Why I know that whisky terroir exists

Mark Reynier, founder and CEO of Waterford Distillery in Ireland, takes issue with writer Andrew Jefford’s claim that whisky struggles to express a sense of place

Words by Mark Reynier

Barley – the key ingredient in single malt whisky – but can it exhibit a sense of place after distillation?

I recently came across the term “diverend“. It’s a philosophical concept coined by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard to describe the absence of any shared ground on which differences between two parties can be identified or debated, compromised or resolved. Indeed, any attempt to debate works in favour of only one of the participants because their terms of reference are used to frame said debate; and those terms, inevitably, exclude the other party to the extent that they are stripped of any means of representing their own position, let alone of winning the argument.

I’ve long been a fan of Andrew Jefford’s excellent book on Islay Scotch, Whisky Island, published back in 2004, particularly as I had only three years earlier moved from London – after two decades in the fine wine trade – to the wild Hebridean island, to renovate and relaunch Bruichladdich Distillery. A wine writer – someone from my side of the fence – had come to the island to see what we were doing and to bravely pose difficult questions to the powerful international distillery owners.

Mark Reynier
Mark Reynier of Waterford Distillery in Ireland is a firm believer in whisky terroir

In a recent article on Club Oenologique, Jefford poses another brave question: Does terroir exist in Scotch whisky? It’s rather an odd, hollow, bitter piece. He’s already made up his mind up: No!

It’s a nonsensical question in any case, akin to asking if terroir exists in Australian wine. In general? Not really – witness Jacob’s Creek – but specifically? Yes, of course – just look at Stonier on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia.

Jefford clearly has a way with words, but he expresses an unusual vagueness in his subject matter. I, on the other hand, do not make a living from writing; I make mine from distilling. Twenty years ago, shortly after I started the resurrection of Bruichladdich, Jefford set out to try “to make malt whisky fit the wine world’s very physical definition of terroir”. Yet anyone with the slightest understanding of the whisky industry would know this was a forlorn hope.

The vast majority of malted barley, the primary raw ingredient, is generic, supplied from across Europe, the Ukraine, even Australia. Eighty per cent of Scotch malt whisky is made by just five companies, and their barley source is understandably the cheapest and most consistent (for the purpose of this article I am talking only about malt whisky, which by law is made exclusively from barley).

Barley field - terroir
"The vast majority of malted barley, the primary raw ingredient [in whisky], is generic, supplied from across Europe, the Ukraine, even Australia"

Jefford rightly defines terroir by reference to Chablis, and concludes: “If this is your favoured definition, then malt whisky fails to qualify”. In one testy sentence, Jefford has ignored my 20 years of work, experience and tangible results in discovering whether terroir really can influence barley and the spirit distilled from it.

Having owned a piece of grand cru Chablis, buying and selling Burgundy for two decades, I am fully aware of the concept of terroir, and I would have to agree with Jefford’s conclusion for most malt whiskies – but not for all malt whiskies…

As a wine merchant, I was lucky enough to be in Burgundy during the renaissance of terroir during the 1980s and 1990s. From temperature-controlled fermentation, stainless steel, pneumatic presses, oak-forest origins, clones and canopy management to organics and biodynamics, it was a revolutionary period after years of wine lakes, cooperatives, under-investment and lacklustre winemaking. It left a great impression on me.

When I observed the malt whisky industry, with its consolidation, power, dominance and efficiency, it was an anathema to me. But could our own domestic drink undergo a similar revolution? Could one apply the same lessons learned in Burgundy? Surely one could do better; I determined to have a go.

From my earliest efforts persuading Islay farmers to grow barley again, and the tentative trialling of terroir at Bruichladdich, it was evident that there was hostility to this very idea from within the whisky industry. The concept poses awkward questions of an exceedingly powerful marketing machine. On top of that, some wine commentators don’t like their narrative being expropriated by a spirit, just as distillers don’t like their cartel being compromised by a wine man.

A certain coordinated line of blunt critique started to appear, based around the 17th-century drinking song John Barleycorn. The inference being that the Dante’s Inferno inflicted on barley during distillation negated any terroir effect surviving the pre-fermentation processes of malting and milling.

The main difference between barley and grapes (apart from the obvious physiological ones) is that while grape sugars are accessed after pressure, access to barley sugars requires germination to activate enzymes that convert starch into sugars for growth but which the distiller can ferment. Barley wort and grape juice are therefore both sweet, and capable of potential alcohol levels of 8%-10% for the former, 10%-14% for the latter.

Remember, too, flavour compounds created in the grain are liberated in fermentation, ‘fixed’ in distillation, and evident in the spirit and which are micro-oxygenated during maturation; it’s what makes malt whisky the most flavoursome spirit in the world.

Waterford distils spirit with barley from more than 100 different terroirs

Back then, at Bruichladdich we lacked the logistics and resources to monitor the terroir effect on anything more than a superficial, circumstantial basis. Finally, three years ago at Waterford, better equipped, carrying less baggage, and wanting to learn more, we set up the definitive study into terroir in whisky.

This project brought together a team of experts from around the globe, a collaboration between Professor Kieran Kilcawley and Dr Maria Kyraleou of Ireland’s Agriculture and Food Development Authority, Teagasc; Dr Dustin Herb of Oregon State University; Tom Bryan and Max Potterton of malt producer Minch Malt; and Scotland’s leading independent whisky laboratory, Tatlock & Thomson.

Recalling his visit to Islay many years ago, when he dined at my table, I naturally offered Jefford the chance of front-row access to the academic project, trusting he would find it intellectually engaging to witness for himself the lengths to which we have gone to investigate terroir in whisky. He declined. His mind was already made up.

Barley harvest - terroir
Reynier commissioned an extensive study to investigate the effects of terroir in whisky

The first of two peer-reviewed papers entitled “The Impact of Terroir on the Flavour of Single Malt Whisky New Make Spirit” was published in February 2021 in Foods. This paper – in an elite-ranked, peer-reviewed journal – proved once and for all the influence of terroir on single malt whisky new-make spirit – despite what our friends in the industry might want.

Legendary economist John Maynard Keynes is quoted as saying: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Well, Mr Jefford?

The peer-reviewed research and much more can be viewed here and garnered coverage in major pieces in the national press. But again, curiously – but perhaps not surprisingly at all – there was barely a word in the drinks columns themselves: these journalists won’t put their heads above the parapet; they know not to bite the hand that feeds them. And to be fair, Jefford wasn’t the only drinks journalist to turn down the opportunity…

We know categorically that terroir does influence flavour in malt whisky

Now we know categorically that terroir does influence flavour in malt whisky, as flavour compounds formed in barley are also present in the distilled spirit. Therefore, if one has the necessary logistics, resources, materials – and desire – one can distill malt whiskies derived from different terroirs. At Waterford, we distill 40 a year, with a total of more than 100 terroirs in our maturing library. Indeed, the second part of our academic terroir project to be presented for peer review next year scrutinises what happens to those terroir-derived flavours during maturation.

Why, you may ask, do we choose to distil terroir-by-terroir? It’s to explore the boundaries of honest, natural flavours, to rejoice in character over conformity, the individual over the standard, the maverick over humdrum. And how does one put terroir into practice in whisky? It’s quite simple – much the same as wine, as it turns out, which is what I have done at Waterford: ensure the total separation of each farm’s grain, from field to barrel. Create a library of component spirits, derived from unique terroirs, and have fun with the flavours they offer. Not only that, but now an increasing number of small brewers and distillers are choosing to source their grains from specific places.

Jefford says: “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.” That can be as true as it is for wine. Both malt whisky and wine’s flavours are liberated at fermentation, unglamorous as that may be. Distillation is straight chemistry that hasn’t changed since alcoholic distillation was invented around 800 AD in Syria, concentrating alcohol by separating it from the water. Funnily enough, top châteaux use a similar principle to increase alcohol strength or sugar intensity by reverse osmosis or cryoextraction (freezing grapes).

Distillation is important for character, of course. There have been advances in still design from early, illicit, handmade examples, to purpose-built distilleries of the late 19th century. How the distiller chooses to operate his machinery – how hard and fast or slow and gentle – is based mainly on economic rather than ideological imperatives. A winery with stainless steel and temperature control might have a different modus operandi to a vigneron with foudres and Tate & Lyle. Basically, stills influence the weight of the spirit, fermentation the flavour. Fermentation, while easily the most important part of the process, is the least glamorous.

Each bottle of Waterford whiskey bears a code that reveals its provenance

Graciously, Jefford accepts that, doughty as I am, my “tentative experimental steps can be made towards imbuing malt whisky with place-related terroir… Why not? Bravo; run the experiments.” So we did, conclusively, and in lab-malted, lab-fermented and lab-distilled spirit, in Scotland’s leading independent whisky laboratory.

But then there are our own Waterford distillates. There’s nothing tentative here: we make a million litres of terroir-driven spirit a year with total track, trace and transparency via each bottle’s TÉIREOIR code. It can be done if one is curious enough; a bit of madness helps.

The whisky industry was defined originally by the sources of raw materials: barley and water. Later, there were other factors such as railway lines, the practical, levelling-up of production for whisky to become the commodity driven industry of today. Today, it seems irresponsible to make an argument against whisky terroir that ignores science, a totally new generation of producers – and reality.

And terroir certainly isn’t a feeling, a “sense of place”, an airy-fairy vacuous phrase that wafts around the tourist trails (although many distilleries would undoubtedly prefer it to be that convenient). Perhaps what we’re doing at Waterford is returning to explore an old, artisanal ethos, but on a modern scale. But It starts with the grain – how and where it grows.

The wine trade likes to think it owns terroir, and is dismissive and snooty about us; while the whisky trade is largely suspicious, thinking the concept pompous, elitist, and fancy. I know the truth.