Peat, Barley, Water: What Gives Whisky Terroir?

Paul Blow

Does whisky show terroir? Terroir, of course, is that signature on a product of the place where it was grown, based on the effects of climate, soil, water, and so on. With wine it's all about the grapes, which are traditionally the sole ingredient—every layer of intervention in the process (adding acid or yeast, too much oak) is seen as potentially obscuring terroir. But to talk about terroir with whisky is to court much more uncertainty. In fact, most experts like to deny that terroir can exist in whisky.

the yamakaziFor instance, wine is simply fermented: The taste results from the basic interaction between yeast and grapes. Whisky is fermented, too, but water and yeast are added to the grain. If it's malt whisky we're talking about, then the barley first has to be malted. For a long time, a whiff of peat was seen as proof of terroir, especially since malting barley over a peat fire was the dominant style of the Scotches from the island of Islay, where the local whisky is celebrated for its distinctive smoky character and brininess. But peat smoke is a stylistic choice. Islay whiskies can be made without it (see Bruichladdich, which makes unpeated Islay malt), and whiskies elsewhere can be made with it (see McCarthy's, from Oregon). Furthermore, the prime ingredient, barley, often doesn't come from the place where the whisky is made. Little barley is grown on the damp island of Islay.

Some say that where the casks are aged affects the whisky. But, as Andrew Jefford pointed out in his excellent book about Islay malts, Peat Smoke and Spirit, the vast majority of Lagavulin (one of the most prominent malts) is not even aged on the island but in warehouses on the Scottish mainland. A representative of the distillery even told me flatly last year: "It doesn't matter where the casks are aged." The case against whisky having terroir is strong.

Nevertheless, I find it impossible not to believe in the terroir of whisky. When you taste Laphroaig, you taste sea salt and seaweed as well as smoke. Where does that come from, if not the locality where the Scotch is distilled? The honeyed, heathered sweetness in Highland Park, made in Orkney, is different from that of Talisker, from Skye.

Perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of terroir was made to me by Mike Miyamoto, former master distiller of the Japanese single malt the Yamazaki, in my opinion, one of the world's most delicious whiskies. The Japanese have done as much research on Scotch whisky as anyone. Miyamoto (who was also head of Hakushu, another Japanese distillery, and Bowmore, on Islay) told me that it's in the water. He said that his team experimented with water at his distilleries in Japan. They trucked water from the source at Yamazaki (near Kyoto) to the distillery at Hakushu (near Tokyo) and vice versa, distilling each batch of whisky in the other's distillery. "Yamazaki still tasted like Yamazaki," he said. "It was the water, not the still. We even shipped in water from Scotland and made the whisky here in Japan—the final product tasted like Scotch, not Japanese whisky!" The founders of the Hakushu distillery in Japan (whose products are not yet imported to the U.S.—it'll probably happen soon) spent years scouring Japan tasting water before finally deciding to build in the mountains northwest of Tokyo.

What's the secret of the water? "We don't know how it does it; we only know that water has a huge effect on the whisky," Lincoln Henderson, former master distiller of Jack Daniel's, told me.

So when a distillery brags about its water—such as Jack Daniel's and its limestone-filtered water—that's not just for show. It makes a difference. In fact, water may be whisky's sole vehicle of terroir.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.