A bit on terroir, traceability, and the “handmade” moniker…

In the last 5 years or so the small distilling industry has seen a boom. Distilleries are popping up all over the place, Montana included. I believe this a great time in history for people to experience the passion and distinct qualities all of these small guys are offering… and this trend seems to be spilling over into the large brands as well. More and more the small brands are being accepted and even winning over judges, consumers, and connoisseurs alike. But what makes these products different? In some cases, a lot. In others, not so much. I’ll explain…

Let’s take a minute to talk about terroir. Terroir is a French word that doesn’t have an English equivalent but is most likened to describing the different influence that the surrounding environment has on the flavor of products grown and produced in that environment. Wine, coffee, beer, and cheeses are great examples of this. What about distilled spirits? You bet! Take for example the various Scotch producing areas in Scotland… all VERY distinctive from each other. If you think for a minute of the vast regional differences in the growing environment of the grains, the local water supply, and the temperature/humidity/elevation/etc it ALL has a hand in shaping what flavors come out in the end.

So, why is terroir important to the small distiller? To be honest, it’s about time people had the chance to make and taste spirits (whiskeys in particular) produced in other regions besides Kentucky, Tennessee, Scotland, and Ireland. I’ll give those areas their due respect as they all make impressive products. However, what products are out there en masse is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to overall flavor profile. Every one of those regions I mentioned earlier all make “whisk(e)y”, but all are somewhat shaped and defined by their region they are in: terroir at work. Bourbon made in another region outside of Kentucky might be great, or a single malt out of Florida may be the next big thing… but you’ll never know until someone makes it. What this all pans out to is we can now have bourbon from New York, gin from Washington state, vodka from West Virginia, and whiskey from Montana.

Now let’s talk a little bit about traceability. When you get a manufacturer making a “local” product, don’t you think it should be a good reflection of the “local” terroir (especially when it comes to tasty beverages)? I see no need to import X or Y ingredient when you can find X or Y grown in or near your area of operation. Right? Some don’t see it that way, but that’s one of the ways we separate Montana Whiskey from any other whiskey on the shelf… local ingredients every time. Sometimes it’s easier to source cheap and plentiful ingredients than it is to forge relationships with growers/producers nearby for the sake of a better bottom line. Those people are out to make a buck… not a solid brand.

Lastly, the claim to be “handmade”. More times that not, it’s a marketing word rather than a claim to the labor involved. I can count 5 in my liquor cabinet alone, places I’ve been and seen with my own eyes, which are fully computer automated but still put “handmade” on the bottle. Who cares, though, right? Well, I do. But I get over it after a dram or three. The REAL claim to how your bottle of distilled spirits was made is in the small disclaimer on the back label. Legally, you cannot put “distilled”, “bottled”, or “aged” by anyone else except for who actually distilled, bottled, or aged the product in that bottle. “Produced by” is like saying you produced the water that came out of your sink. You didn’t make it. But, you turned the faucet on and filled the glass. Same thing with distilled spirits. If it says “produced by”, then someone else made it and all that company did was put the fancy label on the front. Quite honestly there’s nothing wrong with that. Producers have been making products out of each others’ stocks for a long time. The problem I have is when you claim to make local, regional, handmade, or other descriptors to a bottle of liquor you did not distill. You become a marketing company at that point, not a distillery.

I’ve rambled on long enough, but we’re getting to the point (finally). When RoughStock Distillery makes something we can guarantee that every raw ingredient is coming from a local farm source… and it will say so right on the bottle. Not only that, but we know these farmers/maltsters/growers/etc. personally. We do that because quite honestly, this is a very personal business for us. We have the pleasure of making whiskeys for you to enjoy and every batch from grain to glass has been personally selected for that enjoyment. We have distilled, aged, and bottled everything ourselves from start to finish. Does that make our product superior? Maybe. That’s for the consumer to decide. But at the end of the day we know we did our damndest and have a great sense of accomplishment and pride in each bottle produced.

Just as in times before when microbreweries, California wineries, coffee that came in something other than a can, and cheeses that came in a package other than a “single” slice were odd and foreign…. I encourage anyone who reads this to try something different next time when choosing a distilled spirit. Join a whiskey club. Order that no-name gin at the bar. Grab that bottle of rum off the shelf with the crooked and hand written label. Or, actually READ THE LABEL! Keep trying other brands until you find more about what it is that you like/dislike. Your palate will thank you. A small distiller will thank you. A local farmer may even thank you. Don’t worry about the large producers, they still control 99% of the market and will always be there if you decide to go back.

Bryan Schultz