Becky Paskin: A whisky’s true character comes from its social terroir

Forget the nuances of yeast strains, barley types or local water supply. Human influence – a spirit’s social terroir – casts more influence than any climatic factors, says the newly crowned IWSC Spirits Communicator

Words by Becky Paskin

Becky Paskin drinking a glass of whisky

While the notion of terroir is well established in the wine world, the jury is still out on its application in whisky circles. Debate has intensified in recent years, with commentators querying whether any individual qualities stemming from the provenance of barley or even water are discernible following distillation and maturation.

We know that the local climate plays a huge role in developing the spirit’s character during ageing, of course. And whatever one’s take on the micro-influences of locally sourced water, barley and climate, there can be no denying that single malt whisky is considered a spirit of place. Along with a distillery’s set-up, this reflection of a spirit’s surroundings generates a geographical terroir that helps shape its identity.

Whisky barrels
A spirit's surroundings help shape its identity

But I would argue none of these factors have a more profound impact than what I call the spirit’s social terroir – the influence of the people who make it. The notion is that a distiller draws on his or her collective personal experiences, interests and passions to create a spirit that’s an embodiment of themselves – a confluence of distillery character and the producer’s artistic intent. Social terroir, then, is the influence of people rather than nature.

You only need to follow the careers of such high-profile whisky blenders and distillers as Dr Jim Swan (Kavalan, Penderyn, Kilchoman) or Dr Rachel Barrie (Bowmore, BenRiach, GlenDronach) to detect a personal footprint across different distilleries and brands. For John Glaser, the American founder of experimental Scotch whisky company Compass Box, social terroir is “the most important factor in determining the style and flavour of a whisky”.

John Glaser the Scotch whisky company Compass Box
John Glaser of Compass Box: "The biggest impact on the flavour profile of a whisky is the producer's intent" (photo: Chris Floyd)

“The biggest impact on the ultimate quality, flavour and personality of a whisky is not the location, the climate, or even the ingredients. Think about how many distilleries use the same yeasts and the same or similar spec of malted barley, after all,” he says. “It’s the intent – what the producer is ultimately trying to create, and the decisions made at every step of the process to manifest this.”

Glaser began his career, fresh out of university, in winemaking. Decades later and his days spent immersed in wine continue to have an influence on his approach to whisky making today. “Things like the Compass Box approach to oak quality and maturation; transparency in our recipes and in our processes; even the graphic approach to our labels. All of these things have been influenced over the years by the world of wine,” he adds. He even claims that being an American in a traditional Scottish business has enabled him to be more confident with challenging conventions.

And social terroir is not confined to whisky; it’s a concept that transcends spirit categories and, yes, even wine. Lesley Gracie, master distiller of Hendrick’s gin, is a self-confessed ‘big kid’ who plays with flavours and scents to create liquid expressions of her own memories and experiences.

“People can certainly shape the final flavour profile of a gin,” she explains. “A person’s vision, ambition and creativity can have a stronger impact on what you end up tasting in your glass than the botanicals themselves or where they come from.”

Lesley Gracie, master distiller of Hendrick’s gin
Lesley Gracie, master distiller of Hendrick’s gin, says a creator's vision can have more influence than a gin's botanicals

“It’s about creating a feeling, an emotion, capturing a memory in liquid form, a sensory experience, and, yes, most of these start from a personal experience or memory of mine. The best creative work is always personal. It’s said that writers should write about what they know, and I guess the same is true for gin makers – they distil what they know and bottle it.”

Rarely, though, is a spirit the product of one singular person. More often there is a collaborative process that encompasses teams of distillers, blenders and marketers across space and time. Johnnie Walker, which this year celebrates its 200th anniversary, is produced by a team of 12 skilled blenders using whisky created at several malt and grain distilleries across Scotland. The whisky’s human footprint spans the country, and even stretches back to the 19th century when the recipe was first imagined by John Walker and his son, Alexander.

Lesley Gracie's gin lab

It’s said that writers should write about what they know – the same is true for gin makers

Jim Beveridge, the brand’s master blender, considers the concept of social terroir “fascinating – that a whisky maker’s personality can bring something unique to the process and ultimately influence what is being crafted”. But he doesn’t feel the concept is a reflection of any one individual. “We feel we are custodians of that ‘social terroir’ as we see it, that philosophy,” he remarks. “It may not be one individual whisky maker but rather layers of knowledge and culture that have created the Johnnie Walker philosophy and influences everything we do.”

Jim Beveridge, the master blender for Johnnie Walker
Jim Beveridge, master blender for Johnnie Walker, likes to see whisky makers lend their personality to blends

Those human layers of knowledge and culture have ensured the Johnnie Walker house style has remained largely unchanged, despite the closure of distilleries over the years. But the safeguarding of the Johnnie Walker legacy hasn’t meant a lack of innovation, or the opportunity for its current blending team to add their own chapters to the brand’s story.

Beveridge explains: “For the Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch series, we took inspiration from anything and everything around us – experiences, personal passions, hobbies, sounds, flavours and culture – to craft exciting new flavour experiences. The results were very exciting, and you could really see some of the personality of individual whisky makers in the whisky. Yet all of this was done with an eye on whether the whisky was true to the culture and personality of Johnnie Walker’s ‘social terroir’.”

Jim Beveridge signing a whisky bottle
Many distillers, such as Beveridge, give a personal touch to their creations

Just as grain, grape or cane imparts its own character, or as the local climate shapes the spirit as it matures in cask, humans play a vital role in flavour creation. Indeed, I would argue that a producer’s influence is just as, if not more, important than the ingredients themselves. There is a reason, after all, why master blenders’ and distillers’ signatures are inscribed on bottles…

Becky Paskin is the new IWSC Spirit Communicator – view more details of the award here