Does Soil and Weather Affect Whisky? - Chromatography Investigates
Mar 11 2021
The flavour of malt whisky depends on many factors – type of grain, how it is malted and mashed, distillation, and maturation processes such as length of caking and type of casks. Before it is bottled, whisky should be stored for at least three years in wooden casks to allow the ‘new make spirit’ formed after distillation time to mature and take on the colour, aroma and taste we associate with a good single malt.
But could there be another factor at play? Could the weather and the environment play a role in the taste of whisky? A paper (The Impact of Terroir on the Flavour of Single Malt Whisk(e)y New Make Spirit) published in the journal Foods reports on work carried out to find out – does the environment and weather make your whisky taste different? And chromatography was key to the work.
Terroir – not just for wine
Terroir is a French term that is used to describe the environmental conditions that affect a crop’s phenotype. It is applied to many food and drink products, especially wine. Factors such as rainfall, temperature, soil type and direction of slope are all considered key components affecting how a grape grows and subsequently how a wine will taste. Author of the study Dustin Herb said in a press release from the Oregon State University that “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.”
The team from Oregon worked with Waterford Distillery in Ireland to investigate how terroir impacts the barley that is grown as the starting point of malt whisky. Herb continued: “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.”
Chromatography separates the aroma
The team from Oregon and Waterford Distillery designed a trial to attempt to answer the question – does terroir affect whisky? They planted two barley varieties in two different environments, one on the coast and at an inland site. These sites have different soil types, temperature ranges and rainfall levels. The crops were harvested and ‘new make spirit’ was distilled. The researchers then used gas chromatography mass spectrometry combined with a team of expert sniffers to determine which barley compounds had a greater contribution to the aroma of the spirit. Improving the efficiency of columns is discussed in the article, Impact of flow rate on retention time.
The researchers found that the environment that the barley was grown in had a bigger impact on aroma and taste than barley variety did. This was a clear indication that terroir has a potential impact on whisky flavour and aroma. Herb concluded that the results show how important producers are: What this does is actually make the farmer and the producer come to the forefront of the product
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