Terroir-ism

If you are unfamiliar with the term "terroir" it is a French term with no exact English translation – much used in the wine industry – it refers to all the physical/environmental characteristics in and around a particular vineyard site (climate, soil, geographical location and so on).

The term has, of late, worked its way into the lexicon of whisky production.

While I believe that a ‘terroir-like’ concept is important to help understand why one Scotch is different than another produced at another distillery right down the road, I don’t think that the term "terroir," as used by oeneophiles, can be used accurately to describe what makes a particular Scotch different from others. Like Dominic Roskrow says:

I’m cynical about terroir, not least because it’s a pretentious wine term.

Perhaps, we need a new term, one that represents the "soul" of a distillery – and encompasses the still shape, distillery location, warehouse location, water source, and other factors.

Maybe that’s just an overly romantic dream on my part – as single malt Scotch becomes bigger and bigger, there are fewer ingredients that point to the authenticity of Scotch made in a single place.

Barley is increasingly imported from England and beyond; few distilleries malt their own barley (4); few bottle on site (3); and few use local water for bottling dilution (3).

Today there is precious little, aside from location of the physical stills, the maturing warehouse, and the local water used in mashing that gives a whisky an authentic sense of place – yet, there is something undeniable that separates one whisky from another.

The region in which a distillery stands has nothing to do with this difference as regional designations give us no clue as to what to expect from a whisky. Highly peated drams can be found in Speyside, while delicate drams are available from Islay.

Moreover, I’m just not a fan of the regional designations – I can buy into them from an historical and geographical basis, but for little more.

The growing use of the term "Islands" particularly irks me.

From The Instant Expert’s Guide to Single Malt Scotch (upcoming 2nd edition):

Fairly recently, there has been a movement to define a new region called the “Islands.” The term refers to all of the whisky-producing islands (except Islay) of Scotland – Skye, Jura, Orkney, Arran, & Mull. These islands are geographically dispersed around the perimeter of Scotland and because of this, as well as the lack of an identifiable style among the distilleries, I don’t treat them a separate region, but include them instead with the Highlands.

I asked Jim Murray (well-known whisky expert and author of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible) his views on the Islands:

“Islands. No, I have never regarded them as a region mainly because their styles do vary. No other island, for instance, produces the honey thread one finds in both Highland Park and Scapa. Some island whiskies produce recently peated drams, like on Jura and Mull; and historically like on Skye. And where does Arran fit in with those? Doesn’t really.”

So, if regional designations mean nothing, what makes one distillery different than another?

I chatted with Mark Reynier about the concept of terroir:

Kevin Erskine: David contends, and I agree, that the regional classifications are not useful for much.

Mark Reynier: David is right. The ‘appellations’ or regions of of Highland, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown were merely administrational divisions to make it easier to manage distilling licenses in the nineteenth century; it had bugger-all to do with taste.

Sure, all those years ago no one would have foreseen the demise of Campbeltown from 32 to 3 distilleries; or the dominance of Speyside; or the collapse of Lowland. But they are not terroirs.

I think these regions are more to do with cataloguing and pigeon-holing for bar lists and books than anything else.

The concept of terroir is misunderstood and erroneously applied.  I do not believe a distillery, a bunch of buildings, itself exhibits a Terroir in the true sense of the word. It probably did more so in the old days when barely was grown around the distillery and indigenous yeasts were used. But today, where the barley is grown, the maturation location, the water can show terroir attributes but are sadly rarely applicable today.

BARLEY
KE: Let’s talk about Barley…which is rarely locally grown.

MR: The real concept of ‘terroir’, as opposed to the glib and trendy use by marketing departments, is actually very easy to prove:

At the last Islay Festival, I organised a tasting that 147 members of the public took part in; ‘nosing’ 4 new spirit. The samples were drawn from the spirit safe at 0 age, colourless, identically distilled, same harvest, but from 4 different ‘terroirs’. 100% of the tasters – all members of the public – on the nose alone, could tell that the 4 samples were different.  The ‘Terroir’ was the only difference between the samples: the fields where the barley was grown. In this case the soil, bedrock, microclimate all played their part. That’s ‘terroir’.

Today, barley is used from where ever it is cheapest/ best yielding and has nothing to do with the distillery itself  (some use English barley, some have even used Australian).

KE: Does that matter?

MR: Sure it does! Which is more important?  Islay grown or Global barley?

KE: Depends which traditionalist you talk to. Some say that without local barley and maltings "terroir" is not provable. To others, the fact that the barley is not from Scotland is the worst thing in the world. In my opinion, the origin of the barley is besides the fact…

MR: That’s complete twaddle!  That is precisely the industry line… Of course, locally grown barley is relevant. Locally grown to whom though? Local malting is, I have to say, irrelevant, even though we are planning to do this ourselves. One could argue a case for the influence of the origin of peat used during kilning, but I think that is a very long shot.

KE: I’ll agree that it would be nice from "Scotland First" viewpoint to only use Scottish barley – but does it impact end spirit? Likewise, does the location of the maltings matter to the final product? Likely only for tourism purposes… Do you think that Scottish Barley has an impact on final flavor?

MR: If you mean ‘does Scottish barley in general taste different to English barley’ No, of course I could not say that. But barley, like any growing thing, is influenced by climate, soil and cultivation techniques. We use exclusively Scottish barely. Why?  Call me a sad bastard but it says ‘Product of Scotland’ on the label – and I feel  that is important. That’s all.

Currently we use 6 different farms – or ‘terroirs’ and I can show anyone the different character from each one.  What is more – I can show you an annual difference too from the same field; a vintage difference if you like – another concept that will be ridiculed as impossible. I can show that organically grown barely produces better flavours, but come to Bruichladdich and you can see for yourself.

The marketing men will say it is all Scottish – but I know for a fact that it is not possible.  For starters, all Port Ellen maltings barley comes from England. That’s one of several  reasons why we use Inverness.

MALTINGS
MR:
We are considering reopening our own maltings –  not for a romantic, tourist reason, but purely for commercial reality – as we believe it will become increasingly difficult to expand our different ‘terroirs’ or farms with our current arrrangements – because of increased consolidation in the malting sector. And because we have another project up our sleeve. But this is not a terroir attribute.

STILL SHAPE
KE:
Would you include still shape/size in your definition of terroir?

MR: No – not for terroir. But, still shape is very important to the weight of spirit; this is more influenced by history than place. Older distilleries –  often originally farms – have smaller, generally onion-shaped stills with short-necks that produce heavier alcohol as these were the biggest capacity they could fit in to a stable when they decided to go legitimate around 1823. The younger distilleries like ours were purpose-built and so not confined by space and consequently have taller narrower necked stills producing elegant and floral spirits.

KE: But did they design the still for a particular (expected) flavour, or did the still shape come as a matter of available and space – and the resulting spirit turned into the house style?

MR: Probably the latter. Which is why folk don’t mess with the shape – and new stills are copied exactly from the original – assuming the result was what pleased. An Islay distillery (around 1975) produced a double sized wash still to the exact same blue print, but it did not produce the same results.

WATER
MR:
The bottling and mashing water are highly relevant. We use three different waters in different phases of production – mashing, cooling and bottling. All three come from Islay for mashing it is peaty and mineral. The cooling water comes from the burn and the bottling water from a spring that is crystal clear. As far as I am aware it is the only spring water used in bottling, and comes from 1800 million year old Gneiss rock – the oldest in the Scotch whisky industry – and not an industrial estate.

DISTILLERY LOCATION
MR:
The problem with terroir – is that until scientific research is done, no one has the definitive proof and this allows every Tom Dick And Harry to stick their oar in ‘authoritatively’.

KE: My fear is that if terroir is NOT a factor then a large company could set up one massive distillery with an "Islay Room", a “Speyside Room” and ship the water in…

MR: I agree, perhaps if terroir has no relevance, Scotch whisky will be produced like the Irish at Cork.

WAREHOUSING
KE:
Some think that the location/type of warehousing doesn’t have an impact. I disagree (for the most part). At least, I hope there’s something to warehouse location…

MR: You are referring  to the "No Salt in Malt" argument. I believe strongly that warehousing does have an impact; at least whisky matured beside the sea does show a marine influence – this is not mere anecdotal evidence – anyone who has tasted Bruichladich, Springbank or Lochside can see for themselves.

But we have shore uncovered up to 50 meters out twice a day, not 20 metres from our warehouses – and a prevailing Atlantic wind that can knock you off your feet. I am convinced that this heavily marine-influenced atmosphere impacts our maturing spirit: Casks breath alcohol out and air in. If they did not there would either be no Angel’s share or there would be a vacuum and you’d never get the bung out!

Sadly, as Andrew Jefford wrote in his excellent book Peat, Smoke & Spirit a good deal of Islay whisky is not even matured here on Islay – even when the distilleries are located on the sea – and their stocks are matured centrally inland. The losses are higher for some reason on the islands than in the mainland, so economically it makes more sense for the big boys to tanker the spirit away to the mainland.

Some  companies have managed to remove the very factors that influence ‘terroir’ – such as barley origins, warehousing and water – and then say "Terroir does not exist, so what’s the problem? "

That’s why I am doing everything to put it back.

KE: I think the peat monsters being warehoused off-island lends to peoples’ thoughts that Islay maturation is not important in an Islay.

MR: Sadly, I think you are right.  That’s the problem. And do you think that one man speaking out is going to make any difference? That’s what Jefford was getting at in his book – and which is why he will probably never write again in the whisky industry. He too is a wine man, and looked at Islay from a refreshingly non-industry perspective.

But rest assured, soon we will have the definitive proof that warehousing does have an influence as described above: we have dispatched around Scotland  various casks of  our new spirit to different destinations – precisely to gather evidence thatdoes not yet ‘officially’ exist.

To give you an idea of  how the consumer is being deliberately confused, figure this out:

"Our findings…..show that it is Scotland and its climate that is the important thing. It is irrelevant to us whether XXXX is aged on Islay or in Central Scotland. Almost all XXXX for example is warehoused in Central Scotland and yet people still find a ‘sea salt ‘ character in it.

There is no scientific evidence to show that whiskies aged in different places in Scotland are significantly different from one another, and in some ways quite the opposite."

And guess why there is no scientific evidence? The Scotch Whisky Research Institute has never been commissioned  to research this subject. And guess who The SWRI is owned by…?

Then the same company’s marketing department:

"whipped by the sea spray of the West Coast … the sea air and iodine peat give XXXX its powerful marine character, influenced by seaweed and pepper."

So which is it? And of course the whisky is not matured there.

I bet none of them drink even drink whisky.


This topic has stirred up a lot of interest – as a result there will be more stories on "terroir" in the coming weeks…

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Comment (1)

  1. Hi Mark, Hi Kevin,
    Extremely interesting. I can confirm what Mark says regarding all the flavour variations, having tasted many at Bruichladdich. And agreed on Jefford.

    More globally, I feel all these experiments with ‘terroirism’ (if not exactly terroir) are very worthy. I like the industry to have different ways, different POV’s. Just like with wine or beer (NOT Coke) many different approaches can and maybe must coexist. I don’t think it’s really a matter of being right or wrong, that is. Different paradigms, different moves, claims and USP’s.
    So, terroir yes (excuse my Frenchness), but maybe terror no (ditto);-)

    Best

    Serge

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