Does terroir exist in Scotch whisky?

The concept of terroir in wine is well known, but can Scotch whisky share a sense of place, too? Andrew Jefford delves into mist, myth and meaning

Words by Andrew Jefford

Photography by Martin Scott Powell

The isle of Islay
The isle of Islay, known for its peaty malt whisky

To determine whether terroir whisky exists we must begin by ascertaining the definition of terroir. In June 2010, the grandees of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine met in Tbilisi, Georgia, to attempt to pin the celebrated butterfly. Their definition of ‘vitivinicultural terroir’ so reeks of committee chloroform that I won’t quote it in full, though you’ll easily find it online.

It defines terroir as ‘a concept’. ‘[D]istinctive characteristics’ for products coming from a particular place (ie aroma and flavour), it says, are provided by an area in which ‘collective knowledge…develops’ concerning the interactions between a physical and biological growing milieu and winegrowing and winemaking practices.

This is a cautious and hesitant definition of terroir. The experts don’t say that terroir exists; they don’t say that it derives from the physical and biological milieu. If the concept is valid, they say, then it holds that the ‘distinctive characteristics’ of a product are based on human activities in a place, combined with the knowledge that develops about those activities and that place. Happy with this definition? Then it can indeed be applied to the creation of malt whisky.

This is not, though, what the wine community means by terroir. When wine producers, wine writers and sommeliers use the term terroir, they mean that the aromas and flavours of a wine are principally derived from its physical milieu rather than its grape variety or winemaking techniques. Chablis tastes as it does not because it is made from Chardonnay or cool-fermented in steel on fine lees with malolactic, but because it grows on slopes of Kimmeridgian limestone at 47.815°N in a semi-continental location in the Seine basin, and may have been fermented with indigenous yeasts. Is this your favoured definition? Then malt whisky fails to qualify.

I write this with some sadness, since I spent a lot of time between 1990 and 2005 trying to make malt whisky fit the wine world’s very physical definition of terroir. That period culminated in two years of intense activity on Islay as I prepared the book which appeared in 2004 as Peat Smoke and Spirit (now rechristened Whisky Island). I wrote the book because I had fallen in love with the place. It is a celebration of place. Naturally, I wanted Islay’s whiskies to reflect the place; the book is, in part, a kind of whisky terroir test, as I examined just what matters and what doesn’t matter in the creation of malt whisky aroma and flavour.

I finished the book by leaving the question of whether whisky terroir exists open. Now, though, I think it is better to sink the Chablis definition (though this does indeed have some validity for Chablis) of ‘place before work’. Much better for the malt-whisky community to concentrate on a different definition of terroir: ‘work before place’.

Many Scotch whisky distillers use Scottish barley, but some source it from England and other parts of Europe

Let’s briskly explore the specificities of whisky and wine in turn. All that promotional footage of tumbling, peat-stained loch water is irresistible and makes a strong emotional appeal on the viewer, but no whisky scientist thinks that water counts for more than one or two per cent of the final sensorial profile of a dram. Why should we doubt them? Distilling, after all, is a process of water exclusion.

Next: a barley grain and a grape are profoundly dissimilar. One is a grass seed; the other a fruit. The fruit contains sugar-rich juice, which will simply be pressed and fermented, often with wild yeasts (grape seeds are discarded); the Chablis drinker drinks fermented juice.

Chablis grapes, moreover, are grown in Chablis. When they’re gone, they’re gone: quantities are limited. Seasonal phenomena and micro-locational differences are inscribed like watermarks in the constitution of the juice. A barley grain, by contrast, is juiceless. It contains starch, which in turn is useless for fermentation until malted, while the green malt is impractical to use unless dried. That’s a double transformation of raw materials, even prior to fermentation.

Appropriate malting barley is sourced globally by most malt distillers; proprietary yeasts are used to brew the base beer. The malt whisky drinker doesn’t drink fermented juice, but beer fermented from sprouted, dried, milled grass seeds (from multiple sources) mixed with hot water; that beer then has its alcohol simmered out of it by evaporation – twice, in the case of malt.

Peat origin might be considered a place-related terroir factor when peat is used, but the influence of this seems to be negligible

You can make as much whisky as your distillery equipment can support: just buy more ingredients. The major flavour decision regarding that beer is whether peat is used in the malt-drying process, something that ceased being a necessity long ago, and is thus a recipe choice. Peat origin might be considered a place-related terroir factor when peat is used, but the influence of this seems to be negligible, assuming that the peat is won from comparable biotopes.

Wine’s fermentative transformation is quickly over, which is why winemakers can call themselves midwives. Not so distillers. For them, fermentation is simply the prelude to the much more radical transformation of distillation, and if I learned anything during 15 years of visiting distilleries, it was that the exact nature of the distilling equipment and the way it is run has a significant effect on the final spirit. Condensers are likely to be more important for aroma and flavour than water source, for example, though they are much less photogenic. This is industrial plant, and distilling is an industrial process, albeit one of great finesse, like precision engineering or photonic design, and one for which human sensory apparatus is the final arbiter of quality.

Scotch whisky cask
The type of cask in which a whisky is aged has a greater effect on its aromas and flavours than the source of the raw materials

The other great imprinter of aroma and flavour on a malt whisky, alongside distillation, is its years spent oxidatively ageing in second-hand casks (most Chablis, by contrast, never sees a cask, and is in bottle in a matter of months). These casks are hugely significant for aroma and flavour, though rebuilt American white-oak recipients are not in themselves a place-related factor of terroir.

Their storage location, by contrast, is significant; this is, truly, a place-related factor of terroir. An Islay malt aged in Kentucky or Jarnac would differ significantly from one aged on Islay. Distilling companies claim, though, that there are no detectable differences between an Islay malt aged on Islay and one aged nearer to the motorways and bottling plants of central Scotland. I harbour some doubts here, but have never had the chance to make the comparison (though nothing would be easier for Islay’s large distillery owners to arrange). I agree that the differences are unlikely to be dramatic: Scottish storage is what counts for Scotch. And that the island of Islay is more beautiful without industrial parks mazed with warehousing invading to its farmland.

Tentative experimental steps can be made towards imbuing malt whisky with place-related terroir via the use of locally grown barley, as Mark Reynier did with his colleagues at Bruichladdich, and as he continues to do at Waterford in Ireland. Why not? Bravo; run the experiments. But not even the doughty Reynier can make raw barley starch or a porridge of milled malt resemble grape juice; leap over the multi-stage processing of malt whisky, and occlude the radical transformation of distilling; or roll up the years of oxidative oak ageing into a brief stint in steel.

In any case, fellow drinkers, it’s not necessary. There’s no need for whisky to be wine.

Whisky from Islay is renowned for the influence of peat on its smoky flavour

Place, for drinkers, is still there in the dram, not as ‘place before work’, but as ‘work before place’. In this sense, all those promotional videos don’t lie. I often think, as I’m lying awake in the small hours, of the spectacularly sited Caol Ila stillhouse on Islay. It’s closed just now for building works, but for most of the years since I wrote my book it has been lit, warm and operational through those same small hours as the rest of Europe sleeps, while outside in the darkness the waters of the Sound of Islay race past outside at 7 knots and chill rain, as often as not, flails the windows. Across the dark, curling water a few metres from those stills lies Jura, with its Paps and its 6,000 hardy deer; the Corryvreckan whirlpool churns unseen to the north.

At the end of the nightshift, the stillhouse workers will make their way up the steep hill and off and away across the island to homes and lives utterly different from mine, with a different set of fears and joys, constraints and liberations; while the spirit they have helped bring into being in that place will rest in all its newborn lividness before beginning its long life, most of its elsewhere.

That’s all there in every sip of Caol Ila. It doesn’t mean any the less to me if I can’t swear that the taste of peat comes from Loch Nam Ban’s brown water or from bricks of smoking Finlaggan moss, or the spirit’s warm glow from a field of Ballygrant barley. That is to be overly literal about the question. It is craft in nature, as wine is, and both matter – but here in this beautiful, hostile and unpropitious environment, it’s the craft, the endeavour, that matters more.

Andrew Jefford

Andrew Jefford is a wine writer and the author of Whisky Island  (pic by John Jefford)