A study led by Oregon State University and Waterford Distillery has concluded terroir does have an impact on the flavour of whiskey.

Terroir is the French notion that environmental conditions such as soil, weather and habitats can affect flavour.

A peer-reviewed academic study, published in scientific journal Foods, which was driven by Irish whiskey producer Waterford Distillery, shows terroir can be found in barley and the single malt whiskey made from the grain.

This is the first paper from The Whisky Terroir Project, driven by Waterford Distillery. Research was conducted by an international team of academics from the US, Scotland, Greece, Belgium and Ireland, including: professor Kieran Kilcawley and Maria Kyraleou, of Teagasc Food Research Centre, part of the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Enterprise Ireland; Minch Malt; and featured cooperation from Scotland’s leading whisky laboratory.

Dr Dustin Herb, lead researcher and post-doctoral research at Oregon State University, said: “This interdisciplinary study investigated the basis of terroir by examining the genetic, physiological and metabolic mechanisms of barley contributing to whiskey flavour.

“Using standardised malting and distillation protocols, we preserved distinct flavours associated with the testing environments and observed year-to-year variations, indicating that terroir is a significant contributor to whiskey flavour.”

The study analysed two barley varieties grown on two farms with different environments in 2017 and 2019 – Athy, County Kildare, and Bunclody, County Wexford, Ireland.

Each barley sample was micro-malted and micro-distilled in laboratory conditions to create 32 different whiskey distillate samples.

The samples were then tested by lab analysts using gas chromatography – mass spectrometry – olfactometry (GC/MS-O), alongside sensory experts.

The research showed more than 42 different flavour compounds, half of which were ‘directly influenced’ by the barley’s terroir.

Kilcawley, principal research officer at Teagasc, said: “We utilised gas chromatography olfactometry, which enabled us to discern the most important volatile aroma compounds that impacted sensory perception of the new make spirit. This research not only highlights the importance of terroir, but also enhances our knowledge of key aroma compounds in whisky.”

Athy, which is a more sheltered, inland area, had higher pH levels and greater traces of calcium, magnesium and molybdenum in its limestone-based soil. Furthermore, the area had consistent, higher temperatures and lower rainfall. New make spirit distilled from this barley was found to taste of toasted almonds, with a malty, biscuit-like, oily finish.

Meanwhile, the Bunclody farm had lower pH levels and higher amounts of iron, copper and manganese in the soil, which was located on a shale or slate bedrock. As it was closer to the coast, the weather at Bunclody is more unpredictable compared with Athy. Typical tasting notes from new make spirit made with this barley included a lighter, floral style, with fresh fruitiness.

Researchers believe the findings of the study are significant because it creates the possibility of producing region-specific whiskies in the same way as wine, and could lead to an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC).

Mark Reynier, founder and CEO of Waterford, said: “Barley is what makes single malt whiskey the most flavoursome spirit in the world. This study proves that barley’s flavours are influenced by where it is grown, meaning – like wine and Cognac – whiskey’s taste is terroir-driven.

“Critics claimed any terroir effect would be destroyed by the whiskey-making process, saying there is no scientific evidence to prove that terroir even exists. Well, now there is.”

The next part of the project will examine the same role of terroir in whiskey using analysis based on Waterford Distillery’s own commercial spirit and matured whiskey. The results are expected to be published in 2022.
Via The Spirits Business
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