Distillery Offers 'Conclusive Proof' That Whiskey Can Have Terroir

The new study looked at how barley grown at different locations during different years affected the resulting flavors.

My first time trying whiskey, I distinctly remember what I tasted: alcohol. Over the years, I've come to appreciate whiskey's subtleties—flavors imparted by different grains or barrels. But is the flavor of whiskey so dynamic that drinkers can even pick up a sense of place, the "terroir" of a whiskey? A new study from Oregon State University says that, yes, it can—though it was spearheaded by a whiskey distillery, so the book may not be entirely shut on this one just yet.

Since its first year of production in 2016, Waterford Distillery in Waterford, Ireland, has set out to create "terror-driven single malt Irish whisky." However, a very important part of that journey is proving that terroir can exist in whiskey at all—which is why the company also launched its Whisky Terroir Project, a mix of industry professionals committed to investigating this idea.

Cropped Image Of Woman Drinking Whiskey At Table In Bar
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Today, Waterford announced that its project has published its first peer-reviewed paper—led by Dustin Herb, a post-doctoral researcher at OSU—with findings they say offers "conclusive proof of terroir's influence on whisky, settling an industry-dividing debate for both whisky drinkers and producers alike."

"Barley is what makes single malt whisky the most flavorsome spirit in the world. This study proves that barley's flavors are influenced by where it is grown, meaning—like wine and cognac—whisky's taste is terroir-driven," Mark Reynier, Waterford's founder and CEO, said in the announcement. "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, there is now."

Specifically, the paper, which was published in the journal Foods, looked at two barley varieties grown on two different farms in Ireland in two different years, 2017 and 2018, resulting in 32 different micro-malted and micro-distilled samples. These whisky distillate samples were then analyzed "using the very latest analytical methods of gas chromatography–mass spectrometry–olfactometry (GC/MS-O), as well as highly trained sensory experts."

After analysis, the distillery suggested over 42 different flavor compounds were identified, half of which "were directly influenced by the barley's terroir." Barley from a farm in Athy created a spirit billed as featuring "toasted almond notes, and a malty, biscuity, oily finish," while samples from a farm in Bunclody were said to be "lighter and floral, with a flavor of fresh fruitiness."

"This interdisciplinary study investigated the basis of terroir by examining the genetic, physiological, and metabolic mechanisms of barley contributing to whisky flavor," Herb explained. "Using standardized malting and distillation protocols, we preserved distinct flavors associated with the testing environments and observed year-to-year variations, indicating that terroir is a significant contributor to whisky flavor."

Waterford—which says they're hoping the next paper will be published next year—believe the findings of the study are significant "as the presence of terroir within the spirit distilled from barley creates the possibility of producing regionally specific whiskies in the same vein as wines, potentially an Appellation Controlee system of provenance."

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