Firstly make a coffee, pour a dram, maybe even make a sandwich and then be prepared to wonder why the hell you read till the very end….
The whisky industry is a demanding culture that manages to split opinion quicker than a rabbit can breed.. Over the last few years we have argued about Nas v Age statements and just how important it is to know the minimum age, then that split sideways into the Vintage v Age, the flippers got a mention or two and lets not forget the big “Bubble” the second hand market pushing up prices and the elitism creeping into whisky these days but is it at all relevant or is it just another way to push the sales up..
As anyone who reads my blog will know there is also the latest conversation that is already getting a little boring but lets just take another look for old times sake..
[tɛrˈwɑː, French tɛrwar]
the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.
the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.
Terroir is the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environment contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitat. Collectively, these contextual characteristics are said to have a character; terroir also refers to this character.
Well already I hear you shouting about the fact it says wine.. Just try to put that aside for a moment and lets look a little deeper..
Waterford Distillery over in Ireland is pushing for this in a big way, they seem very passionate about the whole message that Terroir is very important factor in determining the taste in the final product or at least that is the latest message. From what I have read and seen they are big believers in the fact Barley grown in any particular field will impart its own particular flavour in the final product, each field will give a difference in flavour, this has been ridiculed by many including myself but lets try and look into this slightly different..
Now I could start throwing loads of technical terms about but what’s the point as most of you would just give up reading and that’s not what I want.. Understanding the basics of barley is important here.
Barley ( Hordeum vulgare )
Barley is a crop grown by farmers and is probably one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world, tracing its history back to 5000 bce in Egypt, 2350 bce in Mesopotamia, 3000 bce in northwestern Europe, and 1500 bce in China. Part of the Grass family it is grown in a multitude of soil types and climates and is one of the most adaptable crops in todays farming industry.
Barley has evolved greatly over many years into what is today a very sustainable crop with a vastly different set of strains compared to what was grown by our grandfathers, this is evident when you take a deeper look into the varieties grown today, their yields and the usage compared to those of back then..
Barley is grown for a multitude of reasons including animal feeds, medicines and human foods like stews, soups and bread but it is also well known for its brewing values.
I will assume most of you don’t want to know about Barley usage within the food industry so lets just go straight into the drinks sector.. Barley has been used for brewing Beer and making whisky for hundreds of years and although no one has really worried about where the barley was actually grown to compare the flavour impact that is beginning to change.. Both the beer and whisky industry has a sector within that’s looking hard into the logistics of Terroir, does it or can it make such an impression on the final product that it needs to be a factor that is recognised ?
There are a few factors to look at especially within the whisky side as the process of making whisky goes further than that of making beer.. What are the starch levels, the liquid to tonne ratio and enzymes produced naturally during germination.
Firstly as Waterford distillery point out where was the barley grown, which field, what was used to aid the growth, the climate, the time sown, harvested and so on is extremely important .. Now most distilleries in Scotland and probably the same for other countries all want locally produced / grown barley, this is purely to say its a local product, its not about the fact it will make the product taste better !! This is not unique to the whisky industry, it is something that has been encouraged within almost every sector of life.. Distilleries want to say we do things locally and in todays market this is not always going to be possible, the whisky industry is massive these days and buying locally grown barley for most is just out of the question.. Its all a matter of perception.
Its a nice thought that when you buy that bottle of your favourite whisky that everything is local, its important right ?
What if the distillery is located in an area where the land is just not adequate to grow crops ? it has to be imported.. But then locally grown barley is not as important as just getting barley that is right for your product..
So back to the thought of where the barley is grown and just where the majority of barley comes from and what impacts the flavour of our whisky..
Most will agree that barley is grown and distributed to the maltings with very little understanding of what went into the growing process, was the barley from Scotland, England or Ireland ? When the whisky is made will I know it is not Scottish barley ? will it taste different ? Most farmers will tell you that growing Barley isn’t exactly rocket science but its also not just a chuck it down and it will grow scenario, farmers take some pride in what they do after all when we chew on the piece of straw we do want some flavour !
The hard part in the theory of Terroir in barley and whisky production becomes a little harder when you consider everything changes every year, there are no consistencies, the fields change which means the crop changes which in turn means the final taste has to change if you want to believe there is a distinctive taste difference from the growing scenario.. Does this add to the theory though?
Barley is known to have a nutty taste, but again the levels and flavour is subjective to opinion, the varieties, strains etc, is it a two row barley or six row ? what’s the difference ? in simple terms six row barley has a higher protein level and yields less starch so therefore not as widely used as two row, many believe the high protein levels, lower conversion makes the six row unusable but just take a look at Paul John whisky from India they seem to produce a great whisky from six row barley so that just dispels the high protein level theory as bullshit……
Two row barley is certainly the more preferred strain, it has a higher starch ratio and lower protein level which obviously gives a better litres per tonne ratio and this is what the distillers want and for the farmer the yields for spring barley often range between 5-6 tonnes per acre. I mention spring barley as from the current list of approved strains I do believe no winter barley strains are approved for use in production.. Walk round any distillery and ask about the barley strains and the words Concerto, Optic, Belgravia, Odyssey, Chronicle and Moonshine are banded around, these are all spring barley strains and all give high yields, good liquid per tonne ratios.. They will grow in a multitude of soil types and are well established strains although the latter few are relatively new to the approved variety list..
The preferred growing areas for barley used within the industry does seem to be down the East coasts of Scotland and England although we are being told the south of Ireland produces the best barley.
Take a look at the conditions, soil types and you do see a likeness appearing, add to this the way the farmer works the land, the little extras he uses and another pattern emerges, how much nitrogen is added, how compact the soils are, how much rainfall, how much sunshine even how much wind there is will impact the growing side but again how much does this impact on flavour ? This is after all what is being shouted about ..
If we were talking about a product that is harvested, then lightly cooked I would argue strongly about how important this product is to what we taste in the glass but here we have a problem.. It is not lightly cooked, it goes through a rigorous process which DOES have an influence on the final product, the process is never identical, it then sits in a wooden cask for however long, these wooden casks impart flavour, aromas and the magical process is still not fully understood !! If the important thing was the initial ingredient then would we not want a cask that does very little to the final product ? or would we want a cask that will dominate the final outcome ?
I don’t really think any one can argue that the Barley will have a flavour profile that gives something to the way a whisky will taste but just how noticeable is it and how important is it ?
If it is proved will the industry explode and will those who give little credit to what the Terroir fans have to say change their minds ? I Doubt it very much..
Now with all this said Waterford are taking things to another level in how they approach things, the maltings they use are keeping the barley separate, the confusion comes in just how separate, we were told initially it is field by field and then farm by farm and yes there is a big difference here, from what I understand there are 28 separate storage bays, each holding 128 tonnes of barley and from figures I have seen they use 70 different farmers who seem to grow up to 75 acres, some farms will be growing a single field and others will be multiple fields so to some extent there will be a field by field ratio but mostly a farm by farm…Each bay then gives I believe a weeks worth of production.. Why go to all this work ? Well the theory is to prove there is a distinct difference in the flavours produced which in turn have a large bearing on the final product.. They boast being able to trace each batch of whisky back to the original farm and fields but its not quite as simple as that.. Yes they can certainly trace the crop back to the farm, they can indeed trace the crop back to which fields were used but in the scenario where the farm used multiple fields then they cant actually trace the crop back to that individual field but just to those that were used… How different is this to most other distilleries ? none in theory..
Every distillery should be able to approach the maltings they use and gather the appropriate information, ie which farm supplied the barley, which fields were used in production and if they really need to dig more just what aids the crop had to grow ( muck spreading, chemical etc ) with this said Waterford have the clear advantage that they are indeed taking more notice of what, where and how they use this information and no matter what your beliefs are this does still need to be applauded as long as after all the shouting and insults, they use this in the correct way and don’t just give us a typical vatted malt that every one else produces..
I hear them shout about how each cask of liquid from each different farm gives them a layered opportunity to make up a complex product, yes it does and bravo.. its what every one else does too.. They take a multitude of different casks from different batches of production with different flavour profiles and they create a complex whisky that is drunk the world over..
What I find amusing about the Waterford argument is that its very confusing as to what they are actually shouting about, what they intend to offer and where all this is heading.. The distillery does have its fans and I have no intention of trying to offend them, although I know I will upset someone.
Is it the impact of Terroir ?
Is it the importance of Terroir ?
Is it the fact Terroir exists ?
Is it the proof of knowing about Terroir will help make their whisky taste better ?
Can Terroir be tasted in the final product ?
From the many videos the distillery has released there is definitive proof they have shown a difference in flavour between their new make and whisky aged in casks for a period of time, they have also shown a difference in taste from whisky aged in different types of casks !! They have given whisky drinkers both novice and experienced different new makes from different strains which again showed a difference in taste, aged whiskies from different cask maturations have again shown there is a distinct difference in taste, they have even got scientists involved to prove to us there is a difference in the taste just in case we cant detect it ourselves..
Is this proof of Terroir ?
Does it just prove that the barley strain, the process and the maturation period all give a difference to the final product ! just like all the other distilleries tell us..
I really hope they make the effort to release the whisky by the farm, more so by the field, maybe even some sort of pack showing the differences in same strain new make from neighbouring fields / farms, aged stock and back up all the shouting with a very definite middle finger stuck proudly in the air and in the loudest voices shout ” We told you so ” but I just can not see how they will be able to do so.
And my final point is.. Will any of this actually have any impact on how most people buy their whisky ? Maybe its not aimed at the average whisky drinker but those who have “An open mind ” What is clear to see is the amount of split opinions on this.. Its all good publicity for them !!
What we have to agree on is that every stage of the production will have some effect on the final product, it does not matter how big or small it will still be important to someone.. What we have to understand is the difficulty in proving what effected what and what flavours have derived from what stage and what effect the wood had on that final product..
The whisky industry is changing every day, every year and this is evident.. But again will this have any bearing on how you personally perceive what you buy or how you drink it..
Let me know..
9 Comments Add yours
And, of course, if you are a generous dollop of coke/diet coke…..
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I am avidly following this great debate, and have done so for a while. I am still in agreement with your thoughts on this one…rant away!!
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Well, that’s good – keep talking, I welcome the open debate. I’m not sure people have to take “sides” though – it’s only a drink…
Just a note on one small point in Scott’s interesting post: “How would this affect the effect of ‘terroir’ when a distillery in rolling farmland close to sea level is matured in one of the highest dunnage warehouses above sea level”
Terroir is just about the influence of environmental factors on the plant – in this case, barley. How it grows, the flavours captured from it – within it – in a growing year.
But it’s a fair point and I do agree with you that there are many other influences that contribute to a flavour profile, lots of exciting things being looked at even within individual warehouses. I want to say one of the major bourbon distillers was looking at micro-environmental stuff in warehouses – someone else may know better than I do about that.
Our single batches, of individual farms, goes through the same process, so we allow the barley to talk. (And we have something like 20,000 data points collected for each batch so we can show it’s the barley doing the talking.) And that’s really all it is – celebrating that individuality of the crop, one at a time, a slightly new base distillate each time, and then maybe bringing them together afterwards to see what happens. Terroir as explored through the lens of a few mad people in Waterford.
We’re curious, that’s all. We hope others are too.
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The invite has been accepted and will be taken up when it is financially viable for me to visit.. This is a topic that will not go away for a long time and I honestly believe both sides will maintain a stance long after it’s either proven or not with plenty of discussions going on..
“What is clear to see is the amount of split opinions on this.. Its all good publicity for them !!” – You make my job a lot easier, certainly!
On the one hand, I do think it’s possible to overthink terroir – it’s essentially about capturing individuality, celebrating the differences that are there for what they are. The final stage will be to layer those differences over one another to create a flavour-dense whisky. Sure, that’s not important to some. That’s totally fine – we’re a bit bonkers admittedly. But our madness doesn’t mean terroir is not there…
So you have a great many questions, and we’ve invited you over at least four times – count this as number five! That invite still stands and indeed the door is open for anyone who wants to interrogate it from any angle. Just let me know if you’d like to sniff around. There really is nothing to hide. But these things can be too nuanced and complex – especially when you haven’t tasted or can’t taste anything – for an online discussion. It’s why I personally don’t like reading others’ tasting notes – as we have an entirely different frame of reference to one another. Same when it comes to discussing the abstract concepts of terroir-derived flavours, let alone when one brings the influence of maturation to the farm subtleties!
As for our products, you’ll have to wait and see how they manifest. You’ll forgive us if we’ve not shared our plans with the world just yet. We have to have some secrets…
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Very well written! I was following the twitter thread with Waterford from the other week – it’s an interesting subject, but I err towards there also being too many variables to factor in.
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Very well said 👍 so many variables to take into consistent and so little proof pointing to terroir existence within the final product..
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Great article, well written, and I agree with your points.
You were witness to a wee twitter discussion I had with somebody last week about terroir. I was told essentially I didn’t know what I was talking about. If somebody can taste the difference in whisky depending on what field it was grown in, then I’m calling BS. With each cask being different, there is just so many variables within whisky, especially if it is anything other than single cask, where the distillery will make up the vat to get a consistent result.
Also, I live close to Dalwhinnie distillery. In their Bond last time, most of the casks I saw were actually Mannochmore, as casks get distributed so stocks don’t get completely wiped out for a distillery in case of a fire. How would this affect the effect of ‘terroir’ when a distillery in rolling farmland close to sea level is matured in one of the highest dunnage warehouses above sea level. Similarly, a proportion of Tobermory is supposed to be matured in Deanston, so where does the brine taste come from? Some casks must go to a coastal distillery, as Tobermory takes in wheat from the mainland maltings.
I do agree that things like different types of peat used in the malting process makes a difference, but is that really terroir we are thinking of when we compare it to the wine definition?
In theory from an engineering point of view, nearly every aspect of terroir I feel can be replicated to a large degree, from the distilling process and equipment, to where the spirit is matured. I believe the impact it has on a distilled product to be minimal and what we are more likely to be thinking of is provenance.
I used to think regionality was important, but that is an outdated concept now, as any distillery can effectively make any style given the right equipment. Brora was reactivated in the 60’s to make peated malt whisky to replace some Islay malts due to drought and later on to take up the slack for Caol Ila when it was getting rebuilt in the early 70’s.
Without wanting to be rude, perhaps people are just thinking too much into this. While it is good that each person can pick out different flavours, is this not an avenue for some to descend into oneupmanship?
I was going to write something for my blog too as the conversation hacked me off a bit, but never got time to sit down and compose….
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