Unfiltered revisits an in-depth feature from 2009 when writer Andrew Beach asked some experts within the whisky world to weigh up whether the idea of ‘terroir’ could be applied to whisky or if it was a bogus marketing notion

It is an image so familiar it has become a cliché: the expert admires the wine in the glass, sniffs deeply, takes a sip and announces that it was made from grapes grown in a small vineyard, nestled on a south-facing slope above a river, known for its chalky soils and unusually cold nights. They were probably picked on a Thursday, he adds.

This idea that grapes taste the way they do because of the combination of site-specific influences – the geology, the microclimate, the soil – is known as the grape’s ‘terroir’, and its advocates say it is why grapes from one field produce legendary wines while those in the next door vineyard are good only for plonk.

But for years, the question has been asked: does what works for wine also work for whisky? If grapes bear the taste of where they came from, could the barley used for single malts also carry the flavours of its individual field? Is there such a thing as terroir for whisky?

A romantic notion

A glance at the way whisky has been marketed suggests a resounding ‘yes’. Whisky ads are awash with heather-clad hills, babbling burns, storm-lashed coastlines. The message has been clear: drink this and you get flavours drawn straight from the Scottish landscape. It’s a romantic notion that was given further support by the late whisky writer Michael Jackson. Writing in his Malt Whisky Companion, he spoke of whiskies as “real, evolved drinks” that arise from “their own terroir: geology, soil, vegetation, topography, weather, water and air”.

“Scotland’s heather-clad hillsides, its peaty moorlands and its seaweed-fringed islands all contribute to the character of its national drink. To sample some of the more pungent malts is to taste the terroir.”

He identifies the rock, the snow, the water, the peat, the heather, the barley and the seaweed as the factors that make up the terroir, which together with the distilling and maturation techniques deliver the flavour of the whisky.

So, that’s all settled, right?

Not quite.

All about the barley

For one thing, Jackson’s all-embracing definition of terroir refers more to the finished whisky than where the barley was grown, dealing more with broad regional characteristics than local produce. Whiskies are often referred to by their regions – a Speyside style, an Islay malt: could that be what terroir means for whisky?

Depends who you talk to. Perhaps the best-known proponent of developing the concept of wine-style terroir for whisky is Mark Reynier, managing director of Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay.

To him, terroir is all about the barley and nothing to do with regionality. “When you get whiskies made from barley imported from who knows where, and then matured in a warehouse in central Scotland and bottled in a factory in Glasgow or Edinburgh, the idea of regionality doesn’t make much sense,” he says.

“Terroir refers to the prime commodity whisky is made from, which is barley. Any farmer will tell you that different parts of their property are more or less productive, higher yielding, more disease resistant, have finer soils, or are better exposed. Look at the wine producers in Burgundy: they only grow one grape variety, and yet it produces wines of a multitude of different characteristics, and that is down to the grape’s terroir.”

Reynier puts that approach into practice with his whiskies, buying barley directly from 23 farms on Islay and mainland Scotland, but keeping each separate throughout the distilling process, in what he calls a “barley-to-barrel” approach. He says the differences in the new spirit produced by each batch of barley are obvious. “Anybody could nose the difference. Of course, they are nuances, it’s not like Coca Cola and orange squash, but everybody who has ever nosed them can immediately tell the differences.

“We want to lay down as much diversity as possible to give us the chance to create ever more complex and enthralling bottlings. If you can identify the differences in terroir by nose alone at zero age, extrapolate that to five, 10 or 15 years in barrel – the nuances are going to be astonishing.”

…but maybe more about the peat?

Not everyone who makes whisky is quite so keen to embrace the concept, however. Just up the road from Bruichladdich, Kilchoman Distillery also boasts of a “barley-to-barrel” approach, going so far as to grow a lot of its own barley on a farm attached to the distillery. Surely then Anthony Wills, founder and managing director, uses the term terroir?

“No,” he says. “I think that to a certain extent, malting barley is malting barley, and terroir doesn’t have a huge effect like it does with wine. The same grape varieties grown around the world taste different, but I would be hard pushed to tell you I can tell the difference between one type of barley grown in this field and another kind of barley grown in another field – that is pushing it a bit too far.”

He agrees there are slight differences in the characteristics in the barleys he uses, but more important for the whisky than their terroir is the influence of Islay peat. “The peat on Islay is different from mainland peat, it’s more pungent, it’s stronger, it has got different characteristics, and that is what makes it so easy to distinguish between Islay peated malts and mainland peated malts.”

He says they grow their own barley because they want to show people how distilling started.

“Two hundred and fifty years ago, there were lots of little farm distilleries on Islay and it was because they could grow barley and they had a plentiful supply of water, and of course they had the peat.”

Or mostly…it’s the cask

Over in Speyside, Ronnie Cox, global ambassador for The Glenrothes, sees terroir as linked to the idea of regional whiskies, which he calls something of a throwback to a century or more ago, when the terroir had some importance to the taste of the whisky.

“Today however, about 70 per cent of the flavour of non-peated whiskies comes directly from the interaction of the spirit and the cask, whereas in those days it was much more to do with the spirit itself,” he says.

“Because of the huge differences that can be caused by different types of wood, different finishes, using single casks or dual casks, or by producing vintages only, as we do, you are getting a huge number of varieties of whisky coming from each distillery. The result of that is that it is very difficult now to say that one particular region is producing a particular style of whisky.”

Terroir sceptic

Another terroir sceptic is Ian Millar, global brand ambassador and master distiller for Glenfiddich, who says he doesn’t regard terroir as a valid term in relation to whisky. He agrees there is no doubt that peat from different areas imparts different flavours into the malted barley. “With some of the more heavily peated malts, such as Ardbeg or Lagavulin, there is a significant impact on the flavour from the peat, which they source locally on Islay.

Because the Islay distilleries are really the only ones to use peat to such an extent, it is a little hard to say how much of a difference it makes. But I think historically there would have been geographical differences in the flavour directly derived from the type of peat used.”

However, he says that with about 65 per cent of the flavour of any whisky directly derived from the type and quality of the oak it is matured in, the overwhelming flavours will come from the cask it is matured in.

Jim Swan’s final word

So, can science lend a hand here? Leading whisky analyst Jim Swan says that the most you could show for terroir would be that the variety of barley “makes a wee bit of difference to the flavours compared to another variety”.

“However, to say that the same variety of barley grown in East Lothian and Northumberland will be different… a million years of research will never prove anything there. The knowledge that we have nowadays means people can make a whisky with certain characteristics pretty much anywhere.”