This Distillery Wants to Prove Whiskey Has Terroir
Initial tests suggest that “environmental differences” do exist in whiskey.
Though the intricacies of terroir in wine are still up for discussion, some things are extremely self-evident. If you squeeze a grape, juice comes out: Clearly, that water was sucked from the earth the vines grow in and ends up as your wine. But with whiskey, the idea of terroir is a bit more ethereal. Yeah, go try to squeeze some barley. However, a distillery in Ireland not only believes that terroir in whiskey exists, they’re also out to prove it.
The Waterford Distillery in Waterford, Ireland — which uncoincidentally bills itself as making “terroir-derived single malt Irish whisky” — has spent the past year working with the government organization Enterprise Ireland and a team of scientists and analysts on the “Whisky Terroir Project,” which the distillery explains as seeking “to explicitly understand, once and for all, the influence of terroir on barley-derived whisky.”
Dustin Herb, a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University, has led the study up to this point, and though the results may sound self-fulfilling, his conclusion has been that “preliminary results of the first year’s data indicate that environmental differences in whisky flavor are present.”
To come to those findings, the project grew two different varieties of barley in two different locations in Ireland: Athy and Bunclody. The grains were harvested, malted, brewed, and distilled — with as little variation between the samples as possible — and analyzed at every step along the way. Indeed, differences were found at different steps. For example, after harvesting, Herb explained, “Both varieties have comparable compositions, however the grain compositions between environments were substantially different — grain samples from Athy had increased levels of selenium, chromium, and tin, while Bunclody samples had increased concentrations of barium cadmium, zinc, copper, and aluminium.”
Differences were also seen after a preliminary gas chromatography analysis. “Athy was highest in furfural which delivers a sweet, baked bread, almond aroma with a sweet, bready, caramel, woody, phenolic taste,” Herb wrote. “Bunclody was highest in n-propanol which gives a musty, fruity, apple, pear, yeasty aroma with an earthy, nutty, peanut, fruity, bubble gum taste.”
In the end, Herb did state that “more data is needed to fully understand the role in which environment and variety play in the flavor and terroir of whisky.” And apparently, that’s exactly the plan. The Waterford Distillery says the project is only halfway done, with the results of a more detailed gas chromatography set to be published this fall.
“In the fine wine world, terroir is a fundamental tenet,” Waterford Distillery CEO Mark Reynier said in a statement. “Yet oddly enough no one appears to have proven the concept scientifically. That is what we have set out to do here. And what is more, to show that terroir can apply as much to barley and single malt whisky as it does to the vine and fine Burgundy.” As to whether you personally will be able to taste any difference, however, well... you have to have something left to debate.