Can terroir exist in whisky? I like to think it can, but that’s because I choose to. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. The idea makes sense to me; but then, I have zero understanding of science, zero understanding of the destructive forces of distillation. So maybe I should take a backseat and shut the hell up, which is what I did when I got this email. I can’t remember the context, but the person who wrote it seemed pretty straight – considering they were using a fake name and fake email address. They had worked in distilling for decades (which in Ireland narrows it down to a few dozen potential candidates, thus necessitating the hidden ID) and just wanted to say their piece about their own experience of terroir in whiskey, so here it is:
“We played with that more than a decade ago and took three separate strains of barley and made three totally different malts. The taste difference was notable as new make, but this was expected as most new make batches will have a slight difference in taste and aroma. However, we put them into three very similar casks (all ex-bourbon from the same distillery with the same fill and disgorging date) as identical as possible considering a casks variance, and all the whiskies tasted the same after five years. The barrel is far too overpowering for the tiny incremental changes the terroir supporters suggest. In my opinion, terroir in whiskey is 100% a marketing ploy as I’ve tested both ways – identical whiskey from the same batch in different casks and the opposite test with different whiskies in as identical as possible barrels and on both tests the barrel comes through by a huge country mile. The barrel does the vast majority of the flavour, definitely 70% or more depending on the barrel.
“Try buying a charred or toasted cask, add plain spring water to it and even after 48 hours of the water in the cask, remove some water and taste it and you’ll get those unmistakable whiskey flavours. The cask is honestly the big difference in whiskey.
“Think of how many medals Cooley won prior to the sale to Beam. John Teeling couldn’t give his whiskey away at the time (which is why he had so much mature stock). And then all that stock got sold to brands and they did some unique finishes (Teelings 24 year old is a recent example finished in Sauternes casks), Hyde is another and plenty more world awards from that stock. All the same whiskey as Noel never did much to change the mash bill at Cooley.
“The difference came in the finish, which was 100% from the cask. Every single brand in Ireland has known the importance of the barrel for hundreds of years. Even think of Redbreast in 1903. Gilbeys were wine merchants as were the Mitchell brothers with the Spot family. They had leftover wine casks and got them filled by Jameson. It resulted in some of the world’s best ever whiskey.”
Mysterious anonymous email endeth.
In the new make I tasted in Waterford, there were massive differences between farms – but give those different distillates ten years in a barrel, and then we shall see. New make exhibiting what seems like terroir is very different to a 15 year old spirit exhibiting terroir, because how do you eliminate the effects of the cask from your deductions? Do you sell each bottle with a sample of the new make so you can discern which flavour elements are down to where the barley grew, and which are down to the wood? Or is all this completely besides the point? Waterford Distillery has taken the focus off wood and placed it farther back in the process, to an element of whiskey that had been relegated to a walk on part in the narrative. If quality wood programmes are so important, why not grain also? And beyond that – why not yeast, why not fermentation times? Why not people? Reynier’s persona is central to this debate – he is as much part of the terroir of Waterford’s whisky as the grain. This was all his mad idea, his vision. You can criticise him, mutter about people ‘coming over here’ telling us how to make whisky, write it all off as marketing, or some zany experiment – but as experiments go, it is a remarkably grand one, and whether or not you believe in whisky terroir, or choose to believe or not, it is still exciting.
For a more scientific, less nonsensical take on terroir: