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The environment where a whisky's ingredients were harvested does impact the taste of whisky, recent research shows.

 Quick Take: 

  • Terroir, pronounced teh-wah, is the French term used to describe the environment’s impact on a crop’s characteristics, thereby affecting the alcohol made with it. 
  • The term is commonly used in wine but less so in whisky, due to the distillation used to make whisky, which is believed to strip out any such effects. 
  • Recent research shows that whisky does exhibit terroir effects, and whisky can exhibit a difference that is reflected in the environment in which the barley was harvested. 
  • This underpins a rising Waterford Distillery, founded by Mark Reynier, who famously rebuilt Bruichladdich Distillery, whose brand promise is to enable drinkers to taste the origin difference in its whisky from farm to farm. 
  • It isn’t unfathomable that terroir should apply to whiskies, other distilleries such as Chichibu, Bruichladdich, and Daftmill have increasingly focused on single farm origin whiskies. 

(Image Source: Waterford Distillery)

    Terroir, pronounced teh-wah, is the French term used to describe the environment’s impact on a crop’s characteristics, thereby affecting the subsequent alcohol made from the crop. The term is most commonly used in the realm of wines and is used to explain the unique taste profile as a result of the various unique aspects about the vineyard in which the grapes were harvested.  

    Terroir has been used to include everything from the specific farming practices used, all the way to the “impact of a nearby apple orchard a stream across the vineyard” has on the resulting wine. I’ll chime in here and say what’s on everyone’s mind – that sounds pretty farfetched. How can some apples grown a stream across a vineyard affect the grapes?? 

    Well, if you think terroir is a bit of a stretch for wine, it is a leap for whiskies. The term terroir was always a “wine” term and never really associated with whiskies, but recently, an upstart in the world of whiskies, an Irish distillery named Waterford, has sought to prove that the land in which a barley is grown does affect the whisky made from it. 

    (Image Source: Waterford Distillery)


    Waterford Distillery was established in 2015 by Mark Reynier, whose claim to fame was re-establishing the now famous Islay distillery Bruichladdich. He converted a former Guinness Brewery in the town of Waterford, south of Ireland, in an attempt to make whiskies that capture the amorphous concept of terroir. 

     Waterford is not all just about finding patterns in clouds, they’ve gone so far as to have a peer-reviewed academic study published in the journal Foods, which demonstrated that the effects of terroir can indeed be found in barley and the single malt whisky made from the different barley used. 

    This is all part of a broader research study called The Whisky Terroir Project, which is conducted by an international team of academics who studied the basis of terroir by examining the various genetic, physiological and metabolic mechanisms of barley which then contributed to the differences in final whisky flavor. 

    (Image Source: Waterford Distillery)

    The study used two barley varieties, Olympus and Laureate, grown separately on two different farms of different environments. 

    The results shows that there were more than 42 different flavor compound, half of which were directly influenced by the barley’s terroir. 

    (Image Source: Waterford Distillery)

    According to the study, 
    Athy, which is a more sheltered, inland area, had higher pH levels and greater traces of calcium, magnesium and molybdenum in its limestone-based soil. Furthermore, the area had consistent, higher temperatures and lower rainfall. New make spirit distilled from this barley was found to taste of toasted almonds, with a malty, biscuit-like, oily finish. 

    Meanwhile, the Bunclody farm had lower pH levels and higher amounts of iron, copper and manganese in the soil, which was located on a shale or slate bedrock. As it was closer to the coast, the weather at Bunclody is more unpredictable compared with Athy. Typical tasting notes from new make spirit made with this barley included a lighter, floral style, with fresh fruitiness. 

    Researches on the study conclude that the findings were significant as it creates more impetus for producing region-specific whiskies much like wine, potentially even suggesting the establishment of a region trademark, such as the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) which is used from everything from wines to cheese. 

    (Image Source: Waterford Distillery) 

    Reynier, founder of Waterford Distillery, mentioned “Barley is what makes single malt whisky the most flavoursome spirit in the world. This study proves that barley’s flavours are influenced by where it is grown, meaning – like wine and Cognac – whisky’s taste is terroir-driven. Critics claimed any terroir effect would be destroyed by the whisky-making process, saying there is no scientific evidence to prove that terroir even exists. Well, now there is.” 

    The next part of the study will examine the role of terroir in whisky using analysis based on Waterford Distillery’s own commercial spirit and matured whisky and will expect to have results published in 2022. 

    (Image Source: Waterford Distillery)

    Personally I don’t think it’s such a stretch to say that terroir certainly has an impact on the whiskies made with a specific type of barley. It’s true that the term has been used very loosely and as such has lost a fair amount of credibility – maybe Westlife’s 
    Uptown Girl playing on the farmer’s AirPods during harvest season is why one of Waterford’s whisky was a lot richer and creamier?  

    But exaggeration aside, let’s not toss the baby out with the bathwater, the idea of terroir is not a terribly far out concept. As the saying goes “you are what you eat”, it isn’t unfathomable that everything that goes into the whiskymaking process will inevitably have some sort of impact on the final drink. How noticeable that impact is is probably a better question. I do believe that fermentation and distillation techniques can bring out the impact of terroir in whiskies and it’s something I see in the likes of Chichibu, which also is moving towards using local Saitama barley. Other distilleries that have sought to do the same include Reynier’s own Bruichladdich, and also cult favorites like Daftmill, which is also single farm origin. 

    That said, it is nice that whiskymaking is gaining the same credit as concepts used to esteem the art of winemaking, which hopefully will lead to whiskies being seen as a drink worth its weight in Bitcoin.