I was reading a text called “The war on Terroir” on the WATERFORD distillery website. In the style that Mark Reynier is know for he takes a statement by a representative of Diageo and basically calls it …..

The original statement by Diageo representative can be found here.

So does terroir actually mater in the final dram? I would need to create a thesis to either prove or disprove.

I tried finding any papers, articles or any other scientific publications written by the Diageo representative to find out the field of expertise, but unfortunately I was not able to find any references.

Here is the statement by the Diageo representative. Please note the use of the word “many” in the line below.

‘The distillation process itself is all about destroying many of the characters that would define terroir’

~ Diageo representative

Thesis’s

So I need some kind of thesis to either prove or disprove using scientific methods. Can’t have a proper analysis without a thesis now can we?! Let’s use two thesis’s shall we. A binary one and a statistical one.

The thesis needs to be about the terroir of whisky. We can either try and prove there is no influence of terroir on whisky, or try and prove there is an influence. Let’s try and prove there is no influence.

Terroir is defined as followed in the Oxford Dictionary.

terroir
Oxford Dictionary, 2018

First the binary Thesis.

Thesis 1: The chemical composition of the whisky is not influenced by terroir.

Now let’s include the Oxford definition of terroir in this line. Let’s also replace “wine” with “whisky”.

Thesis 1: The chemical composition of the whisky is not influenced by the complete natural environment in which a particular wine whisky is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.

In order to disprove or prove this thesis we shall have to look into the differences in soil, topography and climate.

As you probably know the climate is not the same in Scotland compared to the Netherlands, where I live, or even Ireland. To demonstrate this observation I have included a screen capture of the weather forecast of today.

windy
Windy.com

Hey look, the climate is different. How odd!? I had expected that the climate around the world would be the same! …. Anyways, the climate is actually different from place to place so there is a delta (difference) there. I could do the same with Topography, but you get the idea. Let’s make the words in my thesis that do differ red ok.

Thesis 1: The chemical composition of the whisky is not influenced by the complete natural environment in which a particular wine whisky is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.

The fact that topography and climate are different does not mean the chemical composition of the whisky is too. We all know that a whisky matured in a different climates have a different taste, but that does not mean we have disproven or proven the thesis.

In order to do this we would need a source that does show that the climate and topography does have an influence. I did a quick search in “Whisky, Technology, Production and Marketing” and quoted just a some of the text regarding climate and topography.

“Barley varieties differ in their ability to develop enzymes, and this ability is influenced by seasonal changes and geographical location.”

~ Chapter, Germination The science of germination, 

In Scotland, although the location of a warehouse affects the seasonal and monthly temperatures for maturation, this cannot be directly related to losses, owing to the influence of other factors such as ventilation and insulation.”

~ Chapter, Environmental conditions and evaporative losses

“Each blend contains a large number of individual whiskies, which have been maturing for various periods of time in various locations. The identification, locating and retrieval of these casks in preparation for formulating the blend is not a minor task, and the absence of just one cask could potentially be disastrous. Strict inventory management is therefore another essential aspect of blending.”

~ Chapter, Practicalities of blending,

So back to our thesis. We have found references in scientific texts that climate and topography do have influence on the chemical composition.

Thesis 1: The chemical composition of the whisky is not influenced by the complete natural environment in which a particular wine whisky is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.

Now let’s look at the soil. The soil is not a direct influence on the on the whisky since soil is not getting in contact with the whisky in the duration of maturation of whisky. The wikipedia site of “soil” mentions peat as one of the types of soil. Peat has a definite influence on the whisky. This is well documented in many papers. It even has it’s own category on the Revised Scottish Whisky Flavour wheel.

The other thing that comes into contact with the soil is the barley plant. I have already demonstrated the influence of terroir on the chemical composition of barley in a previous blog called “does terroir influence the barley?”.

Soils are also the place where Oak trees are rooted. I will not go into that topic.

The above shows that “the soil” does influence the taste of the whisky in multiple ways. The level of influence is not known to me but from a binary point of view it is true.

Thesis 1: The chemical composition of the whisky is not influenced by the complete natural environment in which a particular wine whisky is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.

Since the chemical composition of the whisky variety DOES get influenced by the differences in natural environment the thesis is incorrect. So the reverse is true.

The chemical composition of the whisky is not influenced by the complete natural environment in which a particular whisky is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate. 

Let’s input “terroir” in the line above.

The chemical composition of the whisky is influenced by terroir.

Now that I have “proven” the terroir does influence the chemical composition of the whisky, I need to have a dram. Seriously I could have listed paper after paper to show terroir, as defined in the Oxford Dictionary, does have an influence on the whisky. The fact that I only needed two makes it a no-brainer as-well.

Let’s get back to the original quote by the Diageo representative.

‘The distillation process itself is all about destroying many of the characters that would define terroir’

~ Diageo representative

The distillation process does not destroy all the peat influence nor does it the kill the all the influences of malt derived flavour components in whisky. So the statement is incorrect in the sense that some of the terroir related congeners are destroyed but certainly not all.

Many congeners originate in the barley. How many of these congeners originate from the difference in soil, location and climate is hard to tell, but any chemist will tell you that a different combination of chemicals, when sent through a chemical process that has different temperatures and pressures, will result in the end result in different chemical equilibriums.

Discussion

The whole idea about making a whisky consistent between each batch of production is based on the wish of the customer to taste “the same” and the wish of the producers to make “the same”. This is done by creating the whisky by blending them from multiple casks and/or origins. The recipe is known for a Johny Walker Black label for instance. The batch to batch consistency is checked by using sensory analysis teams that ensure consistent flavour profiles between batches. In these kinds of whiskies the influences of “terroir” are not wanted since it would influence the consistency. This is not a bad thing. It is a brand choice.

Brands that choose not to allow the influences of terroir will blend it out of existence by doing just what they do best, provide consistent whisky flavour profiles. That is the whole idea behind ISO sensory analysis standards used in the food en beverages industry.

Brands that take pride in allowing the influences of terroir will not blend it our of existence, but that does mean they will not be able to provide a consistent flavour profile of their core expressions from batch to batch. If they do provide consistency they too use sensory analysis teams to check for consistent sensory profiles in their core expression and thus also remove some of the terroir influence.

References:

  • Whisky, Technology, Production and Marketing, Elsevier, 2003,  Edited by: Inge Russell, Graham Stewart, Charlie Bamforth and Inge Russell ISBN: 978-0-12-669202-0
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