Look, let’s not pretend there isn’t an elephant in the room here. There is a herd really; if we’re honest the space is crammed with them – at this point it’s less a room than a crushed morass of tusk and trunk, and the RSPCA really ought to be made aware. I have spilled no shortage of ink on the subject of terroir in whisky, much of it poorly judged, some of it vitriolic and a few instances downright insulting.
The arguments against my wading into the subject again are sensible and compelling and were this not perhaps my last post on Malt and possibly the last thing I shall ever write on whisky I would probably leave it alone. There will be those who, on seeing my name at the top of this piece, and the ‘t’ word a few lines below, will have left the page entirely or will disregard everything I subsequently have to say, and I understand that completely. I do. Those of you still reading (thank you) are free to take everything that follows with a pinch of salt, and a promise that this won’t be from the old school of slung mud and confrontation. This is, I hope, something else.
Terroir is an idea that resonates with me because, as I wrote in this article on cider, I have always believed that drinks which have a place have a soul. And that the further you dig into the specifics of that place, the more sharply the uniqueness of that soul is brought into focus.
But, if I’m honest, I never used to believe that “terroir” applied to whisky. When I thought of a whisky’s place, I thought of distilleries. Of the singular character brought about by the choices of grain, of yeast, of fermentation and distillation times and the point at which the spirit is cut. Of the amelioration of that spirit in particularly chosen barrels. The idea that the location in which the barley grew made a difference was one I dismissed almost out of hand. The broil and fury of distillery process, I told myself, would overwhelm such nuances to the point of irrelevance.
I changed my mind in the evening of March 9th, 2016. I was on Islay with my father at the time; we were touring the distilleries for my original blog and, having trotted around Kilchoman and Bruichladdich that day, were sitting in the bar of the Port Charlotte Hotel with glasses of I-remember-not-what. It wasn’t that I had been won over especially by the guide at Bruichladdich – indeed I think that the fact I had just been to Bruichladdich was pure serendipity. I was drinking this glass of something scalpingly peated (I suspect Ardbeg but my father may remember more accurately – he usually does) when it occurred to me that, despite the ravages of smoke, despite the intensity of distillation, despite years in oak casks, there was still no way you would mistake this drink for anything but a single malt.
The layers peeled themselves back from there. If it was unmistakeably a single malt – rather than a blended whisky, a rye, a bourbon, a grain – then it was unmistakeably made from malted barley; no other cereal would give off the same flavours and aromas. And if it was so clearly made from barley then, by extension, perhaps a different variety of barley would give off a different organoleptic signature. And if varieties of barley affected the flavour of whisky, then why shouldn’t there be a chance that those varieties were themselves affected by the vagaries of the climate and landscape in which they grew? If I could taste the plant – which I demonstrably could – why shouldn’t it be possible that I might also taste the place?
That evening, a few more of the bar’s selection later, I addressed a tweet to Mark Reynier asking whether I might pose a few questions on the subject. When he replied in the affirmative with an email address I fired off a few no-doubt vacuous queries. It couldn’t have been more than a day or two later that a comprehensive response arrived. I still have the printout somewhere or other. I remember he opened with: “it’s not rocket science”.
I can’t be certain, but I’m relatively sure that Mark (our Mark now, keep up) only noticed me when I started chipping in enthusiastically whenever he spouted anything new about terroir on twitter, which was often. In which case, to some extent or other, it is largely because of a belief that the influences of terroir ought theoretically to be able to manifest themselves in mature, bottled whisky that I am writing to you here. And inevitably, if we are talking about terroir in whisky, the roads all lead to Waterford.
They’ve published their scientific paper now, proving that it is possible for the impact of place to effect a whisky’s flavour, and predictably there’s been what, in whisky terms, passes as a big hoo-hah about it in national newspapers, which is to say it’s been the subject of a handful of middle-pages articles. Decanter penned something too, which seemed ironic given at least one of its prominent contributors has outspokenly dismissed the idea that terroir could have a role to play in whisky. (But then all the best publications offer a broad church of opinion.)
I’m not sure in the immediate term that many minds will be changed by this publication. The question “well ok – what actually is the difference that it makes” will likely and not unreasonably linger. Those who always thought terroir would prove itself “a thing” will feel smug; those who thought it was all a lot of quixotic nonsense will point out that, so far as the drinker is concerned, the most salient point hasn’t been addressed. Fine – terroir can exist. Tell us what to do with that information.
The problem with the notion of terroir in whisky is that unravelling its identity is something that will necessarily demand significant patience in an age when that commodity is wearing thin to the point of non-existence. Let’s say I buy Waterford’s Bannow Island 1.1 (I did). Its bottle – and the website link to which its unique code takes me – are an embarrassment of terroir. I know the soil type, the geographical location, the aspect, the elevation and the farmer’s name. I can even tell you how the waves of the sea sound from the barley field. But I can’t tell you how all of that impacts Bannow Island 1.1’s flavour in a unique, idiosyncratic way. I can only say, frustratingly (and I should have considered the ‘frustratingly’ when I first started writing on this subject) that logically it somehow should. Perhaps not the waves so much.
However terroirs prove themselves to manifest themselves in whisky, it will be in significantly less overt fashion than they do, at their starkest, in wine. Or, dare I say it, even cider. Whisky is a creature of multitudes; the disconnect between whisky lovers and whisky marketers stems from the fact that marketers want a single hook – age, colour, casks – and those of us who love whisky know that it is the product of many. Barley may be the engine that drives single malt, and the nature of that barley may well be affected by growing conditions, but the flavours in your glass have been abetted by so many, many things since the harvester brought it in.
The grains – have they been conventionally ground, or crushed as they are at Bimber? Malting: was it done on floor, or in huge industrial vats? Was peat used, and if so how much? Did you mash in a tun or with a filter? How hot was the water, how many waters were used? What yeasts were chosen to conduct fermentation, how long did the fermentation take and at what temperature? How large and bulbous and long-necked are your stills? What angle is their lyne arm set at? Direct fire or steam coil? What is the temperature and speed of distillation, and is the distillate condensed in worm tubs or in shell and tube? How and when are you making the cuts from foreshots to heart to feints? What strength are you filling your spirit into casks at, and what sort of casks are you maturing in? Where was the oak from, what did they hold before, how many times have they previously been used for whisky and how long have you matured your whisky in them? Do you store your casks in a dunnage warehouse, or are they palletised? Are you maturing your casks in the same location as your distillery or somewhere else entirely? When you bottle your whisky, how are you filtering it? How much water are you adding and are you adjusting the colour? Does this bottling come from just a single cask or from across a vatting of types? And how many hundred other pertinent questions has this paragraph missed out?
The endless fascination of whisky is that it is not simple. The “barley, water, yeast, oak” line is a popular one but it belies the mesmerising complexity of bringing whisky to life – of the thousand, thousand decisions that has led to Glenfiddich 12-year-old and a single sherry cask Bimber and Ardbeg Uigeadail and Samaroli Laphroaig 1967 and Waterford Bannow Island all being single malt. That has led to so many hundred switched on, obsessive devotees. That has led to arguments over whether terroir could be a thing in whisky, and whether it would even make a difference if it was. Remove or alter any one of those decisions and the resultant drink is, in some way, however small, ameliorated or diminished. There is no convenient shorthand for what matters most to whisky. But set against that sea of variables, the tangible difference that Bannow Island’s terroir makes is never going to reveal itself over the tasting of just a few expressions – even set against any number of other single farm bottlings.
It took Burgundians centuries to understand their terroirs; it will take no end of tasting across cask types and vattings and strengths and ages and other farms to gradually build so much as an organoleptic hint of what Bannow Island or Ballykilcaven or Ratheadon or Sheestown might be trying to say. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t mean that your curiosity should be trivialised; that you shouldn’t be permitted to wonder. And, as an additional aside, I don’t think that the differences are nullified by blending – I think they are built upon with appreciable deliberation. Which is to say that I have just as much time for the Cuvées as for the Single Farms, and am perfectly happy to accept the different roles that terroir has to play in both.
Waterford captured my imagination as a drinker because they allowed themselves to be wholly known. Because they were prepared to talk openly about every element and ingredient that went into the creation of their whisky. Perhaps they didn’t always get their tone right (look who’s talking, anyway) but as a drinker I felt that my curiosity was being taken seriously. I felt that my questions were being answered not just with the convenient brand response, but with the truth. Their investigation of terroir engaged me, but at the same time I could see their working in every other respect, through mashing, fermentation, distilling and cask. I had a clear sense that the distillery wanted me to know what had gone into the bottle. That they understood that, almost irrespective of separate liquid quality, it would make the drinking – at least to someone like me – more profound.
I have three single farms to taste today. All 1.1s – the first edition from each farm – Ballykilcavan, Ballymorgan and Bannow Island. Each has been vatted across several cask types: ex-bourbon, virgin American oak, virgin French oak and ‘Vins Doux Naturels’, which is Waterford’s catchall for port, sherry, dessert wines and so on. There have been some concerns raised about whether this vatting of casks will negate the effects of terroir, or render it more difficult to discern what elements derive from where. I don’t wish to wade in swinging, but my own take is that by consistently marrying different cask types, it should, after enough single farm expressions, be clearer when certain notes are regularly presenting through them. Certainly in Burgundy producers use varying degrees of new and old oak, and there are precious few arguments concerning the existence of terroir there. But again that’s just a general aside.
Each bottle cost £69.95, which is admittedly on the pricey end for very young whisky. Nonetheless, my curiosity and anticipation was sufficiently rampant to buy them on the spot. My scores, as usual, are marked in line with expense.
Waterford Ballykilcavan 1.1 – Review
Colour: Young white wine
On the nose: No doubting what this was made from – a big malty blast of barley straight away. Not an especially fruity spirit; this is bran and husk and earth and iron. Some sweet vanilla too and a bit of custard cream. Almost a touch of salty dough. Young, certainly, but broad enough not to express as raw.
In the mouth: Lovely texture. Really oily. The youth comes across a little more pronouncedly here – white pepper and chilli heat amidst the vanilla and Werther’s Originals. Still very malt and barley led – big gristy flavours with a youthful ester or two buzzing around amidst the husk and earth. Not my pick of the three – shows its youth a bit – but still a good spirit with a lot to say. Marked accordingly.
Waterford Ballymorgan 1.1 – Review
Colour: A tone darker. That white wine is now oaked
On the nose: Follows in the footsteps of the colour – everything a notch richer and darker. Still a big waft of malt and barley and rich loam, but we’re into fresh-baked wholemeal loaf territory now, and a fruitiness is starting to emerge – dried orange, dark chocolate and nutmeg. Good intensity. Nice.
In the mouth: Darker and richer again – holds its heat better than the Ballykilcaven which gives that lovely texture more spotlight on which to carry the flavours. Chocolate malt and dark chocolate orange. Branflakes, soily dunnage warehouse. A touch of vanilla, black pepper and clove. Complex and, though young, cerebral fare that is lovely to spend time contemplating.
Waterford Bannow Island 1.1 – Review
Colour: See Ballymorgan
On the nose: The malty character – which at this point I think is reasonable to assume is the makings of Waterford’s distillery stamp – is still here in husk and breadcrust form, but this is the fruitiest of the trio by some measure. Baked apples, poached pears. Cinnamon Grahams (do they still make those any more, and what’s their name now?) Honey and brown sugar. It’s a ripe, rounded, really lovely nose.
In the mouth: The texture-heat balance matches the Ballymorgan, which is to say it’s jolly good. Spiced honey, apple strudel and sultana. Golden raisin. Vanilla pod. We’re getting some depth here but the malty earthiness keeps a grippy tiller hand underneath and emerges on the back palate. As complex as the Ballymorgan but a little friendlier and fruitier. My favourite of the three.
If these represent the beginnings of Waterford’s journey then I will continue to follow the distillery’s progress with keen interest. What I like, and what is refreshing, is that a lot of the new whiskies emerging from young distilleries, whilst very delicious, either tread similar ground to each other, or have looked to pack as much oak influence as possible into their inaugural bottlings.
These Waterfords, with their distinctly malty signature, are treading different ground to any of the sweet young things I’ve reviewed in the last few years. (Which, looking back, is a lot.) I can see a distillery pattern to emerge and I will enjoy attempting to trace it as the releases grow older, richer and more complex. They have got off to a thumping start.
As to terroir? I suppose I may never be able to taste enough to put my finger on exactly what it brings to the bottled party. But at least, with time, I will be able to keep searching, and I am profoundly grateful that a distillery is prepared to offer that opportunity. As Serge Valentin, with typical thoughtfulness, put it: “terroir is there if you want it to be, and not if you don’t.” I wish I’d had the grace and security to consider it in those terms a long time ago.
I started writing about whisky as something to share with my friends. The spirit and the places in which it was made resonated with me, and the person I used to unpick it all with was no longer around. The deeper I dug, the more I wrote, the more I wanted to know – and the more frustrated I became when it seemed transparency was substituted for marketing. When it seemed details were being withheld. That frustration didn’t always manifest as it should have done, and so it’s probably right to slip away into the wings now – I virtually had already. But if this is the last article I write about whisky then I’m glad that it’s on a distillery which I feel has told me everything, and which did so without my having to ask. I’m glad that it’s on a distillery that understands so tangibly that some people genuinely care about the fine print. I’m glad that it’s on something about which I can truly and whole-heartedly enthuse. I’m glad that I know what the waves sound like from the shores of Bannow Island.
For everything that went into them and everything they represent – the making, philosophies, transparency and care – these Waterfords fill my soul. They are good whiskies. I would recommend them to my friends. That feels like the right note to end on.