Whiskey might not have a reputation for the same complex flavor profiles as wine, but a new study says the environment where barley is produced has a definite influence on the beloved spirit. In winemaking, the environment where the grapes grow is known as terroir and it’s essential to how wine tastes. Turns out whiskey’s terroir is just as influential.
“It’s the weather, it’s the soil, it’s everything that has to do with the growing of it,“ says Dustin Herb, Ph.D. of Oregon State University. But he’s not talking about vineyards, he’s referring to the barley used in whiskey.
Looking for Whiskey’s Terroir
Herb did his doctoral research on how barley imparts its flavor on beer. Four years ago, this work attracted the attention of Waterford Distillery, who brought Herb to Ireland to see if he could design a study that would answer the question, “Does terroir exist in whiskey?” The short answer to that question is yes.
Named the Whisky Terroir Project, the study took two varieties of barley and planted them in two different environments with different soil types and climates, one coastal and one inland. The barley was harvested, stored, malted, and micro-distilled into ‘new make spirit,’ the substance that’s aged and eventually turned into whiskey.
The Sniff Test
Smell tests followed using both gas chromatography mass spectrometry and human testers. The mass spectrometer and human noses were looking for a wide-range of odors that affect taste—everything from walnuts, cream, and fresh laundry to cabbage water, lawn clippings, and tobacco.
“All these compounds we can smell have unique fingerprints,” says Kieran Kilcawley, co-author of the study.
Published in the journal Foods, the study proved that terroir could be detected in samples. The new make spirit produced from the inland site’s barley had notes of toasted almond and a biscuity, oily finish, while its coastal counterpart was lighter and floral with a fresh fruitiness.
A Taste of What’s To Come
Herb says results of the study might change how whiskey is made and consumed.
“What this does is actually make the farmer and the producer come to the forefront of the product,” Dr. Herb says. He also believes that, like wine, we may someday be seeking out our favorite vintage years.
We’ll say Sláinte! to that.
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