It was the expression of a very specific place."

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