If you thought that ‘terroir’ is a word associated only with wine or cognac then think again. Even though it’s a concept borrowed from the wine world, a particular region’s climate, soils and terrain can certainly affect the taste of whisky. Rojita Tiwari highlights some of the ongoing discussions on ‘terroir’ in the whisky world. 

Research conducted by a team of international academicians recently presented the first paper from The Whisky Project which investigated the basis of terroir by examining the genetic, physiological and metabolic mechanisms of barley contributing to whisky flavour (source: The Spirits Business). Another research also indicated that terroir is present in the case of barley and the single malt whisky made from grain.  

We could look at it from a simple perspective. For example, any particular fruit or vegetable that is grown in two different regions always taste different. Orange from Seville, Spain and orange from Nagpur, India are different. Or, like in the case of wine, Cabernet Sauvignon grape from Bordeaux has a world of difference from the Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Nashik, India. The same theory can be applied to barley or corn. But it doesn’t exactly work that way. Because, the principle of winemaking is to keep all the flavours of the grapes during the production process, whereas in the process of making whisky certain types of flavours are removed and adjustments are done leaving a lot to the maturation process. While distillation removes terroir, maturation further masks whatever influence of terroir is left in the spirit.    

However, no one can deny the fact that the reason why America produces the best whiskey from corn is that it produces the best quality corn in the world. And, yet no two distilleries producing bourbon would have similarities. That itself is proof of how important terroir is. American whiskey, bourbon is made from a minimum of 51% of corn.  

While the research on the subject still continues, terroir is not exactly a new concept in whisky. More and more distillers in recent times are paying attention to it to define signature styles and flavour profile, despite having to adhere to a defined regional law such as in the case of bourbon, scotch, Canadian, Irish whiskey or more recently Japanese whiskies.  

Since whisky is all about water, yeast and barley, it’s surprising that for the longest time not many spoke about the importance of the barley even though there was always a huge emphasis on the water source or quality of water. So, when we talk about whisky, barley or corn is what brings terroir into the picture. 

On this ‘World Whisky Day’ let’s focus on how soil, weather (microclimate) and environment (topography) affect flavours in some of the popular whisky brands in the world (Please note that we are only considering whiskies that follow a strict protocol and abide by the international laws of whisky making)

Bruichladdich has been leading the discussion on terroir-driven whisky making for a long time. The distillery located in Islay, Scotland is experimenting on the single malt range. It uses locally-grown barley grown in different conditions as well as uses different varietals. Bruichladdich’s founder Mark Reynier has now replicated the experiments by taking it to a new level at Waterford, the new Irish distillery project.  

There are many global whisky producers who use the idea of “grain to glass” (or “field to bottle” as this particular distillery likes to call it) which is another example of putting emphasis on terroir. 

The Arbikie Highland Estate distillery is one of the most experimental distilleries in Scotland. It produces Arbikie Highland Estate Single Malt and a Single Grain Rye whisky, the only scotch rye whisky available in the world, produced at a single distillery. Arbikie is a single-site, field to bottle operation – the ingredients for all its spirits (gin, vodka, whisky) are planted, sown, grown and harvested within an arms-length of the distillery. The mountain-filtered water is taken directly from our underground lagoon. It is the first single-estate distillery to distil all the spirits in the same copper pot stills, with the vodka and gin spirit continuing their journey to the distillery’s 40 plate distillation column.

According to the new labelling standards established on February 12, 2021, by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA), a nongovernmental trade group of the country’s major producers, for the first time, Japanese whisky will have a clear definition. The Japanese whiskies not only have to source all ingredients from around the country but also have to follow strict rules of maturation and bottling. Although this directly doesn’t show a connection to emphasis on terroir in Japanese whiskies, going forward this could probably become the next big step for the Japanese whiskey industry. Suntory Spirits, owner of Hakushu, Hibiki, Toki, and Yamazaki labels that conform to the new norms set by the JSLMA could lead the way for the Japanese spirits industry.

There are many facets to this argument.

According to Robin Robinson, the US-based whiskey specialist and author of the book series The Complete Whiskey Course, the terroir argument only shows up in articles that whiskey writers are doing. “I had a conversation with Rob Arnold, author of “Terroir of Whiskey” and he agrees that it’s mostly provenance that he’s talking about, the combination of what grows in the field and what the distiller does with it. His extension of the term is focused on creating better growing conditions to produce better grains, which I’m very much in agreement on. Mike Swanson at Far North Spirits has done extensive grain variety studies on his farm and how they show in the final spirit, but that wouldn’t necessarily be terroir,” he added. 

Robinson just recorded a podcast on The Spirits of Whiskey where he gives an extended explanation of his anti-terroir stance:  (Listen to it here)

For his argument, Robinson has the backing of 2 of the best new distillers in the US: Nicole Austin from Cascade Hollow (Dickel) and Todd Leopold of Leopold Brothers.

In India, a significant guideline of whisky making is still non-existent barring the few FSSAI (Food Safety & Standards Authority of India), however, we have brands such as Paul John whisky and the new entrant Kamet whisky which highlight the significance of the Indian six-row barley sourced from a particular region in the country to make these whiskies. Paul John proudly boasts that the Indian 6-row barley, grown across the vast lands of Rajasthan to the foothills of the Himalayas claims responsibility for its Single Malt’s intrinsic characteristics. With higher protein content, it lends robust & fruitier flavours to the character of our whisky. This certainly offers some sense of intrinsic value to the terroir in whisky. 

While Indian whisky producers have a long road ahead of them, the global whisky industry is just beginning to put a spotlight on organic & biodynamic whiskies, provenance & traceability and single farm whiskies.  

NOTE : “Some of the distillers working to prove the existence of terroir in whisky are Rob Arnold, academic and master distiller at the grain-focused Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. in Texas; and Raasay Distillery in Scotland, which is experimenting with new malting barley varieties to grow on their island. In addition, more recently, there’s Waterford Distiller, a new single farm origin whisky producer in Ireland”- Mark Newton, head of communications for the terroir-driven brands Waterford Distillery in Ireland and Renegade Rum in Grenada.

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