Terroir is a common concept used in wine and cognac production. It means that the soil, micro-climate and topography of an area can affect the flavour of the barley and the final produce. Teagasc, Waterford Distillery and Boortmalt have now published scientific proof that terroir affects the flavour of new-make spirit produced from Irish barley.

The research highlights the importance of this development, particularly in relation to single-malt whiskey.

What did the study entail?

The study examined the contribution of barley variety and the environment where it is grown to the flavours of the final product, using two varieties on two farms in Athy and Bunclody.

Barley samples were micro-malted and distilled separately. The distillate samples were then tested by whiskey lab analysts and sensory experts.

What was found?

There were 42 different flavour compounds found and half of these were directly influenced by the barley’s terroir. Table 1 shows the differences in site and the flavours associated with each.

There is a clear difference between the two. The findings of the research mean that there is potential to produce whiskey specific to different regions, as is done with wine. Waterford Distillery released the first of its single-farm origin whiskey last autumn from different areas of the country, such as Ballykilcavan in Co Laois and Bannow Island in Co Wexford.

These releases are the first of many from farms across the country.

Barley from each of the farms is stored separately in Dalton’s Chancellor’s Mills in Kilkenny, in what is known as the “cathedral of barley”, with individual bays for each farm’s barley. The grain source is kept separate from farm to bottle.

Importance of Irish barley

With just a few releases on the market, Waterford Whisky has proven very popular. The high-end product not only allows people to compare glasses from different regions and farms, but also has a ‘Téireoir’ code on each bottle allowing the purchaser to scan the code and find out the story of the farm’s soil type, environment and how the crop was treated for the season, all of which have now been proven to affect the whiskey’s flavour.

From grower profiles to details on planting and harvesting dates, this product places an emphasis on the grain’s origin and production.

A large amount of ‘Irish’ whiskey is made from imported grain, endangering the unique selling point and story behind the product – Irish farmers delivering grain to their local co-op to be used for malting and eventually to produce Irish whiskey.

The proof of terroir shows the importance of Irish barley, something that is lacking in the wider whiskey market. The popularity of the product shows the importance of provenance.