Academic Study Proves Terroir Essential To Great Whisky Creation

A recent academic study has seemingly settled a decades-long debate on whether terroir has an essential influence on whisky creation.

The concept of terroir – the French principle that factors such as soil, microclimate, and topography together can influence flavor characteristics – although accepted in other drinks categories such as wine and cognac, has been a debate in the whisky community for years.

A peer-reviewed paper, published last month in the leading scientific journal Foods and spearheaded by Waterford Distillery as a part of its Whisky Terroir Project, is believed to prove that terroir can be found in barley and the single malt whisky spirit distilled from it.

terroir

A recent academic study has seemingly settled a decades-long debate on whether terroir has an essential influence on whisky creation. (image via Waterford Distillery)

The first paper from the project examined two barley varieties grown on two farms with separate environments in 2017 and 2018: Athy, County Kildare and Bunclody, County Wexford in South Eastern Ireland.

Each sample of barley was micro-malted and micro-distilled in laboratory conditions to produce 32 different whisky distillate samples. These were then tested by world-leading whisky lab analysts and using the very latest analytical methods of Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry–olfactometry (GC/MS-O), as well as highly trained sensory experts.

Key findings in the study include:

  • More than 42 different flavor compounds, half of which were directly influenced by the barley’s terroir.
  • The sheltered inland Athy site had predominantly higher pH levels with increased amounts of Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg) and Molybdenum (Mo) in its limestone-based soil. It had consistent, higher temperatures and lower rainfall. Whiskey new make spirit made from this barley was characterized by toasted almond notes, and a malty, biscuity, oily finish.
  • The more exposed Bunclody site had lower pH levels with increased amounts of Iron (Fe), Copper (Cu) and Manganese (Mn) in its soil, which is based on a shale or slate bedrock. The farmland is closer to the coast and was typically subject to more volatile weather. Whisky new make spirit made from this barley was lighter and floral, with a flavor of fresh fruitiness.
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The findings of the study are significant for the whisky industry 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 Controlée system of provenance.

“This interdisciplinary study investigated the basis of terroir by examining the genetic, physiological, and metabolic mechanisms of barley contributing to whiskey flavor,” Lead Researcher and Post-doctoral research at Oregon State University Dr. Dustin Herb said in a prepared statement. “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’s Whisky Terroir Project was undertaken by an international team of academics from the USA, Scotland, Greece, Belgium and Ireland, including: Prof. Kieran Kilcawley and Maria Kyraleou of Teagasc Food Research Centre, part of the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Enterprise Ireland; Minch Malt; and featured cooperation from Scotland’s leading whisky laboratory.

The next stage of the project will be published in 2022 and is set to further explore the same role of terroir in whisky, this time using analysis based on Waterford Distillery’s own commercial spirit and matured whisky.