Why ‘terroir’ matters in honey, as well as wine (and whisk(e)y)

Besides beekeeping, one of my other passions is whisk(e)y and bourbon. Discovering and sampling new drams, as well as researching their history and production techniques.

I’m not a great reader. I struggle to get through the first paragraph of a book, but when it comes to reading about whisk(e)y, whether it be a new distillery offering, how it’s is made, what affects the flavour, which glass is best, how to taste it or even how water influences the end product, I’m hooked.

One of the current popular topics in the whisk(e)y world centres around ‘terroir’.

Terroir, which originates from the French word ‘terratorium’, meaning ‘land’, refers to ‘the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced’ – oxforddictionaries.com

Primarily associated with wine, but recently used in connection with whisk(e)y, terroir elegantly encapsulates what it is about a product that reflects the importance of location, time and care involved in its creation.

Bruichladdich, the distillery behind Octomore whisky, sum terroir up, and why it’s of paramount importance to them, nicely:

“The great vineyards revere terroir for the subtle nuances of traceable character, flavour, lineage and integrity it bestows.

Terroir varies according to place. It varies not just at a regional level – but also from farm to farm, from one field to another, from harvest to harvest and from one vintage to the next. Its effect will inevitably vary from plant species to plant species and from crop to crop.

At Bruichladdich, we believe terroir matters. We believe it imparts subtle nuance and variety to sensory experience. It will have an effect on any food or drink. The more complex the flavours inherent in that food or drink, the more profound that effect – and single malt Scotch whisky is the most flavour complex spirit in the world.”

While reading these numerous terroir articles (which are fascinating by the way!), It struck me just how much the process of honey production, and the importance of a hive’s surroundings, have in common with that of whiskey making.

For example, the are many factors, during its production, which influence the quality of honey, including:

  • The types and variety of plants present, that grow and provide pollen to the bees
  • The weather and climate
  • The presence of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides within the bee’s territory
  • The landscape (intensification of agriculture has resulted in the loss and fragmentation of valuable natural habitats for bees, such as grasslands, established fields, shrublands, forests, and hedgerows)

All of the above are factors which contribute and affect the end flavour, colour and consistency of the honey.

If you taste the mass produced ‘honey’ found on supermarket shelves, you’d be hard-pushed to pick up any individual flavours, floral notes or indications of where the honey was produced. That’s the difference between 100% natural honey, which hasn’t been played with, and the ‘other stuff’, mass produced and standardised to meet consumer demand.

You may have noticed that we mention on the homepage how we’ve been told by our customers that RB honey “tastes like the Chilterns”. This is ‘terroir’.

We produce our honey in small batches, and even keep the honey from each specific hive separate.

This way, we maximise and concentrate the environmental influences from each hive location (the terroir), ensuring that the natural Chilterns tastes and aromas are passed on to you through our honey.

This terroir is also one of the reasons that 100% natural honey differs throughout the year.

As the environment surrounding the hive changes and, as a result, the pollen collected during the honey making process, so too does the taste, colour and consistency of the honey.

Again, mass-produced, over processed ‘honey’ doesn’t change at all, it stays exactly the same taste, colour and consistency all year round.

Ever noticed that? Ever wonder why?

The next time you try some honey. Think about ‘terroir’. Can you taste where the honey has come from?