Does Whisky Have Terroir "A Sense of Place"?

Excerpt from Mark Bylok’s upcoming book, The Whisky Cabinet, is revised as a stand-alone piece posted for feedback. 

Terroir’s definition is often simplified as “a sense of place.” Used when describing wine, the broader definition of terroir touches on the geography, geology and climate—the environmental factors that influence the way wine tastes. Less spoken of are the historical influences of terroir. While many traditional wine regions enjoy the benefits of a warm climate and rolling hills, many whisky regions are born out of harsh winters and the necessity of using and reusing local cheap grains and products. In whisky making, historical practises used out of necessity define each regional whisky. 

When it comes to wine, it’s easy to see how terroir romanticizes the notion of regional wines. Burgundy red wines are often made from Pinot Noir grapes. Burgundy Pinot Noir grown from the same genetic material is planted throughout the world, but red Burgundy remains the benchmark for Pinot lovers because it tastes unique compared to Pinots from other regions. The explanation for what makes that difference is the terroir of Burgundy. While wine and terroir are commonly brought up, it’s not the only agricultural products identified with a sense of place. Terroir is used to describe coffee, hops, tea, tomatoes and even processed products such as cheese. In fact, it makes for such an appealing story that it can often be skewed.

This is especially the case when we speak of the terroir of whisky making. Scotland, for example, has flavour profiles associated with each region. The most obvious examples are whiskies made on the island of Islay. There’s an expectation for them to be smoky. That is true of most Islay whiskies, but certainly not all. Many Islay distilleries choose to smoke their barley with peat (decaying vegetation) to keep with this regional character. 

To understand why Islay whisky is smoky, one must look at the history of Scotland. Islay is punished by a tough, windy climate that limits tree growth. Instead of wood, inhabitants of the island used peat as a fuel to cook their food. When it came to whisky making, the barley needed to be dried, and so out of necessity they turned to the cheap local fuel source peat to do it. This was true for whisky made through-out much of Scotland. 

The peat had the side-effect of smoking the barley, which gave the final product a distinctive smoky scent. Today’s Islay whisky makers use cheaper fuel sources to dry the barley, and they smoke the barley using peat and a smoker. It’s not a necessary step in the making of the whisky, but rather a decision made by the distilleries in order to produce a specific style of whisky. While much of Scotland’s whisky industry does not use peat or only lightly peated barley, most Islay distilleries have retained the traditional heavy peat since the second coming of Scotch in the 80s and 90s. 

Unlike grapes used by estate wineries, most distilleries source barley from various providers both local and distant. Many distilleries even have centralized the aging process, storing barrels off-site. There’s not a lot of terroir caused by close proximity to the distillery in Scotland, when it comes to the grains or aging of the barrels. Rarely are varietals of the grain mentioned, but distilleries do care about the grains used. Bruichladdich, specifically, comes to mind. The distillery is focused on local barley, local peat, local water and local bottling. For Bruichladdich, they spell it out clearly: “We believe terroir matters.”

Canadian whisky makers came from Ireland and Scotland. They were often traditional farmers with large plots of land. The by-product of malted grains is high on protein, and benefited their farm animals as an excellent protein-rich feed before the harsh Canadian winter. Many whisky makers also made wine, and small amounts of wine were often added to their whisky to create a sweeter, easier-to-drink product: historical terroir.

Manufacturing choices are not terroir, but when manufacturing choices were made hundreds of years ago out of necessity, and continue today out of tradition, to me that’s terroir. It is a sense of place. This is, perhaps, the best argument for peated whisky from Islay and Canadian whisky additives as being examples of a sense of place and history of the region, even if in today’s world, they are optional manufacturing choices.

There is evidence that the water used during production matters. Many Scottish distilleries talk about the way water influences their product. Initially Mike Miyamoto, master distiller for Suntory in Japan, had trouble making his whisky taste in the intended style of Scottish whisky. Japan models itself around the scotch industry, and so the end goal is to produce whisky with a similar taste profile. Mike Miyamoto was using the same varieties of grain, making and aging whisky just as in Scotland and yet when the product was ready, something was still off. After much testing, he realized it came down to the water. When water was imported from Scotland, the whisky was in the style of Scotch. This influenced Suntory to carefully choose the sources of water they use in their whisky making.

Perhaps a more obvious influence than water is the weather. Earlier I mentioned the way temperature and climate changes the chemical interactions within a barrel. Scotland has milder weather variation bringing about more predictable results, while Kentucky and Tennessee both have extremes in hot and cold weather. India’s climate is quite hot, and whisky made there will more age faster for this reason. Water and alcohol evaporate at different rates. That’s why alcohol content decreases over time; water evaporates more slowly than alcohol. Water evaporation is affected by climate—it evaporates far faster in dry climates than humid climates. This difference between evaporation rates provides its own regional challenges. It also demonstrates how terroir can be caused by climate.

In many ways, the law defining whisky is the biggest influencer on a whisky’s flavour profile compared to another whisky from a different region. Bourbon is aged in new oak because that’s what the law requires in the United States. This was initially done for economic reasons, to support coopers that were losing work in a world that had moved away from transporting everything in barrels. Single malt scotch is made of 100% barley because that’s the legal definition in Scotland, and traditionally it is made of previously used wood because trees were an expensive commodity (compared to the readily available trees in the United States), and reusing barrels was a common practice.

These legal definitions are based on the historical needs of the region. In the same way the Pinot Noir grape matured in the Burgundy climate became a benchmark, so too did the culture of whisky making in the different regions. When one looks at terroir from this historical point of view, there is absolutely terroir in whisky making. The regions are far larger, and often based on legally defined borders, but that sense of place is there.

As an example, American whisky is made with corn because that’s the predominant crop grown in the region. Single malt whisky is made of barley because while there are cheaper crops that grow in Scotland, whisky made with barley is more suitable to whisky making when barrels are reused. Canadians started adding rye to their whisky because it was cheap to grow in Canada, and it ended up adding a unique flavour profile that differentiated it from American whiskies at the time. Japan, while modelled after Scottish whisky, could only replicate a similar flavour by using similar bodies of water in Japan.

Wine drinkers often scoff at there being terroir in such a manufactured product as whisky. Today’s whisky industry is well controlled, sourced at a distance and legally defined. Rarely do historical influences make it into wine terroir discussions, but this is the mistake made in these discussions. In wine, history is less of a differentiating factor. In whisky, however, history has greatly influenced the drink we enjoy today.

Taste bourbon, single malt scotch, Canadian whisky, Irish whisky, and Japanese whisky. The borders are broader, but the sense of place is achieved. Whether or not you’re interested in specific regions of whisky, you can delve deeper into what makes those regions unique and enjoy them for their sense of place.