The War On Terroir

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: 

Nose, palate, Finnish

I spotted an Irish-looking name in an article in The Helsinki Times about how the Finnish capital was about to get its first distillery in 125 years, thanks to two Finns and a chap named Séamus Holohan. I contacted Séamus and chatted to him about chasing his dream to the frozen north.



Ireland and Finland have more in common than you’d think. Despite being on opposite sides of the European Union, we both punch well above our weight culturally – they gave the world the great composer Sibelius (and Eurovision metallers Lordi), we gave the world James Joyce (and Johnny Logan). And we both enjoy a warming drink during those long winter nights; we have whiskey, they have vodka. But one Corkman is about to change that, as he brings Irish distilling wisdom to what will be Helsinki’s first distillery in more than 125 years.

Séamus Holohan is one of three people behind The Helsinki Distilling Company, and he, along with two Finns, is bringing one of Ireland’s oldest traditions to the far edges of Europe, but how does a man from Mitchelstown end up across the continent?

“I¹ll cut a long story short here but it was basically so that I met my future wife in Paris many years ago while studying and working after graduating from UCC with a BComm degree. When I finished studying in France I wanted some more adventure and Sigrid, a Finn, had moved to Stockholm to study.
“So I headed up there with the intention of seeing what it would be like for 6 months or so. Eighteen years, having started and sold three IT Security companies, and three kids later I felt like it was time for something new. For the past 10 years I had a running discussion with two Finnish friends regarding starting a distillery and now it was good timing for all of us.
“The idea progressed from a fun idea to a concrete plan over the years. Eventually having found a building to house the distillery, I moved over to Helsinki with my family and we started the business over a year ago.”

Séamus’s own interest in distilling was part inspired by another Corkman who left Ireland and created a drinks empire. In 1765, Killavullen mercenary Richard Hennessy founded Hennessy Cognac in France.

“My own interest in distilling started on a trip to Cognac during a summer holiday break during secondary school. With some friends we visited the Hennessy factory and then went to see a small producer.
“The small producer, Balluet, was fascinating – everything from the raw materials to the distillation equipment, I found extremely interesting. And just as interesting was the manner in which the owner was really proud of what he was doing. To me it seemed like something that would be great to do – to produce something concrete, a real product that you could take pride in. That desire never left me.”

But this isn’t the reckless pursuit of a dream – Séamus and his two partners have put a lot of work and research into this venture: “Mikko Mykkänen is our Master Distiller and has been involved in the production of alcohol for many years. I have experience of starting companies and we have a third partner, Kai Kilpinen, who is helping on the
marketing side.

“Before launching The Helsinki Distilling Company, Mikko and myself embarked on a road-trip in Sweden to see many of the small distilleries that have appeared there making whisky over the last decade. It was inspiring to see the amount of energy that the owners had and it confirmed for us that there is a viable market for premium craft distillates.

And the whiskey renaissance back home also fueled the vision: “In addition I was also inspired by a radio interview on RTE that John Teeling gave a number of years ago where he said many interesting things about the global whiskey industry, and also the Cooley distillery was a fantastic story.”

Despite the renewed interest in whiskey back home, Séamus knew that his family now had their roots down in Scandinavia: “It was never really considered to start the distillery in Ireland for family reasons. My kids love going to Ireland and have even spent some time attending school in Ballygiblin but are more accustomed to Sweden and Finland. And since I have been working in the Nordics for so long I know more about doing business here than at home.

“In addition my partners are Finns and living here. Finland has very few distilleries so it is something new and exotic for the Finns to have one producing whiskey and gin in the capital.
“In Ireland we would be one more distillery in addition to those already in existence and starting up. I¹m sure it would have been easier to complete the administration in Ireland, as there is more distilling knowledge there and we did have to deal with a good deal of scepticism and red-tape before starting the distillery.

“But now we have it running and have been producing premium gin and our whiskey is starting its maturation. We are also lucky to have the distillery very close to the city centre and in the middle of the food culture capital of Finland Teurastamo, which means ‘abattoir’ and is the old slaughterhouse area for Helsinki.”

Setting up a distillery here is more straightforward, but so is our language – Finnish is notoriously difficult to learn. So did Séamus struggle with it?

“Coming from Sweden, I suppose it wasn¹t as much of a culture shock as coming directly from Ireland. I had visited Finland many times with my wife during the years and have many friends here. Having said that, it is one thing to visit somewhere and another to live there. It is true that you can get by quite well with English and Swedish here, but it would be great to speak some Finnish. However, Finnish is a fenno-ugric language, quite difficult to learn, and there are very few similarities with any of the Indo-European languages. My aim is to start a night course next year and hopefully pick up enough to get by doing everyday things – that will be the fourth time I have started a Finnish course and I hope I make more progress this time. Our kids attend Swedish school as Finland is officially a bi-lingual country. This makes it possible for me to help with homework, attend parent-teacher meetings and the like.”

And the language wasn’t the only stumbling block: “On the cultural side of things, Finland is very different to Ireland. But I really like the sauna culture. I¹m no longer amazed at people being naked, hitting themselves with birch twigs, while sweating profusely in really hot saunas, before running outside to temperatures of less than minus twenty five degrees, to roll in the icy snow, or take a dip in a hole in the ice. And it¹s a good idea to take up winter sports here to help get you through the long, cold and dark winters.”

And those long, dark winters are contributory factors in the regulation of the drinks industry in Finland – to the point that the state actually controls the sale of liquor.

“Yes, the government does really control the alcohol industry. Until 1995 it was illegal to have a distillery with the distilling only done by the state monopoly of Altia. Today, Alko, is the state monopoly for the sale of stronger alcohol (above 5% vol.) to private persons. It is now possible to sell directly to restaurants and bars however. And the prices are kept high with duty and taxes.”

So that much we have in common – in Ireland about 17 euro of the cost of a bottle of whiskey goes to the taxman, and while the government here hopes to crack down on below-cost selling by the large retailers, the Finns found another way to bypass the excise and  get cheap booze – the ferry to Estonia. Although Séamus is quick to point out that this practise is dying out.

“People still get on the ferry to Estonia but perhaps not as often as they used to due to some price harmonisation taking place some years ago.”

And as for the whisky they are making: “As elsewhere, there is a growing number of people who are willing to pay more for better quality products and also there is a growing interest in locally produced goods. We are making gin, whiskey and applejack. Where possible we are using local ingredients so our gin for example has a Finnish lingonberry twist. Our applejack is made from apples from Salo which is about an hours drive from Helsinki.”

And as for the market, it seems like there is an appetite there, despite a crowded market: “The Finns consume approximately 2 million liters of whiskey per year – 1.7 million litres is sold through Alko. Most of the whisky consumed is Scotch blends, with Canadian whiskies in second place. Irish whiskey is sold to the tune of 145.000 litres through Alko.

“Other whiskies, including Finnish, amount to less than 6000 litres so there is some room for growth. There is a growing interest in whiskey in Finland. And, as in Ireland, the Finns are looking to try new products and the product range is excellent in many bars and restaurants.”

In whiskey tasting terms, the finish is the name for the epicurean effects of the drink once it has been swallowed; the mouthfeel and lingering flavours that expand on the palate. As Séamus and his business partners begin casking their new rye whisky, they will be hoping that when the time comes for it to hit the market, whisky drinkers will enjoy a perfect Finnish.

Technical details:
Séamus reveals what Finalnd – and the world – can expect from the Helsinki Distilling Company: “For our whiskey we are using Finnish malt from Lähti. The malt is not
peated but we may experiment in the future with peated malts. Some of the
best rye in the world is grown in Finland.

“So from the start we were determined to make a Finnish whiskey and use Finnish raw materials without simply trying to copy an Irish whiskey or to make Scotch. There is no reason why excellent whiskies cannot be made here. For the rye whiskey we include some barley in the mash to help with the process. Our ingredients are chosen from the best local ingredients available with the rye being custom malted for our requirements. We are using both American and French new oak barrels that are medium toasted. The French oak come from the areas of Alliers and Limousin. Both American and French are offered to cask owners and so far the French have proven more popular. Later on we
will be using different barrels including old sherry and port casks for finishing. We are working with a local cooper from outside Turku to source the barrels.

“We are using a pot still that has an attached column. This allows us to use either the pot still and produce that kind of whiskey or to use the column. Our final products will resemble more American Rye whiskies than Irish or Scottish.”
Footnote: The Irish Times also spoke to Séamus, but obviously my interview is wayyyyy better.