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Provenance v Terroir
Provenance. Terroir
March 15, 2022 | ELEMENT: barley, life, water | article | 10 minute read

Provenance. Terroir. Two words virtually absent from the vocabulary of the whisky industry until very recent years but now so liberally sprinkled across press releases and back labels that their meaning is becoming increasingly warped.

Since both terms sit at the core of our quest to unearth whisky’s most natural flavours, we thought it was time for a swift recap on their definitions as we see them – and why those definitions matter.

Let’s deal with ‘provenance’ first. By far the more commonly seen of the two. Very simply, provenance refers to the place from which something originates. No more, no less.

Transparency of provenance is demanded more and more by interested eaters and drinkers. And rightly so – after all, if one doesn’t know where one’s food and drink has come from, what is to stop the maker from adulterating the product, or devising some fabrication to make it seem more desirable than it already is?

P is for Provenance.

‘Provenance’ ties in to the increasing desire to eat and drink ‘locally’; it offers a perceived guarantee of authenticity and it allows the consumer to feel more connected to what they are consuming.

Where ‘provenance’ becomes limited as a term is when one considers the vast array of ways in which it can be, and is, applied. Looking solely at the whisky industry, we see provenance used in reference to ingredients (albeit rarely), to a distillery of origin, a bottler or even simply a cask. Usually not a combination of all of the above – just as long as the vital word ‘provenance’ can be shoe-horned into the press release somewhere.

But the true limitation of ‘provenance’, beyond the ways in which it can be obfuscated, is that simply knowing where something has come from tells you nothing about what difference that makes as regards the flavour and character of what you are drinking. In other words, it offers the ‘where’ but not the ‘why’.

That’s where terroir comes in.


T is for Terroir.

Terroir’ refers to the three-dimensional influence of land, soil and climate on the growth of an agricultural crop. It is as simple – and as strict – as that.

In terms of single malt whisky, it refers to the way in which the flavours and ripening of any given farm’s barley are affected by that farm’s immediate surroundings. Is one farm at higher altitude than another, and thus affected perhaps by stronger winds and cooler temperatures? It’ll show up in the flavour. Does one farm sit in a rain shadow and therefore experience a drier climate through the vintage than another which does not? This too will result in a tangible difference. What about the chemical and physical structure of the soil? Proximity to coastal winds and saltier air? The aspect – the slope – of the barley field?

Everything above and hundreds of idiosyncrasies besides go into creating the unique conditions of a single farm’s terroir. They are why the barley from each of the 100+ farms we work with, and the spirit we are able to distil from it, tastes different and distinct, even when farmers are growing the same variety of barley and utilising the same agricultural methods.

Terroir is an irreplicable organoleptic stamp of place. As the number of farms that we have worked with has increased alongside the number of vintages we have distilled from each one, we have gradually begun to unearth the natural flavours that each farm – each terroir – is uniquely able to bring to our spirit. Always Waterford Whisky, always with our distinctive distillery character of barley-forward, bakery-fresh bread running through it, but always inflected with the particular signature of its farm of origin.

Of course the point of harvesting, distilling and maturing all of these individual terroirs separately is to create the broadest possible palate of individual flavours when it comes to bringing casks and terroirs together for The Cuvée.

Literally layering terroirs – dozens of them – on top of each other in what we feel to be the most complex single malt whisky we are able to create. Given time in the glass, these layers of flavour can be unpicked by the attentive and interested drinker as they become more familiar with the various terroirs – it’s something we are discovering for ourselves in our own blending lab, and we believe it is this that makes for the most profound drinking of all.

These are not new or radical concepts to the world of drinks in general. We’ve been inspired by the classic wines of France – the individuality and idiosyncrasy of the great single vineyards of Burgundy, for instance, and the carefully layered Grand Vins of Bordeaux. But terroir extends well beyond wine – at the recent launch of The Cuvée in Shanghai parallels were drawn between the terroirs of barley and that of the tea leaf. At our media launch in Taiwan the comparisons were to the coffee bean.

Terroir is provenance with a purpose. If the ingredient is what drives the flavour of a drink, terroir is what drives the flavour of that ingredient. Not simply knowing where that ingredient has been grown, but understanding what difference that makes, and what makes each individual terroir different to any other.

Terroir is not about where a barrel might have been stored or what water might have been used in the mashing process. It can’t be faked or reconstructed. Distilling terroir by terroir is certainly more logistically complex than simply buying barley in homogenous bulk. But we believe that the results justify the effort. This is provenance at its most profound.

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