Following on from our Scotch whisky regions article, we’re delighted to have a piece by Mark Reynier from Waterford in Ireland looking at how the whisky industry misuses the concept of terroir.

Terroir means different things to different people.

For vignerons, farmers or gardeners, terroir is what happens to a plant, the three dimensional interaction between the microclimate, soil and topography that nurture it. It is very precise: the nurture of a plant, and thereby its fruit, whether it is grape or grain. 

To bureaucrats, to use another dastardly French word, the T word has been co-opted in a much looser, more general ‘catch-all’ way, to refer to entire regions of a country, official appellations and thus styles

The bureaucrat has wilfully conflated a very precise term with a generic overview – and here lies the source of the confusion: how does one apply a concept that vividly applies to a single acre to one that covers a whopping 16 million? You cannot. It doesn’t.

Even in France this expanded interpretation is apparent. A fascinating cultural mapping project, the Observatoire des Produits du Terroir, identifies 443 ‘terroirs’ producing 9000 products and traditional recipes. The project’s own definition of terroir is the self-explanatory “region naturelle” – a reinterpretation of the country’s 35,000 communes or parishes along traditional agricultural practices and historic culinary lines, grouping communes into a higher geographical unit of a region naturelle.


Quiet, demure, unopinionated, it’s Mark Reynier!

Lost in translation

The whisky industry, never one to miss a trick, has tinkered with a similar appropriation. Let’s be frank, the T word, with no real English language equivalent, is ripe for misinterpretation, wilful or otherwise. It sounds suitably vague, land-ish; its wine trade origin lends an air of sophistication, reinforced by an impossible-to-avoid Gallic flourish of pronunciation. 

The argument in the article – if I have it right – is that the whisky regions are similar region naturelle that can be referred to as terroirs – not in the vineyard production sense, but in the generic, bureaucratic mapping sense. Not of course a problem for other distilled spirits producers, such as Cognac or eau-de-vie, where meaning in the true sense of the land is rightly applied.

Understandably, there has been a desire to attribute, retrospectively, something a wee bit more romantic, poetic, inspired not least for colourful maps, retailers and bar menus. Perhaps to rationalise over a hundred distilleries and even more brands, an attempt to create a story where it didn’t exist. How else to carve up so many producers all, ultimately, using a similar raw material? 

And this is where the confusion arises: a word that applies on the one hand to the original, gastronomic and wine industry use, the highly focused vineyard sense; versus the enlarged, appropriated meaning of a region naturelle, even whole national regions, on the other.

Terroir in whisky, Waterford Distillery

Terroir exists!

Regional roots

The original Scottish whisky regions were simply bureaucratic for administering distilling licenses. They had nothing to do with quality or style but concentration of distilleries at a time when Campbeltown had 32; Islay 20, Lowlands 31; and Highlands, the rest. More recently ‘Islands’ [informally] and ‘Speyside’ have been added to the original four regions.

Sure, Lowland had more triple-distilled whiskies; Islay retained peated spirit; Speyside moved to unpeated brands. The former was serving an urban, heavy industry workforce; the second excluded from efficient coal; the latter flipping from peat to coal: mines, trains and economics.

One could argue that most rurally distilled whisky was originally peated unless the distillery was, prior to the development of the railways, close to a coal mine like Lowland and Campbeltown distilleries. Historically, ‘to peat or not to peat’ was decided by economics, and changed with innovation. Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, built in 1881, being a classic example. 

But how useful is any such application today, when from barley to rye, peated and unpeated, anything goes? 


Waterford’s distillery – a former Diageo brewery

A single acre vs 64 million

This macro misunderstanding, a cartographical convenience, blankets the true terroir which is that topography, microclimate and soil act on a plant. 

In Burgundy, according to Unesco, the “1247 different climats of Burgundy are precisely delimited according to their geological, hydrographical and atmospheric characteristics, and prioritised in the system of Appellations of Controlled Origin (AOC)”. This is terroir, both effect and scale, that has been legally recognised in geographic units known as climat from as large as 40 acres to a mere half acre.

The climat marks the typicality of the terroir. Each climat and lieu-dit is defined by a landscape, an exposure, altitude, unique vegetation, a peculiar soil.” Microclimate, topography, soil.

The Scottish whisky regions, at 150k acres, 12m acres, even 64m acres, do not, cannot exhibit an identifiable, unilinear trait or style even in process let alone raw ingredient. Especially since, with the exception of a handful of new farm distilleries, most is derived from a generic grain supply, usually from overseas.

Waterford Biodynamic Luna

Waterford’s biodynamic Luna single malt

Back to the future

So what does terroir apply to if not process or region? Plant or a place?; fruit or factory?; nature or process?; field or farmer? Can terroir apply to a distillery? No – terroir applies to a plant, its fruit, via nature, in the field.

At Waterford Distillery our research has discovered that 60% of the 2000 flavour compounds in barley are influenced by terroir, and we now understand better the mechanism controlled by the barley genome and the adaption, evolution of barley over millennia as it adapted and mutated within its microclimates and soils. The barley of a Single Farm Origin exhibits the terroir influences, the distillery’s logistics allows for their extraction, farm by farm.

Rolling back the centuries one could assert that all those original farm distilled whiskies would have been made from terroir-defined barley, organically grown. Terroir, like arcadian agriculture, is nothing new; we just lost it.

Follow Mark Reynier on Twitter/ X @markreynier