In recent years, the term ”terroir” has become a bit of a thing in the whiskey/whisky industry. Sherry casks are old news, age is not really as important anymore (or maybe not as available anymore?), red wine casks are no longer as experimental and virgin oak is fun but does not have the same wow factor. Enter: Terroir.
Terroir is a word that pops up a bit here and there, usually when company and distillery representatives talk about their whisky. But what does that mean then? According to the omniscient Wikipedia, terroir ”/…/ is a French expression derived from the word terre,” land ”. It expresses different characteristic qualities around a specific place such as geography, geology and climate and how these interact with, for example, plant genetics or the production of food. ”. The idea is thus that the environment in which the raw material (grapes, barley, maize, etc.) grew affected its taste and therefore also affects the end product, ie the wine or whisk(e)y. This has long been a recognized taste-influencing factor in the wine industry, where the slopes along Le Grasse dans le Montaigne have given the wine Chateau Thisse et Thatte its special taste.
But is it the same with whiskey, then? Opinions are still divided. Wine is, as is well known, a product that is not heated but fermented and stored only. Here, the doubters say, it is about a short process chain from grape to drink and where nothing is heated or treated to any great extent. Whisky, on the other hand, is distilled, which means not only fermentation but also considerable heating, and they believe that this heating together with many years of storage in barrels (and perhaps a finish on it) plus possible chill filtration and dilution means that there is no chance in a considerably warm place to find the original character of the grain in what you have in the glass. For me, this sounds pretty logical. However, not everyone agrees, and lucky for me since this is as close to a boxing match I will ever come when it comes to whisky (except for the question ”Would Clynelish be so as popular if Brora did not exist in the first place? Fight fight fight”!). There are those who believe that there are great differences between barley and barley, and that it is obvious that a distillate is also affected in taste by the main ingredient itself. I myself have tried several different kinds of malted barley, and there is no denying that there are clear differences in taste, so this does sound logical.
Why do distilleries use the big T-word, then? The first time I heard about it was a few years ago when Bruichladdich meant that the environment on Islay affects their whisky through nature’s own, unique combination of effects. They are far from alone today, and distilleries such as Waterford and Westland swear that terroir is the thing, while well-known Springbank and Kilchoman have released bottles based on locally grown barley. If they are not sure that the local factor matters, they would never waste time and money on it, right? But if it’s so important for both the taste and the end result, why does not everyone do the same – especially the bastards with the fat wallets?
A cozily cynical way of looking at it is that the concept of terroir is a well thought out PR coup in the style of ”the older the better”, where it will eventually bite the industry in the hiney on a daily basis because the demand for what was previously declared ” best ”becomes too high. This makes it harder, for example, today for some brands to slam a juicy price tag on whisky if it is very young or a NAS bottling (unless you have a very loyal fan base or a magically skilled advertising agency involved). But just because the market was once spoiled with cheap old whisky, it is not certain that terroir-produced whisky will do the same with whisky that is not produced in the same area as the distillery. Is this instead perhaps another way to place whisky in the fancy smoking room wearing a bow tie and evening dress, instead of a ragged wool sweater in the local pub? Will terroir become another identity marker for the consumer who wants to spice up their beverage identity with more academic or scientific phrases? In that case, the concept would be something that either further raises the status of whisky as a complex beverage or makes it more difficult for beginners to access it through poop-intensive over-intellectualization. Or could it be that one has to differ more and more from all other distilleries, especially as a newly established one, and that it is no longer enough with cheeky names, both peated and non-peated espressions in the stable or spicy cask variants? Now one should perhaps prefer to establish the identity of the distillery in the DNA itself, in the chemical constituents of whisky.
Something that has proven to be extremely important for how and when the distillate matures is the local climate, something that is not really included in the concept of terroir. This is discussed in the very interesting article Something’s in the Air in the 2019 edition of Malt Whiskey Yearbook, where Joel Harison uses the term ”airroir”. The shifts of the seasons, minimum temperature and maximum temperature together with the shifts of the day and the humidity determine how the cask works with the distillate, and the same distillate could thus behave in a variety of ways in the same type of cask depending on where in the world the cask is located. But then it is no longer just about the unique properties of the local grain, because if you take the mythical distillery Karuizawa as an example, it is clear that they in one sense failed with what they really set out to do – using Scottish raw materials (the Golden Promise grain variety) and Scottish methods in order to create Japanese whisky that tasted Scottish. Now, it turned out that this failure was a rather blessed one, as the whisky that should have tasted in a certain way became much fuller with a different complexity than what had been aimed at. But the reason I use this example is that it is repeatedly talked about how the climate and weather create the unique environment in the warehouses in which the casks are stored, no matter where in the world they are stored, and that this is repeatedly mentioned as one of the big the reasons why the whiskey/whisky tastes the way it does. In that case, can one really claim that the grain plays an equally large, or perhaps even larger, role in the end result? I’m hesitant.
However, there is scientific evidence that the term terroir can be used when it comes to newmake. The article The Impact of Terroir on the Flavor of Single Malt Whiskey (e) y New Make Spirit describes a study where, with the help of gas chromatography and sensor analysis, it was found that a total of twenty-two volotiles or fatty acid chains were discovered to have influence over the distillate. The study attributes these to the grain variety and the environment, but also to the seasonal impact together with the grain variety and the environment – and that the latter alternative had the greatest impact on the end result and a significantly greater impact than just the grain variety. In addition, this study is about newmake and not aged whisky, so what happens to the unique grain variety’s impact on, say, twenty-year-old whisky? Well naturally, the study says nothing about. I hope that more studies are completed, and then also on long-term matured whisky. Only then can we with certainty be able to say what is what.
My five cents, then? I’m sort of in limbo, actually. That soil and environment affect the growing grain feels evident to me. I have grown enough batches of vegetables to understand that the soil affects how the crop grows. But that the crop shines through in the distillate, and not only that but also overpowers the end result – well, I am not convinced just yet. On the other hand, Westland, for example, uses locally grown wood of a locally and specific variety together with local barley, and I think that can definitely affect the taste – but the question is whether the cask in that case may affect to a greater extent than the grain, especially after a number of years. And somewhere the shape of the stills also comes into the picture. And how and when to cut the heart of the spirit. Not to mention if you use double or triple distillation. And how rewarding is it to work with locally grown barley and terroir if you at the same time brag about new oak casks from the USA and Spain in the same sentence? What does the local grain variety in Speyside matter if the spirit is then to be left in American oak casks for at least ten years? How important is it with the sea air on Islay if the casks are then transported to and stored outside Inverness? Damn important if it’s this talk that sells the bottles for a several bucks more, maybe. Many whisky lovers think – and can – anticipate differences between different distilleries, even during blind tests, but can they also feel differences in climate between, say, Dumfires and Aberdeen during the blind tasting? Or Orkney and Arran? If you use locally grown peat in the various whisky samples perhaps, but if it is instead non-peated whisky?
Here is my creed: I believe the new whisky house god called Terroir exists. I believe in a sacred, almighty environment that has the power to influence both distillates and casks. I believe that grain variety can affect the newmake’s taste. I believe that all these factors affect the taste of whisky to varying degrees. I also believe that the longer the distillate is allowed to lie in the casks, the less important the grain’s and thus its own terroir plays and the greater role the cask’s own properties play in combination with the local climate in which the cask is stored. Just as the PPM content usually makes a smaller impression in terms of taste the longer the whisky has been matured, the less the summer season of 2013 in Dufftown plays a role for the Concerta distillate, which has since been in a firstfill sherry cask. In that case, it would mean that the distillery’s terroir is most important, both in terms of taste but above all in terms of PR, for those distilleries that only plan to release very young whisky forever and ever, and who choose to store this whisky only for a short time and then only locally cultivated wood species. For other distilleries that use different types of casks with different maturation history in different maturation locations, it is not possible to speak about terroir at all, at least not to the extent that it means a changed taste experience for the customer.
I know that terroir is super trendy and that I should agree with all individuals who shout ”YES!” on a broad front, but over seven years of university studies have made me too skeptical. I do not think you should shout about working actively with the concept of terroir in your whisky production just because you use locally grown barley. I want to take the concept of terroir more seriously than that. In that case, I want you, the distillery, to store ALL casks in the same place as the distillery (something many distilleries do NOT do today). I also want you to use locally grown wood for ALL your casks (extremely unusual, in terms of all whisky that is produced) and I want you to ALWAYS write on the label which vintages of barley and grain varieties you have used when you produced the bottle that the consumer holds in their hand. Otherwise there is a lot of talk and a lot less action. And if you also brag about using casks that have contained other spirits or beverages before pouring your own distillate in the cask, I want you to have also produced the previous content locally (Scottish sherry – why not?). Do not dilute the concept of terroir! Don’t get me wrong, I think origin, raw materials and environment is very important and extremely exciting, but as my mother always says: ”Believe is something you do in church”. Until I have seen more many years of studies that can distinguish terroir in the distillate from the impact of the cask and other factors over time, while at the same time producers do not turn terroir into the next PR-trick that no one twenty years later takes seriously but instead uses the term thoughtfully and respectfully, I’ll do as my father did in the military – await with force!
Harrison, J., 2019. Something’s in the Air. In: I. Rönde, ed., Malt Whisky Yearbook, 1st ed. Shrewsbury: MagDig Media Limited, pp.25-31.
Kyraleou, M., Herb, D., O’Reilly, G., Conway, N., Bryan, T. and Kilcawley, K.N. (2021). ‘The Impact of Terroir on the Flavour of Single Malt Whisk(e)y New Make Spirit’, Foods 10.2: 443.