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Academic study proves terroir’s influence on whisky

Published:  17 February, 2021

A new academic study has provided “conclusive proof” of terroir’s influence on whisky, potentially paving the way for an Appellation Controlée system for whisky in the same way as wine.

The concept of terroir – the French principle that factors such as soil, microclimate, and topography together can influence flavour characteristics – has long been accepted in other drinks categories such as wine and cognac, but has polarised whisky experts for years.

However, a peer-reviewed paper published today, spearheaded and founded by Waterford Distillery, claims to prove that terroir can also be found in barley, and significantly, the single malt whisky spirit distilled from it.

The first paper from The Whisky Terroir Project examined two barley varieties grown on two farms with separate environments in 2017 and 2018: Athy, County Kildare and Bunclody, County Wexford in South Eastern Ireland.

Each sample of barley was micro-malted and micro-distilled in laboratory conditions to produce 32 different whisky distillate samples. These were then tested by world-leading whisky lab analysts and using the very latest analytical methods of Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry–olfactometry (GC/MS-O), as well as highly trained sensory experts.

The findings of the study were significant for the whisky industry as the presence of terroir within the spirit distilled from barley created the possibility of producing regionally specific whiskies in the same vein as wines, “potentially paving way for an Appellation Controlée system of provenance”, said Mark Reynier, founder and CEO of Waterford

“Barley is what makes single malt whisky the most flavoursome spirit in the world. This study proves that barley’s flavours are influenced by where it is grown, meaning – like wine and cognac – whisky’s taste is terroir-driven.

“Critics claimed any terroir effect would be destroyed by the whisky-making process, saying there is no scientific evidence to prove that terroir even exists. Well, there is now.”

Dr Dustin Herb, lead researcher at Oregon State University, added: “This interdisciplinary study investigated the basis of terroir by examining the genetic, physiological, and metabolic mechanisms of barley contributing to whisky flavour. 

“Using standardised malting and distillation protocols, we preserved distinct flavours associated with the testing environments and observed year-to-year variations, indicating that terroir is a significant contributor to whisky flavour.”

Waterford’s Whisky Terroir Project was undertaken by an international team of academics from the US, Scotland, Greece, Belgium and Ireland and featured cooperation from Scotland’s leading whisky laboratory.