It's a blue-sky-white-clouds kind of day on the northern tip of the Caribbean island of Martinique under the shadow of Mount Pelée. Craning up to take in the 4,580 feet of the active volcano’s elevation and surrounded by lush, Jurassic Park-like endemic flora, I cast my eyes around the sprawling 400-hectare estate of Rhum J.M – when you see the spelling ‘rhum’ it means the liquid’s made using sugarcane juice, whereas ‘rum’ refers to anything made from sugarcane byproducts, normally, molasses – which has been making what we know as Agricole (sugarcane juice) rums since 1845 at its Fonds-Préville Distillery.

The building itself pops with its brand red amid the surrounding greenery. The smell of fermenting sugarcane hangs warmly in the air, and an ethereal haze palls the horizon. The sound of running water from the River Roche acts as a tranquil juxtaposition to the mechanical ongoings of the distillery’s inner workings.

Sitting at the base of an active volcano might not sound like a preferable location for an operating distillery. Au contraire: its volcanic soil is a fertile bed for the sugarcane which is planted, grown and crushed within an hour of harvest on site; while the water source from the river flows straight from the heart of Mount Pelée through the distillery, filtered through volcanic rocks and resultingly rich in minerals. Add to that the fact that the sugar cane juice is also fermented, distilled and aged on site, and Rhum J.M can lay claim to being a single-estate spirit.

You may have seen the term ‘single-estate’ cropping up among the contents of your drinks cabinet in recent years. It spans the spirits gamut, from vodka and gin to rum, tequila, whisky and cognac – and more. It’s no surprise that drinkers are leaning towards the world of single-estate spirits. “If we look at the trends in the food industry, especially farm-to-table”, buying local and supporting small farmers,” says Worthy Park Estate rum’s Alexander Kong, “it was only natural that this would start to bleed over to the [spirits] industry.”

But buying single-estate never means just one thing. Not being a protected or official term, ‘single-estate’ can mean different things to different distilleries: producing everything on site, working within a radius of a distillery or simply selecting from one crop field. It can even encompass potentially less sexy things like labelling and packaging, too. What they do all have in common though is a drive towards one, two or three of the following working principles: traceability, terroir and sustainability. So, why buy single-estate – and why buy it now?

Grow your own

“Single-estate to us is, in effect, a holistic overview of everything that we do,” explains Nikolas Fordham of Wiltshire’s Ramsbury Brewing & Distilling Company. Its home is 19,000 acres of rolling countryside, 7,000 of which is home to pigs, cattle and wild venison at its farm. It’s also here that the team grow the winter wheat used to make its gin and vodka. “We work in partnership with the land to ensure that at all times we’re looking at sustainability and regenerative aspects in farming,” explains Fordham. “We take those principles into the production of the spirits.”

For Ramsbury, ‘single-estate’ also refers to the water taken from the borehole to make their spirits; the quince grown on site that they use in their gin; and the people they hire locally to work on their estate. Lemon balm has just been planted in anticipation of a new gin, and 100 juniper bushes have gone in as well.

Single-estate to us is, in effect, a holistic overview of everything that we do

Growing your own raw material is not always an easy task, especially when it comes to spirits like Scotch whisky and molasses-based rum, both of which are known to buy in their raw ingredient rather than grow or make it themselves.

In the lowlands of Scotland, Lochlea is growing its own barley on its distillery’s 90-hectare farm to use in its Our Barley, Cask Strength and Seasonal Releases – the latter of which are named to reflect the yearly cycle of growing grain: Sowing Edition in spring, Harvest in summer, Fallow in autumn and Ploughing in winter. It’s a practice that production director John Campbell doesn’t see as a new way of making whisky, but of honouring its past: “This is more about going back in time,” he explains. “A lot of distilleries would have started as single-estate 200 years ago.” The barley is malted off-site, but plans are in motion to bring that on-site, too.

Back in the world of rum, having stood among the sugarcane fields at Jamaica’s Worthy Park Estate in the Lluidas Vale, knowing that the molasses used to make its Single Estate Reserve rum is extracted on-site at its own sugar factory and the yeast used for fermentation is cultivated from said sugarcane only adds to the magic.

Further afield

Some brands and categories use the term ‘single-estate’ to showcase raw ingredients from specific fields and farms, as is the case with Ocho Tequila. Using agave from fields across Los Altos de Jalisco was born out of late founder Tomas Estes’ love of Burgundy and Bordeaux, explains the brand’s importer, Stuart Ekins of Cask Liquid Marketing who works with Estes’ son Jesse to continue Ocho’s revered work. “If you think about it more in terms of different crus, they look at [single-estate] as different fields or different ranches, producing something that has its own kind of terroir, microclimate, or altitude.” The idea of single-estate was also combined with different vintages, meaning you can trace each single-estate bottle of Ocho Tequila to a field and the year that crop was harvested.

Seychellois distillery Takamaka are also producing sugarcane juice rums in a similar way with their Le Clos series, using sugarcane sourced from local growers on the island to maintain their Seychelles identity. “Our Le Clos expressions are extremely important to us as they represent our efforts to overcome the considerable challenges we’ve faced in our commitment to producing an Agricole-style rum that is truly representative of the Seychelles,” says co-founder and managing director Richard d’Offay. They are, he continues, “A testament to traceability, which also means we are working with limited quantities.”

When Frédéric Revol founded the French whisky brand Hautes-Glaces in 2009, he wanted to bring whisky back to its roots by working single-estate. “When it comes to single malt, there is no link with the raw material in the name of the category… The industry has lost the link to its agricultural, rural roots and forgotten the connection to the land. And I believe that the magic of the spirits lies in this link.”

An agriculturalist himself, Revol works with over a dozen farmers at what he calls the ‘community distillery’ between the cliffs of Vercors and the peaks of Écrins National Park in the French Alps to grow the grain – none of which comes further than ten miles from the distillery. “We’re more of a single farm or single plot distillery,” he explains while noting that the small radius they work within is smaller than some estates that are more traditionally single-estate.

The payoff

Knowing where and how our products are made is becoming, as Worthy Park’s Kong said, even more important when it comes to the spirits we choose to have on our shelves. The latter especially: “Traceability is key,” he says of the Jamaican estate’s rum. “Every drop can be traced back to our estate.” A term more recognised in wine – terroir – is also being associated with single-estate spirits (although its use when talking about spirits can often be met with raised eyebrows). For Hautes Glaces’ Revol this is particularly interesting when referring to the individual plots used to make batches of their whisky. “We are working at a very small scale and isolating each batch from each plot,” he explains. “Each farm is growing one or two plots of crops for the distillery and together, while we are smaller than the average crop farm, we are more diverse.”

Over at Ramsbury, working single-estate includes how they deal with waste as well. “You know when you go to a beautiful beach, you say leave nothing but your footprints – it’s exactly the same as what we do here,” says Fordham. “Everything is cleaned up. Everything is looked after in the most environmentally sustainable way that you can imagine. So for us, it’s a little bit different to what most suppliers might say as a single-estate.”

You know when you say leave nothing but footprints at the beach – it's exactly the same here

And what does this mean when it comes to the actual liquid in your glass and the most important factor? Flavour. For Campbell, buying single-estate encompasses a lot of the things the modern drinker appreciates. “A sense of place, understanding a bit of provenance, and it definitely helps with sustainability.” He’s less sure about the idea of terroir though, especially as they’ve only been working with their barley for five or six years. How that impacts on flavour is also unclear: “It’s more of an emotional discussion than a practical one for us.”

Rhum J.M’s Emmanuel Becheau can see a direct link between the rum’s single-estate methods and the flavour of its Agricoles: “Our aged rhums develop spicy and smoky notes which are very unique to our distillery, while our white rum has a very generous and fruity nose which we owe mainly to our volcanic terroir and the extreme freshness of our sugarcanes.”

Ekins admits it took a while for drinkers to understand what Ocho was doing with their single-ranch and vintage tequilas, but now they have a back catalogue to showcase, it’s starting to make much more sense flavour-wise when comparing vintage. “I think it’s fun if you’re into tequila and you’re into agave. I think probably single-estate isn’t the most fun part of it; it’s more thinking about the individual fields and in what year it was made.”

Alexander Kong at Worthy Park also references the ‘t’ word. “Terroir plays a huge role here; our soil, climate, and expertise in cultivation all contribute to the unique flavour profile of our rum. While you’ll hear us talk about how we’re on roughly 10,000 acres of land, our diurnal temperature and rainfall all contribute to the unique conditions. But even on a micro level, there is quite a variation in rainfall just around our property alone.”

Hard graft

With so many benefits to being single-estate, why don’t more spirits producers do it? Because, surprise surprise, it isn’t easy. Campbell can confirm that growing your own barley on the west coast of Scotland can be a bit of a headache. “If the weather is rubbish, you have a rubbish supply… the weather profile isn’t as good as on the east coast so we have a smaller window to grow barley in and then it isn’t always dry.”

Ekins points to climate change and the impact it’s having on some of Ocho’s fields. “When I think of some of the fields when we first started, sometimes the agaves were up to nine years old. And now with climate change and where the fields are… sometimes they’re as young as six years old. It’s going to taste different, but you want that backbone, so you still have to really monitor what those guys are doing to give you that required DNA of the brand.”

For Revol, challenges with crops present an opportunity. “Constraints are a source of creativity… a chance to reinterpret some skills and practices.” In particular, he’s looking deeply at maturation techniques to work with the very different crops that the farmers grow, from large grain casks for rye to more fine grain casks for barley – and even amphora clay pots as well.

Is single-estate the future of spirits making? It might be a pipedream, but one which is nonetheless being brought to life more and more. The next time you pick up a bottle to replenish the cabinet, ask yourself: ‘Do I know where each step of its process was done? And does it matter to me?’