It may seem obvious to some, but there’s an age-old conundrum of whether the influence of the environment (ground, air, water and so on) where the raw materials used to make whisky was cultivated in influences the final taste. Although aged spirits go under a lot of changes in aroma and taste, developing new ones and losing others that were initially present, a new research shows a link between the terroir where the whisky’s barley or grain was cultivated and its taste in the glass.
Non-experts may have imagined this to be the truth already, but nowhere was this scientifically proved so far.
By the way, terroir is the French notion that environmental conditions such as soil, weather and habitats can affect flavour. Just to know what we’re talking about.
An academic study published in the scientific journal Foods, driven by the Irish whiskey producer Waterford Distillery, proves that terroir has an influence in whisky as well, not just in wine or cognac. The full paper can be read here, on the website of The Whisky Terroir Project, the organization behind this research.
What was found exactly?
A team of international academics from the US, Scotland, Greece, Belgium and Ireland examined the genetic, physiological, and metabolic mechanism of barley contributing to whisky flavors. In poorer words, they analyzed with standard distillation and aging processes, equal across all batches of barley, the final taste of the distilled whiskeys to identify whether the origin of the barley made a difference in developing more or different flavors.
The study focused on two distinct varieties of barley, olympus and laureate, grown on two separate farms, with different environments, between 2017 and 2018. Both located in Ireland, and precisely in Athy, County Kildare, and Bunclody, County Wexford. These locations aren’t much far from each other even, which makes the differences found even more striking. Both varieties of barley were micro-malted and micro-distilled in the laboratory, to create 32 different whisky distillate samples.
Both samples for either terroir were randomly taken in blocks between 19-22 March and 27-30 April, in 2017 and 2018 respectively. In 2017 the crops were harvested on 15 August in Bunclody and 31 August in Athy, while in 2018 both harvests happened on 8 and 10 August. The overall raw barley samples were 16kg and micro-malted, with a protocol following specific times and temperatures. The mashing and distillation of both terroirs was carried out by Tatlock and Thomson, in Scotland..
Sensory experts were chosen to taste these samples and judge whether there was any difference, and what this difference was. The panelists included two men and four women. All of them were told to avoid eating foods and drinking beverages that could influence their sensory skills, like spicy meals, smoking, and coffee, for at least one hour before the samples’ tasting.
The research didn’t limit itself to these tests, but analytical exams using gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and olfactometry (GC/MS-O) were implemented as well, to gauge the specific differences in the samples. Statistical analysis was conducted with JMP Pro statistical software. A mixed linear approach was used to analyse the sensory data.
The end results showed that over 42 flavor compounds were present across all the samples, with roughly half of them that were found to be “directly influenced” by the barley’s terroir. A large number then, not just a few minor flavors but nearly the greater part of them all can pinpoint us to the origin of the raw materials used to distill whisky.
The two counties have some specific differences in their terroir. Athy is more inland, thus sheltered from the influence of sea winds and salty water, possesses higher pH levels, more calcium, magnesium, and molybdenum in its limestone-based soil. The whole area has on average higher temperatures, and more rainfall across the four seasons of the year. The samples made from barley grown in this country were found to taste of toasted almonds, with a more malty, biscuit-like, finish.
On the other hand, Bunclody possesses lower pH levels, with iron, copper, and manganese presence in the soil. A higher presence of shale or slate in the soil was also a peculiarity of this area. Closer to the sea, the weather is overall less predictable compared to Athy, with larger variations of sunny, cloudy and rainy days throughout the year. The whiskey samples made from barley grown here tasted lighter, with a distinct floral style, and fresh fruitiness.
Clearly a quite big difference in taste profile. Nearly as big as you would expect to taste in whiskeys made in two different countries altogether. The fact that single counties, and close ones at that, were found to have such a large impact on the final taste of the whisky is extremely interesting and the major discovery of The Whisky Terroir Project’s research.
Key point to take from the research
Obviously, the key point is that the origin of the barley, and arguably of grains or even potatoes, from which whisky is made, its terroir, matter much more than thought. Many critics argued that the distillation process and the aging of whisky cancelled any effects that the terroir might have had in the beginning, when the barley was fresh. This research disproves that. This opens up a plethora of consequences.
Like wine and cognac, whisky may start to be marketed with its terroir as a prominent feature, and not just the distillery’s location. Distilleries may look into selling their 5-10-15 years old aged whiskeys in different bottles, depending on the origin of the barley they’ve used. A 5yo aged whisky with a northern Irish terroir may taste quite unlike the same 5yo aged whisky with a Scottish terroir, both being made and aged in the same distillery. Whisky fans will start to have their favorite terroirs, alongside their most beloved distilleries, as coffee and wine drinkers have been doing for decades. Buying a whisky from a specific distillery and specific terroir may not be weird, as it is today buying a coffee from a roaster with a specific single origin.
More research will need to be carried on. As anything in science, confirmation from more than a single paper is required to have a certainty that what is “proved” once is actually what it is. Reproducibility of this connection between the terroir and the taste profile of whisky is necessary for the industry to accept it and market accordingly. A first step was done, though. It will be incredibly interesting to see when and how it will be further proved, or disproved altogether.