Terroir isn't only found in France. Weather, water, soil and surroundings have a lot to do with how Scotch whiskies differ from one another.
Most wine enthusiasts are familiar with the term terroir. France has traditionally been the most famous wine nation because it has a terroir well suited to growing winegrapes, and it is no accident that a French word is used to describe the influences of water, soil, landscape and climate on the winegrape.
Further north, in the temperate parts of Europe, the cooler weather is better suited to the growing of grain, especially barley, and the making of beer and whisky. Whereas the terroir of southern Europe, Australia, California and other places sees to it that the grapes receive just the right amount of water and beneficial minerals, barley absorbs less moisture from the earth, so it must be steeped in water (as part of the process known as malting) and then made into an infusion before being fermented (to make beer) or distilled (to become whisky).
The character of the water depends on the purity of the local atmosphere, the amount of rainfall, and the type of rock or soil through which it filters or flows. Situated fairly high in the Northern Hemisphere, and more exposed to the elements, Scotland has relatively cool, windy weather—and plenty of water. But it also has a distinct, diverse and dramatic geology. And it is the combination of all these things—terroir, so to speak—that gives Scotland's whiskies their special character.
When you raise a dram of quality Scotch, you taste the rain, rock, soil, vegetation and climate of Scotland. These aromas and flavors may be subtle or intense. At its most pungent, Scotch whisky identifies its home country more clearly than any other drink. I feel an intense nostalgia for Scotland when I taste certain whiskies. Nothing is more evocative than an aroma, and in a tired, unthinking moment, when I lift my glass I'm suddenly transported, as though I had caught the scent of a lost lover's perfume.
In most accounts of the history of Scotch whisky, discussions about the magic of the drink emphasize the water. Most Scottish distillers like to tell you that their water rises from granite and flows over peat. This claim is especially common in Scotland's most densely distilleried region, the stretch of the Highlands between the cities of Inverness and Aberdeen. There, snowmelt from the Grampian Mountains filters through granite (and sometimes other types of stone), emerges in springs, flows into mountain streams, then enters small rivers like the Livet and the Fiddich.
They in turn flow into the River Spey, which gives its name to the Speyside region. The Spey and nearby rivers flow into the Moray Firth (a firth is like a fjord without cliffs). Along the way they irrigate a fertile coastal strip famous for its barley.
A distillery's position on the river can have several influences on its whisky. The highest distillery is always said to be Dalwhinnie, at 1,073 feet. Dalwhinnie's water flows from a snow-fed loch, but passes over peat, and the flavors of the latter are gently evident. The distillery is near the source of the Spey, but relatively far from the other distilleries in this region. I regard it as a Speyside distillery, but its owners categorize it simply as Highland.
Apart from providing a particular water, this high location also makes for cold weather. That helps in the condensation of vapors during distillation, making for a clean, oily texture in the whisky. It also slows maturation, seemingly tightening the complexities of flavor in this highly appetizing malt.
A younger distillery, Braeval (founded in the 1970s) is situated at around the same altitude, on a stream that flows into the River Livet. Its water rises from a rocky ridge and flows over some of the roughest, most boulder-strewn countryside I have ever tried to walk, though there are heathery hills to either side. The whisky has a distinct heather-honey character that is typical of Speyside whiskies. (Braeval is also a significant part of the Chivas Regal blend.)
Its neighbor, The Glenlivet, uses water that passes through both granite and limestone before rising from springs on a hill behind the distillery. Perhaps it's the limestone that contributes to the firm, slightly minerally body of The Glenlivet, though this famous whisky also has the flowery fruitiness typical of the Speysiders. To my palate, it suggests heather honey verging on peaches.
Did The Glenlivet's founder build his distillery high in this glen for reasons of terroir? More likely it was originally an illicit still, intentionally located far from prying eyes. It was also on smugglers' routes to cities across the mountains.
An ongoing debate centers along the overriding importance of terroir versus the type of barley used, the shape of the stills, and the choice of wood for maturation. In my view, based on very extensive sampling, all are major factors. In sum, everything the distilleries put into their production determines what comes out.
Macallan takes that rule literally to the grass roots. The most traditional variety of barley for Scotch whisky was once Golden Promise, a short straw that stands up especially well to the winds along the Moray Firth. A farmer once showed me one of these straws, stroking it almost erotically and telling me there was nothing as silky. A Macallan distiller is more interested in its oily, fruity flavors. The snag is that Golden Promise does not yield as much raw barley as other varieties. Nor does it provide as much fermentable sugar for the distiller. On both counts, it had gone out of fashion, to the point where Macallan could only find enough to accommodate one-third of its needs. Then, a couple of years ago, the distillery, which stands on a farm estate, started to grow its own. This represents only a token proportion of the barley required, but it has perhaps set an example. More farmers have since returned to this classic variety. This year, all Macallan will be made from Golden Promise.
The shape of the stills is also an obvious factor in the richness of Macallan and certain other malts. Small, squat stills make for rich whiskies, while tall, narrow ones produce a leaner spirit. In the latter type of still, some vapors fail to reach the top before condensing. They fall back (a phenomenon called reflux) and are redistilled, making for that more refined character.
A third obvious element in the essence of Scotch is maturation in Sherry casks. In the past, Sherry casks were widely used, but today they are less common, though Macallan continues to employ nothing else. In general, Sherry wood adds raisin, apricot and nutty notes to the whisky. Macallan's butts have generally held dry oloroso Sherries when new.
A much more delicate whisky than Macallan, but one in which terroir, stills and wood also have an obvious influence, is Glenmorangie, located north of Inverness. Its water rises from red sandstone and is rich in minerals. Apart from adding firmness of body, the natural geological elements in the water can alter the behavior of the barley-malt during the infusion of yeast, and of the yeast itself in fermentation. As each factor affects the next, a chain reaction develops that is hard to unravel. Many producers and lovers of whisky are happy about that; an element of mystery makes for all the more pleasure. Glenmorangie has the tallest stills in the Highlands, and they produce a very refined spirit indeed.
Then there is the question of wood. All Glenmorangie spends at least ten years in former Bourbon barrels; some is then decanted into other woods, identified on the label, for "finishing." Bourbon barrels produce a lighter, more vanilla-tinged flavor than Sherry butts do. Glenmorangie makes its barrels from trees grown in the Ozark Mountains, and loans its casks for four years to the Heaven Hill Bourbon distillery in Kentucky.
Distilleries may stretch the outer limits of terroir, from Scotland to Spain and Kentucky, but they are also extremely picky about their own backyards. Some have more than one type of maturation warehouse. Those with earth floors and casks stacked only two or three high are favored by the actual distillers, the employees who make the product. The earth floors absorb moisture and arguably impart interesting flavors. Scotland's dank, damp air and cool temperatures make for a slower, more rounded maturation, too.
Whether a distillery's warehouse has earth floors or concrete, its location may also influence the aromas and flavors of the aging whisky. Glenmorangie has recently released a bottling called Cellar 13, from its warehouse nearest the sea. I am not convinced it is any saltier, but it does have an arousing freshness. Malt whiskies aged near this sheltered northeastern coastline tend to be restrained in their saltiness; Balblair and Old Pulteney, the latter from the northernmost mainland distillery, are other good examples of this style.
North of the Scottish mainland, the Orkney Islands provide a quite different terroir. The Orkneys are said to be so windy that there are no trees. This is not quite true, but the trees are thin, and lean against the wind conspicuously. So much sea salt is blown onto the islands that it leaves white "burn" marks on the heather. I noticed this on Hobbister Moor, where young, rooty peat is cut for the fire that dries the malt at the Highland Park distillery, on the main island. It is one of the few Scottish distilleries that still does its own malting. The result is a wonderfully rounded combination of saltiness, smokiness, malty richness (from relatively fat stills) and Sherry.
The Western Isles produce the most obviously maritime whiskies. On Skye, the volcanic mountains called Cuillins are popularly credited with creating the peppery flavors in Talisker. "The lava of the Cuillins," exclaimed one taster; I agree. On a recent visit, I was fascinated by the redness of a rocky outcrop. I rubbed my finger on it, and the color dusted my hand like chalk. The owners swear their water is soft, from granite, and that the flavors derive from a reflux system on one still, but I doubt that it's just a quirk of still design that gives Skye whiskies such a muscular character. Perhaps it is the complex geology through which the water percolates. Another factor might be the amount of seaweed in the loch on which the distillery stands: How much of its aroma do the casks inhale?
Wind, spume, seaweed and peat reach a climax on the island of Islay. Of Islay's six operating distilleries, Bowmore is the one most exposed to the winds, and its whisky is perhaps the most briny. It has its own maltings (rooms where barley is dried over heated peat), and its peat beds are the sandiest, creating more smoke than heat when the barley is fired. Its water supply is very ferny, perhaps imparting the characteristic tinge of lavender.
An island favorite is the Ardbeg distillery, restored and reopened in recent years to great acclaim. The whisky's earthy flavors derive in part from its water supply, two exposed lochs on a nearby hillside.
Until recently, Laphroaig was undoubtedly the best known distillery on Islay, and its warehouses are the most infused with seaweed aromas, making for a distinctly iodine, medicinal note in the whisky. Laphroaig also makes its own malt, using a more fibrous peat, creating an especially phenolic char-acter. This famous whisky is now being challenged in popularity by Lagavulin, a distillery whose water is especially fast-flowing and picks up a great deal of peat. At the Islay Festival in May, Lagavulin served its whisky with local scallops. Guests sat on the rocks behind the distillery, eating, drinking and listening to a lone piper on the islet from whence the Lords of the Isles once departed to do battle with the Vikings. The experience gave a new meaning to "whisky on the rocks."
Michael Jackson is the author of The Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch (Running Press, Philadelphia; $27.50). This year he was honored by the Scotch whisky industry as a Master of the Quaich.