Maybe you’ve had this sensation: You’re sipping Scotch whisky, and you suddenly pick up a strong sense for the spirit’s place of origin. You believe you taste the earthiness of the barley, the sweetness or spice of the barrel, perhaps the saltiness of the sea and peat smoke.
The flavor of place, or terroir, comes up frequently in discussions of wine. But how to talk sensibly about terroir in whisky?
The case for terroir is usually not addressed for spirits like Irish or Scotch whisky. Some find it hard to believe such liquors might, in any way, reflect terroir, especially after distillation, which strips away flavors.
Bruichladdich (brook-laddy), however, is one of the few Scotch distilleries to vigorously claim its whisky reflects the place where it’s made, the peat-covered island of Islay off Scotland’s west coast.
“Bruichladdich is the only distillery to conceive, distill, mature and bottle all its product 100 percent on Islay,” says Zoe Turnbull, a spokesperson for the distillery. “The distillery works with farmers on the island to grow barley, and each showcases the soil and topography.”
The case for discerning the taste of terroir in whisky has recently gained scientific support. In January 2019, “The Drinks Business” reports, “preliminary results of a study exploring the influence of terroir on barley … concluded that ‘environmental differences in whisky flavor are present.’” So, according to this study, the barley in whiskey reflects the place where it was grown.
Although discernible “environmental differences” in barley may be subtle, there are other ways whisky can express terroir.
“Water added after distillation is hugely important to the terroir of our whisky,” says Allan Logan, Bruichladdich production manager. “Islay spring water is filtered through billion-year-old rocks; it’s soft, offering a desirable neutrality when cutting whisky down to bottling strength.”
Smokiness is usually part of the Scotch drinking experience. The smoke flavor comes from burning peat, which stops the germination of the sprouting barley so that the sugars will be conserved for conversion into alcohol. The smoke of peat, composted organic matter cut from Islay’s boggy fields, contributes to the spirit’s taste of place.
Still, smoke may overwhelm the subtler flavors of barley and water. If you don’t like smoke, get unpeated or lightly peated Scotch from Speyside, such as The Macallan or Glenlivet. For many, however, smokiness plays a big part in the Scotch experience; if it weren’t there, it’d be missed.
At his distillery, Logan explains how even his barrels contribute to the taste of place that ends up in his Scotch: “The famously ‘salt-soaked’ Islay air interacts with the woods of every barrel we use.”
The brininess of Islay whiskies, including Ardbeg and Laphroaig, may in this way reflect the island’s terroir … or, if you will, merroir.