I believe in whisky terroir. Yep. I do.
In wine making, much is made of a French term called ‘terroir’.
“It describes the environmental factors that affect a wine 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.” – Source Wikipedia, July 2020
Basically the argument is that soil type, nutrients, environmental factors etc have an impact on the plant grown in that locale. Let’s say for instance that the soil isn’t chalky enough to grow good champagne grapes, or that the vines do not get enough sunlight, or water. These factors have a recognised impact on the quality of the harvest and over a period of time the health of the crops. It would be the same with meat, if you feed animals on poor quality products, keep them in poor conditions etc they don’t taste as good as ones which are free roaming and well nourished. To me, this is pretty straight forward.
I have tasted the difference in New Make Spirit between our locally grown barley and our fife barley. It wasn’t huge, but it was noticeable. I’ve also tasted a vast difference in New Make Spirit made from Bruichladdich Islay Barley and Scottish Barley. So if the barley varietal is the same and it is malted to the same specification and stored and processed the same way and it smells and tastes different, then I’m afraid there is genuine proof to say that whisky terroir matters. This I state as fact.
The conditions under which barley is grown is a topic that has been researched in great depth by agronomists, agricultural scientist, brewers and distillers alike who are interested in crop viability and yield. A barley kernel that is not grown under ideal conditions doesn’t have the best biochemical composition for malting and therefore produces different levels of convertible carbohydrates and amino acids – sugars and proteins. As you know, we need sugars for the yeastie beasties to eat and produce lovely alcohol and esters, but proteins play an important role too. This said, the maltsters often don’t get the credit they deserve and will do a great job in flattening any imbalances.
Let’s think about the field opposite our distillery where our barley is grown, there is a big hill on one side, there are trees lining one edge, there is a ‘holy burn’ running down another, there are little lumps and bumps. Wind flows differently around the field. Water runs off from the higher parts to the lower. Water will get trapped in the bumps (it does). All of these aspects affect the growing barley.
The ‘argument’ against whisky terroir
As I understand it, there are so many processes downstream of the malt that influence flavour, that you can’t tell if the barley has an impact on the whisky terroir. Well my point is that you can tell from the new make and that is the true DNA of the distillery. I agree that cask influence adds complexity to this, but I know of good examples (Kilchoman 100% Islay being one) where this can be determined.
Whether you’re a believer in whisky terroir or not, we take pride in knowing which fields are used to grow our barley. We can watch it swaying in the wind and get very excited when it’s being harvested. We certainly feel it makes a difference.
To help my understanding I read a number of peer reviewed research papers which you might also find interesting. I also had a short debate with the genial Struan Reid, PhD Student at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling, Heriot Watt – who happens to disagree with me.
125th Anniversary Review: Barley research in relation to Scotch whisky production: a journey to new frontiers.
Journal of the Institute of Brewing. 2015 Feb;121(1):1–8.
Effects of Barley (Hordeum Vulgare L.) Variety and Growing Environment on Beer Flavor
Dustin Herb,Tanya Filichkin,Scott Fisk,Laura Helgerson,Patrick Hayes,Brigid Meints, show all
Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists ,The Science of Beer, Volume 75, 2017 – Issue 4
Pages 345-353 | Published online: 05 Feb 2018
Pattern of Nitrogen Distribution in Barley Grains Grown in the Field
Agu, R.C ; Palmer, G.H
Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, 2003, Vol.109 (2), p.110-113
Assessing the impact of corn variety and Texas terroir on flavor and alcohol yield in new-make bourbon whiskey
Robert J. Arnold ,Alejandra Ochoa ,Chris R. Kerth,Rhonda K. Miller,Seth C. Murray
Published: August 8, 2019
Cask Ownership at Lindores Abbey Distillery
The distillery is of course currently closed but you can still chat to Elliot, our Cask Custodian about our cask ownership scheme and what is involved. We still have a lot of exciting projects going on with different types of casks coming through – but they are all very limited so get in touch if you would like to explore different opportunities within the whisky world. You can contact Elliot on email@example.com or find out more at https://lindoresabbeydistillery.com/welcome-lindores-abbey-distillery/cask-ownership/