Waterford Distillery and Terroir Driven Whisky

The concept of Terroir, a product having a sense of place and being influenced by the land, climate and atmosphere surrounding its production, is synonymous with the world of wine. In whisky however, it’s a concept that doesn’t really get spoken about all that much. There’s a long-held assumption that flavour derived from barley, rye, corn and wheat comes from the grain itself followed by tinkering at the production stage and then through time in oak during maturation.

It’s this assumption that has led to a lot of top whisky producers in Scotland and Ireland to shy away from talking about the raw materials they use. It’s also an assumption that the Waterford Distillery, and the biodynamic farmers who supply them with grain, are attempting to blow out of the water with the release of their “Single Field Origin” series of bottlings.

The barley for this whisky was taken from two separate locations in Ireland, each with unique weather patterns and microclimates. The grain was micro-malted and micro-distilled in order to ensure the production of each whisky was absolutely identical. The final products were then taken to Dr. Kieren Kilcawley of the Teagasc Food Research Centre in Cork.

Using techniques and equipment you’d find in forensic science or drug testing, Dr. Kilcawley was able to identify differences in the volatile compounds produced at the distillation stage of whisky production. It’s these volatile compounds that affect our sensory perception of a whisky and allow us to pick out the aromas and flavours we’ll see on a typical whisky tasting note.

Essentially, two whiskies were produced using identical methods from identical species of barley with the only difference being that the grains were sourced from different locations. According to Waterford, the fact that they were able to identify differences in flavour characteristics for each whisky is proof that the concept of terroir in the category exists.

But why is this important? Well, for starters, the continuous long-term rise in the global popularity of the whisky category has lead to the slightly awkward position where there’s not enough domestic barley grown in whisky producing regions to keep up with demand. This means a lot of the raw material used come from a long way away from where the whisky actually gets made.

While this fact raises its own questions on the environmental impact and carbon footprint generated by the industry, another pertinent point leans towards the level of quality control enjoyed by producers. Moving back to wine production and looking, for example, at France’s region of Burgundy; besides knowing what the grapes from each producer are, we also know from which location they were sourced, how they were farmed, what the soil type was, how much sun exposure the grapes enjoyed and how much bad weather they had to put up with.

Each influence goes a long way towards the makeup of the final wine and, to a certain extent, dictates the value of that wine. It’s a matter that gets glossed over almost entirely in the world of whisky. We live in a time however, where the public consciousness regarding where our food and drink comes from is at an all time high.

Transparency is something increasingly expected of our favourite producers. Waterford Distillery describe their Single Farm Origin series as an, “intellectual challenge to the whisky world’s status quo”. Many distilleries that do source their grain locally are shouting it loud and proud from the rooftops. How long will it be before those who aren’t start to face some slightly uncomfortable questions?

Waterford Distillery’s Single Farm Origin Grattansbrook 1.1 is available for purchase at The Oxford Wine Company

Tasting Notes

  • Nose: Red apple, marzipan, cocoa powder, raisins, rolled barley, green tea, mint leaf, white grapes, fresh soil, green foliage & brown sugar
  • Palate: Chinese five spice, orange & lemon zest, toffee shards, barley sugar, lemon sorbet & banana
  • Finish: Dry ginger and a lingering oiliness