The concept of terroir in whisky has gained traction in recent years. More brands and distillers now openly talk about how their local environment affects the final sippable product. And while there are industry members who strongly disagree with the concept of whisky terroir (cough Robin Robinson cough), the movement continues to pick up momentum.
Among its supporters is Bruichladdich Head Distiller Adam Hannett. After a Zoom tasting that pulled back the curtain on how this Islay Scotch brand creates such potent flavors — including through the use of terroir — we recently reached out to Hannett to discuss the subject.
Beverage Dynamics: How do you incorporate terroir into your whisky?
Adam Hannett: When we talk about terroir, it’s not strictly in the esoteric way that vintners would. Distilled spirits have a slightly different role to play. When Bruichladdich was resurrected in 2001, our founders were in disbelief about the stark disconnection between the raw ingredient (barley), the way it’s was grown, who grew it and where. Furthermore, the industrialized nature of Scotch at the turn of the millennium meant chill filtration and caramel coloring brought the end product further and further away from that flavor-rich grain. For us, its not about incorporating terroir into a whisky, but about allowing that raw ingredient to express itself in its fullest form. Whether its organically grown on the Scottish mainland, or grown locally by our Islay farming partners, or on a single farm in our regional trials experiments, we allow the barley influence to come forward.
We of course explore using different types of oak casks that have previously held a variety of high quality alcohol, and that all has a part to play at the distillery. But we’ve had to retrofit the conventional models of how ‘Scotch’ operated for us to have a greater connection to agriculture, our local community and the land those communities are working.
We very much feel that Bruichladdich’s relationship with terroir is ever-evolving. We’re always learning and our work is never done. That’s evidenced by our purchase of Shore House Croft in 2018, which we intend to use for R&D purposes and to shoulder the risk of developing more farmer-first or farmer-friendly varieties for the west coast of Scotland.
BD: How do you find the right barley for whisky terroir?
AH: We’ve taken time and care and effort to source our barley. We explore different varieties, grown in different ways, in different regions. The most powerful way we can accomplish ‘terroir in whisky’ is to work with the barley — allow the natural elements such as the growing season to still be present in the spirit.
This could mean keeping our spirit younger so that the cask influence doesn’t take over — bottling at seven or right years old, but maturing in active not tired wood. It could mean the type of cask selection, using majority ex-bourbon casks and using second fill ex-European oak as a supplement to lift the flavors of the spirit instead of disguise them. It can mean bottling naturally, without chill-filtration or caramel color, so nothing is added and nothing is taken away. It can mean tracing flavors from origin to bottling so you can compare what different farms bring to your glass.
BD: What flavors are you trying to bring out?
AH: As I’ve said, it’s about allowing the natural flavors to come through. It might sound cheesy to suggest that there’s a harmony or equilibrium in our warehouses, but generally we’re not fighting against anything. We’re there to help nurture that spirit forward, to improve upon it rather than mask any of the original flavors.
As a blender, you’d typically be expected to maintain a consistent flavor profile in each product so that each bottle of a particular product always tastes the same. I’m not restricted in the same way, as my goal is to create whiskies that speak of the place they are from and how they are made. They should have the character of all the components that go into it, the grain, the distillation techniques and the oak at their heart. They should naturally express these characteristics, and therefore we will create variation and not consistency. My role is to guide and shape these whiskies rather than try to wrestle the variation into a narrow yet consistent band of flavor.
BD: Do consumers recognize terroir in whisky?
AH: I think terroir in spirits is becoming a lot more recognized, especially with interests increasing in craft spirits like tequila and mezcal, or in rum, for example. I think the way to educate people on the interest of terroir is not to break it down to ‘Does this taste different from one field to another, or from one varietal to another’. That’s what we as distillers find interesting but it’s quite niche.
What’s a lot easier to understand is the motivation and benefits behind supporting a terroir-driven spirit. For us, it means working with 20 different farming partners, providing an alternative income for them on our remote microcosm of an island. The way we’ve labored over our production process, kept as much of the process on Islay as possible, has created permanent, stable jobs for 80 people — plenty of whom are the heads of households supporting young families who can keep the island economy prospering in winter when visitor numbers dwindle. Our way of making whisky has driven value deeper into our ‘supply chain’ than we could have ever hoped for in starting out as an independent whisky business. That includes farmers, maltsters, hauliers, contractors . . . the list goes on.
BD: What do you say to opponents of whisky terroir?
AH: This is a tricky question to add to when you’ve already expressed a very logical and balanced argument with Rob Arnold and Chris Reisbeck’s input in another article. To quote that article, you say Robin Robinson argues that ‘of the earth’ and ‘of provenance’ are not the same thing. There’s a fine line between these two schools of thought.
Provenance has always been paramount to Bruichladdich. The first stage in improving what you’re doing is to actually know what you’re doing in the first place. It’s why we work with Baird’s Malt in Inverness. They were able to trace and guarantee 100% Scottish barley for us when alternative options could not. Whether you can taste the difference between Scottish and Islay barley should be left to the individual.
I can certainly taste the difference between our regional trials experiments, where the same variety of barley grown in the Lothians to the Black Isle and from Aberdeenshire to Islay all taste and smell differently. That is evident even throughout the transformative process that is distillation.
If you do nothing to protect or explore terroir, then of course it won’t make a difference. Robin calls whisky a manufactured product; we’d argue that our distilling (‘manufacturing’) process is a lot more patient, a lot less homogenized than the traditional scale of most Scotch distillers. That’s to say its about how you make it, not how much of it you make.
What I would agree with Robin on is that terroir in whisky is open to abuse. Yes, it can be used as a marketing spin and that’s why we’ve got a responsibility as a company to be transparent about what we’re doing and what others can learn from it. We won’t call ourselves craft distillers just because we believe in exploring terroir, but we’ve let that principle guide us down a much deeper and more interesting path in agriculture than we’d first thought.
BD: What’s next for terroir in whisky?
We hope continuing to reconnect with agriculture (see ambitions here). Growing different grains, distilling different grains, growing what’s good for the farmer and the environment and what’s best for flavour — all of those things together ideally, that’s what we need to be looking at. It’s not enough to be looking at yield alone. We have to start treating whisky as a more holistic ecosystem, and while that’s a much more ambitious plan than just expressing terroir in whisky, it definitely plays a part in it.
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece Interview: Jane Bowie Talks Maker’s Mark Limited Release Bourbon.