Terroir isn’t necessarily something we talk about a lot in the whiskey world—certainly not the way it’s talked about in wine, where it’s typical for every producer to bang on about the special qualities inherent to their own patch of Earth. In the whiskey world, however, most distilleries don’t grow their own crop, and few source from the exact same locations or farms for every batch. Major Kentucky distillers like Beam don’t go into depth about where their grains come from, because the conversation isn’t really worth having for them—it’s not a selling point to the average whiskey consumer, nor is there a special story to tell. That leaves discussions on whiskey terroir largely to the microdistilleries, and the smaller operations that are growing portions of their own grain, ‘ala WhistlePig in Vermont.
In effect, this creates its own niche—terroir-driven, small batch craft whiskeys—and that’s where we find Denver’s Laws Whiskey House. This company focuses exclusively on whiskey, and even more directly on making whiskey from Colorado-grown grains in unusual, heirloom varieties. They source their corn, rye, wheat and barley from their own state, and they’re quite proud of it. The end result is what the distillery refers to as “terroir-driven, unapologetic whiskey.”
And the truth is, the results of that kind of idealistic purity may not always be for everyone. More exotic, heirloom grains will produce different flavors when malted, fermented or distilled than a more homogenous, common product, and the resulting whiskeys won’t come out of the barrel tasting like the product of Kentucky, or Scotland, or another well-known whiskey region. For some drinkers, the results may be a revelation. For others, they may not work at all. It’s the risk you run in creating a novel product, which a company like Laws understands full well.
In order to highlight each of their unique grains, the “core” range of Laws products therefore gives them each a spot to shine: Rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey and a four-grain bourbon that contains corn, rye, wheat and barley. We tasted all four courtesy of Laws, and I must profess admiration for the design of the neat packaging cube that contains the distillery’s 100 ml samples—it’s one of the most efficient ways of shipping 400 ml of four different whiskeys I’ve ever seen.
So, let’s get to the tasting.
The distillery’s flagship Four Grain Straight Bourbon is also sold in 6 Year Bottled-in-Bond and cask strength variations, but what I have is the base version, which is apparently aged 3 years in newly charred, standard sized oak barrels. Laws provides the mash bill, which goes a bit heavier on the wheat than the other flavoring grains, at 60% corn, 20% heirloom wheat, 10% heirloom rye and 10% heirloom malted barley—all grown in Colorado. Given that kind of makeup, we’d be expecting a certain degree of grainy complexity here.
On the nose, this is indeed grainy, with a somewhat “doughy” quality that seems indicative of the wheat and malted barley. It’s also slightly floral, and corny sweet, with hints of green apple. It smells like a fairly young bourbon nose, but there are some interesting X-factors that make you realize you’re sampling something outside the normal bourbon production world.
On the palate, it’s again slightly grainy and doughy in nature, but opens into more vanilla sweetness, with slightly earthy, black tea and savory flavors that suggest hints of tobacco. It drinks easily, seeming to me like a significantly lower proof than the 95 it’s bottled at. The grainy characteristics, coupled with its emerging sweetness and brown sugar notes, make me think of a bowl of sweetened oatmeal. That grain-forward profile contributes to a feeling of youth here, but it drinks pretty nicely neat regardless. It’s a composed bourbon, though not an extremely assertive one.
Taking a page out of the MGP of Indiana playbook, Laws distills their rye from a mash of 95% Colorado rye and 5% Colorado malted barley, to yield a very rye-forward whiskey. This is a tried and true method for making modern rye, but Laws’ use of their own heirloom grains helps differentiate the results.
This one is notably mint-forward on the nose, with additional spicy notes of anise and pumpernickel bread, tempered by light caramel. There’s a slightly aquavit-type profile here, although you don’t stick your nose in and simply think “caraway!” by any means.
On the palate, there’s big ‘ole rye bread flavors—a very pure display of the rye grain, with lots of spice and mixed peppercorns, cut with a refreshing twist of orange essence. It’s slightly sweet, and a bit grainy (which again makes me think “young” on an instinctual level, even if it’s the goal), but very pleasant—I like the spicy punchiness. It fits in well alongside other modern, high-rye craft whiskeys that have popularized this style of rye for cocktails. All in all, the San Luis Valley Straight Rye is probably my favorite of this group.
The Laws website displays this bottle as a bonded whiskey, meaning that it would be at least four years old and 100 proof, but my 100 ml sample bottle is listed at the same 95 proof as the bourbon and rye, and simply states “aged at least 2 years” rather than making any reference to “bonded.” It may just be old packaging, perhaps, or the current batches of Centennial Straight Wheat Whiskey in 750 ml bottles have been upgraded to bigger age statements since these 100 ml samples were bottled. Regardless, this one is made with a mash of 100% soft white Centennial spring wheat.
On the nose, this one is unsurprisingly on the doughy and bready side, but it’s really not far off in profile from the bourbon—which I guess makes sense, given that the same wheat is the biggest flavor grain in the bourbon. I get yeasted bread, honey and slight red fruitiness. On the palate, there’s caramel, toffee and florals, along with fennel-like spice and grassy, fresher notes. Slight licorice is notable, but for whatever reason, the heat on this one stands out more as well. Perhaps this small bottle does contain the 100 proof version after all? Regardless, it seems to have more of an ethanol punch than the bourbon or rye. Ultimately, I couldn’t quite make up my mind on this one.
The malt whiskey in this group is the most unusual of the bunch, and like the wheat whiskey is listed in a bonded, four-year version on the Laws website, while my sample bottle says 95 proof. It’s made from a mash bill of 100% heirloom malted barley, but was the entry I ultimately found the most confounding. Certainly, this one is not trying to remind anyone of Scottish malt whiskey, in the way that some American single malts are trying to do these days. This is thoroughly its own thing.
The nose on this one is quite musty and toasty, capturing the earthier qualities of the grain, with strong anise-like qualities. It’s almost ouzo-like, and slightly roasty/smoky as well—an unusual combination for sure. On the palate it’s unexpectedly sweet—syrupy, really, with notes of green apple, maple and bready, doughy characteristics. It’s a little bit on the decadent side, even, but this profile probably just isn’t for me. Where the bourbon, wheat whiskey and especially the rye whiskey each have characteristics that I find enticing, this one is an interesting diversion I won’t be likely to revisit.
I do, however, admire Laws’ commitment to exploring what it possible within the terroir of their home state. This is an area of microdistilling that is likely to see more and more attention over the years, with companies like Laws helping to establish new regional sub-genres within American whiskey.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.