This year I have decided to focus all my nerdy efforts into finding out what terroir does to a whisky, if anything. What I ran into immediately is a few problems with continuity assumptions in the whisky making process.
The whisky making process has some basic steps which are mostly the same across the industry. For the sake of less complexity I have to make some choices what to look at and what not. So first choice that I need to make is which whisky making process am I going to investigate the Terroir influence of? I could go for Bourbon, Canadian, USA single malts, Japanese, Taiwanese, Dutch, Irish but in the end I decided to go for Scottish Whisky.
With that choice made one could choose between traditional still and contiguous stills. I am choosing traditional stills. Why? Because the traditional still are less automated in my engineering opinion. That means that all the personal influences and man made choices will affect the end result more. If Terroir influences are a thing for this kind of distillation than I can assume it will be a thing in the more “constant” process of continuous distillation. At least, in my mind that assumption makes sense to me now. Let’s see if it holds up in the coming year or so.
So whisky making in a traditional way is supposed to go by the book. The book being the Scottish Whisky Regulation. So, made in Scotland and matured in Scotland … bla bla … I put bla bla since I know perfectly well what that entails. I hope the persons reading this do so too.
So Whisky making is basically the same-ish all over Scotland. Grow Barley – Dry Barley – Malt Barley – Mill Barley – Mash Barley – Ferment – Distill – Mature – Blend / Marry – Bottle
The observation that all distilleries have their own character is a pain in the but when investigating Terroir. With Terroir I mean the influence of location, soil and climate on a whisky. Obviously each distillery is in another location.
I added an overview from the Whiskybase.com website so I can “prove” that distilleries are not all in one place in Scotland. But off course you knew this. This “location” effect would all on it’s own be “proof of terroir”? That would be to easy I think, but some distilleries use this argument. “We are the most northerly, so our whisky is different”. I personally find that a simple statement, but it might actually be true. So that’s on my ToDo list for this year to find out.
The next influence on the process is the location of the field in which the barley was grown. Here the map would probably look even more random. That stuff is grown all over the place. Maybe even outside of Scotland? That’s another question right there.
So while this barley stuff is growing all kinds of stuff happens. It rains or not. The wind is blowing. The sun is out (or not). Insects may like the stuff, or geese. Does the farmer use pesticides or not. Which brand / type of barley planted / used. Does the CIA spray with Chem-trails or not. What if UFO’s decide to land. Does that influence the terroir? Oh, and don’t forget the soil. The soil is the “big” influence on the terroir of wine grapes, so that must be a thing for barley as well. Anyways, as you can see, lots of influences that may or may not result in a difference in the final product. If terroir has influence here I am calling it “Terroir of the Soil” from now on.
Then the combines come. Harvest is there. After the harvest there is a party. Then the barley is transported to the malting place. Drying and stuff. Then it is malted and shipped to the distillery. This step alone is shelves full of chemistry to digest. There used to be a IBD course that someone had public on YouTube but now it’s private. Good thing I took it before the dude found out and made it private. So lot’s of stuff going on there as well.
Next up is milling. As an engineer I say this step is about mechanical stuff happening. Brute force approach stuff with rollers and shit. Nothing overly chemical happening here? Ok, that’s an assumption, but one I am assuming.
So next is the whole mashing process. Book cases full of chemistry goes on in this step. One or two lines should cover it here. Ok, one more. The beer that is the result of this step has as its result an entire section in my supermarket called “Beer” or “Ale” or “Lager” or “Weissen” or “Pilsner” or …. you get the idea. The differences in beer alone would be proof of “Terroir”?
Then the yeasts have a party with the beer. I find yeast’s to be environmental terrorists! Not Terroirrists! Producing CO2! Call Green Pease! Ok, don’t! They make all kinds of stuff including ethanol. Which yeast you use influences the outcome? So Does the wood or metal used for the mash-tun? More influences to have to deal with. Do the work against “Terroir of the soil”? I don’t know at this point in time.
So when that is done the distillery applies “Heat” to the stuff. The stuff evaporates! And condensates. That would be all good and well if all distilleries had one and the same type of still, with the same dimensions, same heaters, same heights, same necks, same condensers, same line arms, same rectifiers, same piping, same intermittent containers, same copper, same copper plate thicknesses, same everything. Do they? Aww Crapp! They don’t! Who knew! Even more influences to have to investigate and see if these work for or against “terroir of the soil”. We all do probably recognise that this is almost the last step the distillery has to make the best “new make” they can. Next it’s up to the wood of the cask and the master blender after that.
So when the barley is grow, the malt is milled and mashed, the beer is distilled and it is put in casks. All casks are equal right. That’s why people call them “Ex-Bourbon”, or “ex sherry”. Like with beer, all bourbon is the same, all sherry is the same. Right? *Sigh* … No not all bourbon is the same. There are at least two brands of bourbon. And at least two mash-bills. Bourbon comes from the Bourbon place. The rest of USA whisky is not bourbon but it is whisky. For the sake of those poor Scottish Distileries people keep it simple and call all casks coming out of the USA “Ex bourbon”. You may frown at this point. Or snicker. Or both. When I think of all the ages, mash-bills, and distilleries in the USA one could say there is no such thing as a universally constant “Ex-Bourbon” cask. If you replace the word “Bourbon” with “Sherry” or “Wine” in the previous text you will naturally understand that there is also no universally constant “Ex-Sherry” or “Ex-wine” cask. All those casks are unique and will have their own unique chemical influences on the “new make”.
People generally know that new make spirit is transparent and colourless. All colour comes from the cask? Right? … well it doesn’t but that’s another story all by it’s self. The location, wood type, char level, previous content, mechanical construction etc, take their influence during the maturation of the new make. With time all kinds of stuff happens. One’s the distillery is happy the whisky is removed from the cask.
Not all whisky is bottle as a single cask! I thought I write that down for my own personal reference. It means that if more then, say 500 bottles are out there the whisky is the result of, here it comes, more than one cask! Awh Crapp! Not again! Even more influences to have to investigate while looking at “Terroir from the Soil”. You would almost think it is utterly impossible to get a constant whisky out of so many non-constant influences. But, here is where the Master Blender has his job cut out for himself.
The Master Blender is called a Master because he/she is really really good at his job. The better he/she is at doing the job the less you taste and smell the differences between one bottle and the next. There are multiple ISO standards to help him/her corroborate his blending skills by test panels. Yes, there are people having a daytime job doing triple blind testing of whisky batches! Just so your next Lagavulin 16 tastes just the same. Or “the same” in the sense that the differences don’t cross the thresholds of your nasal and palette receptors.
Ok, with all the non-constant influences of the entire whisky making in mind where would one even begin investigating “Terroir of the Soil” and it’s influences on the final dram? I asked myself this very question and to answer this I made a YouTube video.
I come to my conclusion that I will look at “terroir influences” of the barley growing process first. Let me find out if there are flavour active influences to be found in the barley alone due to the field and location where it grew!