Some spirits producers will tell you that the distillation process negates any discernible character from the final product. While that might be true for mass-produced hooch made without any consideration of the source of the base material, there’s a smaller category of spirits that strives to highlight a sense of place in its products.
Single-estate spirits, crafted with grains, potatoes, agave and other ingredients grown at one location, express the character of where (and from what) they’re made, including the effects of climate, soil, altitude and native yeasts found in the area. But don’t take our word for it. Try these five bottles for a taste of true authenticity.
“We wanted to express the uniqueness of northwestern Minnesota as purely as we could from start to finish,” says Michael Swanson, the owner and distiller of the northernmost distillery in the contiguous United States. From grain to glass, every aspect of this rye whiskey is Minnesotan. The rye hailes from Swanson’s own 100-year-old family farm in Hallock, and the grains are milled, mashed, fermented and distilled at the distillery. The resulting whiskey has brown sugar, orange peel, sawn oak aromas, flavors of dried currants, almonds and vanilla, and a baking spice finish. ”Regional expressions of spirits are one of the most vital contributions craft distilleries can make,” says Swanson. “They add authenticity, heritage, nuance and depth to the whiskey category.”
A joint venture by third-generation tequilero and fifth-generation agave farmer Carlos Camarena in partnership with tequila expert and official ambassador of tequila to the EU Tomas Estes, this tequila highlights the stark differences in agave grown in the Highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, at different estates with varying altitudes and climates. Each release comes from a specific estate and year of harvest. For the plata (silver), the agave is cooked in steam-powered ovens, fermented in wooden fermentation tanks using wild yeast, double-distilled, minimally rested and proofed with mineral-rich spring water from the distillery. Complexity of character, rather than consistency of character, is the overarching goal for Ocho’s line of single-estate spirits.
Appleton Rare Blend 12-year-old, just like all of the distillery’s rums, is produced on a single estate in a small circumscribed geographic area, making it one of the few rums in the world to claim terroir. “This land is the mother to our rum,” says master blender Joy Spence. “The endless fields of vivid green sugar cane, the rich and fertile soil and the blazing blue limestone spring supplying our water all give rise to the lingering sweet smells of molasses and aging rum that fill the air.”
She calls this rum, comprised of hand-selected spirits that have been aged for a minimum of 12 years in select American oak barrels, a true expression of her passion. Deep bronze in the glass with a honey gold rim, it has oak, fruit and cocoa notes followed by molasses, orange peel, vanilla and coffee, with a hint of toasted oak and almond, and a bittersweet luscious finish. “You can’t fake a single-estate spirit, and you can’t make it on a whim,” says Spence. “We’ve made rum this way at Appleton Estate for 265 years.”
Each of the two vodkas in this new series from the Polish producer uses diamond Dankowski rye and an almost identical fermentation and distillation process. But the rye is planted on two separate fields almost 310 miles away from each other, resulting in wildly different variations in flavor and mouthfeel and truly expressing the respective terroir of each one. “While it might be hard to showcase as many nuances in spirits as you can in wine, the differences that you can show are significant enough that they can share the stage with wine,” says Belvedere brand ambassador Brian Stewart.
Smogóry Forest, deep in the western part of the country, is known for its vast forests, continental weather, mild winters and fertile soils, resulting in a salty-sweet spirit with notes of salted caramel, honey and white pepper. Lake Bartężek is crafted in the northern Mazury Lake district with its glacial lakes, long, snowy winters and weather influenced by Baltic winds. Vodka produced here is full, round and mellow with black pepper, toasted nuts and cream. “The inspiration has remained to show the flavor and character of our rye,” says Stewart. “Not all vodka is odorless and tasteless.”
The Chase family’s farming heritage dates back three generations. In 2008, it decided to build the U.K.’s first craft distillery in more than 200 years in order to process the surplus potatoes that were either too small or “wonky” to make it to market. Its vodka is made from just two ingredients: estate-grown potatoes and water from its bore hole. “We have a saying at the distillery that if you start with the best, you will most likely finish with the best,” says global brand ambassador James Chase. “And by controlling the source of the crop, we can guarantee quality.”
Distilling from potatoes rather than grain is five times more expensive, says Chase, but the taste is also far superior. Chase vodka’s clean aromas of light white pepper and potatoes are joined by a creamy, waxy mouthfeel with hints of black pepper and macadamia nuts and a smooth round finish flanked by minerality. “Terroir, in our eyes, is as much about sustainability as it is on taste,” says Chase. “Having the potatoes growing around the distillery not only means we can guarantee quality but the food miles involved is considerably less.”
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