Environmental Factors Can Impact the Flavor of Whiskey, Just Like Wine

Terroir has long been used to differentiate wines. Now, the same technique may be used for whiskey.

It's difficult to talk about wine without talking about terroir, which describes the natural environment in which a wine was produced and includes factors such as soil, climate, and topography. The terroir impacts how a wine tastes and helps to distinguish the same style of wine from two different regions. A new study has found that the same environmental conditions can also be used to detect flavors in whiskey, as the terroir impacts the barley grown to make the spirit.

"Terroir is increasingly being used to differentiate and market agricultural products, most commonly wine, as consumers grow more interested in the origins of their food," said Dustin Herb, an author of the study and a courtesy faculty member in the Department of Crop and Soil Science at Oregon State University. "Understanding terroir is something that involves a lot of research, a lot of time, and a lot of dedication. Our research shows that environmental conditions in which the barley is grown have a significant impact."

bottle of whiskey being poured into glass with ice
getty images/ igorr1

As part of the study, which was conducted in Ireland, crops of several barley varieties were harvested, stored, malted, and distilled in a standardized way. Researchers found that the environment in which the barley was grown had a greater impact on the aroma of the whiskey than the specific variety of barley used to make it. A sensory analysis found distinct differences in the aroma characteristics in the spirits from the barley grown in each location. For example, in Athy, a town located just about an hour southwest of Dublin, the whiskey gave off an aroma associated with sweet, grainy, earthy, and aromas with an oily finish. In Bunclody, a town located about 45 minutes southeast of Athy, the whiskey was associated with the flavors and aromas found in dried fruit.

The study is part of a project known as the Whisky Terroir Project, which aims to examine particular flavor changes in the spirit as they mature in casks and understand how terroir impacts the profile. The team behind the Whisky Terroir Project plans to study the terroir in commercial-scale barley fields over the course of five years. "What this does is actually make the farmer and the producer come to the forefront of the product," Herb said. "It gets to the point where we might have more choices and it might provide an opportunity for a smaller brewer or a smaller distiller or a smaller baker to capitalize on their terroir, like we see in the wine industry with a Napa Valley wine, or Willamette Valley wine or a French Bordeaux."

"This makes us think there might be a vintage aspect to the whiskey like wine, where you buy a 2019 or a 2020 or a 2016," Herb said. "Could the whiskey industry operate in a similar way, where someone is going to seek out a certain vintage of a certain year?"

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