Does Whisky Terroir Matter?

For those who’re not generally fans or knowledgeable about the world of wine, the term terroir refers to “the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.”. While the term has received relatively little coverage in the world of whisky Bruichladdich have conducted a Scotland wide experiment to establish once and for all what difference the terroir makes.

Defining Whisky Terroir

The term terroir has historically been used to describe four factors which shape the taste of a wine:
  1. Soil
  2. Terrain
  3. Climate
  4. Tradition
however the term is often heavily overused in the world of wine, so other factors are on occasion counted as well. Regardless when defining whisky terroir the first three considerations are perhaps the most meaningful. The acidity of the ground in which the barley is grown for example, and even mineral density can impact on the barley produced. The elevation that the barley is grown at determines the surrounding wildlife, and plants, tress and groundwater with which the cereal has to compete. Finally the climate at which the barley is grown, sunshine and temperature have a visible impact on the volume and quality produced. You may note I’m not including tradition in this instance as it’s one of the least well defined though this is arguably more applicable to whisky than to wine making as it would include considerations such as use of smoke or peat, still size and material etc. which so thoroughly change a whisky.

Perception of Whisky Terroir

The only poll I’ve been able to discover on whisky terroir  was on the Whisky magazine community forum and while 78 people have thus far commented only 21 actually participated, so common perception will need to wait until my next whisky survey is ready to go. Still the impact of climate is far from new and haslong been associated with the Scottish climate, Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru for for example who established Japan’s Suntory and Nikka brands built their distilleries where they felt it most closely resembled the Scottish climate. Still this has traditionally been more closely associated with water softness and the impact on alcohol evaporation.

Wine Vs Whisky

The notion that terroir impacts wine makes sense in a very real way, the acidic quality of the grapes, the amount of sugar they contain which in turn impacts on the alcohol volume. As to whether the concept applies to whisky is another matter entirely however as the impact or terroir will likely be considerably higher for a wine (where less than 20% of the content is alcohol) than a whisky where the spirit may have been distilled to as much as 94.8% ABV before maturation. The concept has also been applied in a limited capacity to cognac as well however Wilson (1998) notes that this is largely not applicable and large scale production is now the norm.

The Heart of Gold Experiment

Bruichladdich have stressed the importance of terroir for sometime, in particular emphasising the impact that altitude has on their Octomore field with the top two thirds ripening before the lower third (Bruichladdich, 2013). Now the distillery is conducting a great experiment on terroir working with farmers in eight segmented regions of Scotland, each tasked with growing 100 tonnes of Concerto barley in exactly the same way for the past four years, they tell me that 
It is far to early to draw qualitative conclusions but there are already quantitative differences apparent. Again it is too early to say whether these differences are due to regional climatic variations or soil types or some other variable, but there is no doubt that these differences are significant with regard to the character of the new make spirit.
As to whether the great experiment means more liquid gold in future for Bruichladdich, well we’ll just have to wait and see.