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Ben McNamara

What Terroir Means to Whisky

That’s right, terroir isn’t only for the winos — a look into how the elements can affect your favorite whiskies.

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If you’ve ever talked to a sommelier at a restaurant, or read even a single article about wine, it’s likely you’ve heard the term terroir.

Like plenty of things said by sommeliers, it may sound like intimidating wine-speak. But the idea of terroir is pretty straightforward: It’s a term capturing the way that soil, climate, and landscape all have an effect on the wine that ends up in a bottle.

But terroir can apply beyond the wine world, as well — to the whisky that ends up in your glass. Especially when it comes to single malt Scotch. According to Gordon Motion, the master whisky maker of Highland Park, many natural elements have an impact on the spirit, from the peat that smokes the malted barley to the climate of the barrelhouses to the wood of the barrels themselves.

Highland Park’s home is on the remote Orkney Islands — far-flung windswept lands in the frigid North Sea, farther north than even the northernmost reaches of the Scottish mainland. Highland Park crafts whisky with a true sense of place, and one that could only be made on Orkney. And the way the spirit of Orkney itself translates into the whisky in the glass is what we mean by terroir. “Peated Scotch in particular is a dramatic example of terroir,” says Kara Newman, spirits editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and author of Cocktails with a Twist. “When you smell or taste it, you know exactly what it is, and where it comes from.”

Off of the Orkney Islands, where Highland Park Scotch is made.
Ben McNamara
The heathery peat used at Highland Park adds a luxurious aromatic smokiness to the whisky.
Søren Solkær

Peat, smoke, and Scotch

Few spirits have the diversity of Scotch, which can range from light and fruity to rich and spicy to powerfully smoky. And much of this comes down to peat.

“We can only use three ingredients in Scotch whisky,” says Gordon Motion. “Malted barley, water, and yeast.” Every distillery, according to Motion, uses one of two barley varieties, so the grain itself doesn’t impact the flavor of the Scotch. “What does make a difference is whether you’ve had your barley peated, or smoked.”

What is peat, exactly? It’s a natural material made from partially decomposed plants — shrubs, mosses, and the like — gradually laid down in the earth over millennia. In parts of Scotland and Ireland, peat bogs are a traditional fuel source. And many traditional Scotch distilleries use peat-burning fires to smoke their malted barley. “The smoke sticks to the grain and imparts that smoky character,” explains Motion. But exactly what type of smoky character? That depends on the kind of peat.

Highland Park and the Orkney Islands

The climate of the Orkney Islands is inextricably linked with the character of Highland Park. According to Motion, Highland Park is one of the few distilleries that continues to malt its barley on-site. And since its own peat is used to smoke that barley, the flavor of Orkney is indelibly stamped on the spirit.

“The peat that we use at Highland Park on Orkney is actually cut from Orkney,” Motion explains. “It’s a completely different character when you burn it, compared to peat from, say, mainland Scotland or Islay on the west coast.”

In April, Highland Park cuts their peat at Hobbister Moor in the Orkney Islands.
Søren Solkær
“Burning Orkney peat gives you a very floral, fragrant smoke.”
Søren Solkær

It all comes down to the climate; Orkney is extremely windy, Motion says. “So there are very few trees, and there have been very few trees over the millennia. The peat that has been laid down over the last 4,000 years is made of shrubs, low-growing plants, heathers, mosses — things like that.”

“Burning Orkney peat gives you a very floral, fragrant smoke.” And that smoke embeds itself in the barley that’s distilled into whisky — so the spirit evokes that sense of the local landscape. If terroir literally translates to “soil,” peat is terroir incarnate.

Barrels, climate, and aging

Distilling is just the first step; just as critical is the time the whisky spends in the barrel. And that’s where other aspects of terroir come into play.

Weather matters too. Orkney is more temperate than the mainland of Scotland, which is surprising given its northerly location. “It’s a maritime climate, so it’s constantly blasted by winds,” explains Motion. “But that keeps a relatively stable temperature.”

And temperature has an enormous influence on whisky aging. In warmer whisky-producing climates — such as Kentucky, the homeland of bourbon, with its steamy summers — the temperature swings dramatically throughout the year.

Highland Park uses primarily sherry casks, which have a unique influence on their whiskies.
Ben McNamara
American oak gives a “creamy, oily, vanilla character” to Highland Park’s whiskies, while European oak tends toward the “tannic and spicy.”
Ben McNamara

“In warmer temperatures, alcohol is trying to expand; it gets pushed into the wood of the cask. In the winters, where it cools, it’ll get drawn back out again as the whisky contracts,” Motion explains. “That pushing in and out of the wood results in a quicker extraction of the flavors.” Orkney’s more consistent climate means a slower, more gradual maturation, where there’s no need to rotate barrels within the warehouse.

And the barrels themselves, according to Motion, contribute to the terroir in their own right. “The biggest influence,” he says, “is where the trees grow that make the casks.”

American oak gives a “creamy, oily, vanilla character,” he notes, while European oak tends toward the “tannic and spicy.” Highland Park uses a balance of each, and uses primarily sherry casks, which contribute their own influence to the whisky.

Some distilleries have moved away from sherry casks, he notes, given that they’re far more expensive than bourbon casks, which are in much greater supply. “But that’s our style, and we’ve stuck with it,” says Motion. “That’s the influence we’re looking for.”

What we mean when we say “terroir”

Every spirit has a story. Stories bring together a sense of history, and a sense of place. And a whisky like Highland Park couldn’t be made without the locations that shine in its story: the rich, floral peat of the Orkney Islands, the windswept but temperate lands, the precise balance of European and American oak, and the casks that leave their own mark on the dram of Scotch in front of you.

“Especially for someone who has visited Scotland, a whiff of peated Scotch can immediately evoke sense memories of smoke, or even saltwater or sea air,” says Kara Newman. And that’s the terroir of a beautifully made single malt whisky.

Ben McNamara

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