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Are you legally old enough
(and sufficiently curious)
to enjoy terroir-driven whisky?

The Terroir Specialist
Applying Academic Rigour To Our Whisky
May 13, 2022 | ELEMENT: terroir | editorial | long form read

Terroir exists in whisky. 

This isn’t a statement of opinion, it is a matter of proven scientific record. But how do we know and, more importantly, what does that mean to you, the curious drinker, when it comes to the flavours and characters present in your glass?

Enter Angelita. Our terroir specialist.


Angelita first joined us for an eight week placement in 2020 as part of her degree in brewing and distilling. Eight weeks turned into three months the year after, and eventually the siren song of the terroir project turned three months into over a year… and counting.

From the command centre of her lab, Angelita has access to samples of every spirit from every farm and vintage. Working with Oregon-based barley expert Dr Dustin Herb and Head Brewer Neil, who oversees production, she co-ordinates the research and blind tastings that allow terroir to reveal itself in your glass.

We thought it was high time we introduced you to her and uncovered the taste of terroir.


You’re the only person in the world in this sort of role – what does it involve and how does it differ from what you learned in your degree?

The course was very scientifically-based. I was being trained to write manuscripts the same way as a paper review would have done; I would have done several tests – any of the tests that barley and malt goes through, from the real basics like water up to post-distillation and maturation. Waterford Distillery is such a special distillery anyway, and the terroir concept itself is so different to anything that was ever done in the whisky industry. So I came on board, already having some of the skills and all the knowledge that I need in terms of working with barley, with malt and brewing, distilling, maturation. 

When I got into the terroir, it was completely different to anything that I’d ever done before. And also it’s completely different to everything else that Waterford Distillery has ever done in the industry. So I suppose it was a position created out of the need of the distillery for the project. Dustin has this huge vision for the project which is absolutely amazing, but it does require a lot of work to be put together on the ground. So you would need to have that sort of scientific knowledge behind it.

Talk us through the process of monitoring different farms and keeping a record of the impact of terroir on spirit.

For every distillation of every farm there will be samples collected. In the distillery we have something that we call the library. What the library is; there are several samples of different tankers throughout the distillation, from the very first distillation of the farm. This happens on a weekly basis, so for every farm that has ever been distilled in Waterford Distillery we have samples. There’ll probably be about twenty samples taken at different stages throughout distillation. And with all those, at any given moment we can say “ok, what are the flavour compounds of any given farm?” So we are able to go in and pull that out from our data, which will be the library. From there on we can also create databases of everything.

At the moment the physicality of it is there; we are backdating our library, so from 2021 it’s all updated and all the distillations of 2022 to today is updated so we’re working now on backdating the library, and that’s going to take a year or so. But I can’t do that myself; I need the panellists to do it as well because I rely on their own sensory skills to gather the data.

Now that data that I’m talking about, that’s just the sensory attributes data. For all those samples within the library we have the lab analysis, which is done by Tatlock and Thompson in the UK. We’ll send a sample of everything in the library to their lab so we’ll have a track record of all of them.


Tell us more about the panellists – who are they and what’s the process of sensory analysis?

At the moment we have two sets of panellists. We have the production panellists who would comprise of all the distillers – there’ll be five distillers – and Neil, the head of production. And from time to time I might throw Ned and Ian in as well. Then we have the other panellists, who are for sensory analysis, which is part of the bigger projects that are going on at the moment. So things like the commercial project, the heritage project and the other projects coming along the way. So that will be myself, Neil, Megan, Ian, Ned and Kira, who is also one of the distillers.

For those two panels we use two controlled environments. One is the sensory lab, and we also use the control room. The reason being, by having those two facilities that have the same environment it’s not polluted by other people walking around, they’re the same temperature and there’s also a set of requirements that we ask the panellists to comply with to keep that controlled environment – things like not wearing perfume, not having tea and coffee an hour before the tasting, not having an orange or mandarin in the environment – because that kind of aroma will stick in and definitely impact your perception of different attributes.


What about the collaborative work you do with Dr Dustin Herb, in Oregon?

So I look at everything Dustin comes up with in terms of feasibility and how he envisages the process. It depends what we want to achieve – there’s always a hypothesis and then with that hypothesis there’s a way of how we want to investigate it. It can be done in one of several ways, and sometimes the way it will be conducted comes from Dustin. So Dustin will put what we call the feasibility project together and then from that it comes down to me to arrange according to what Dustin wants and whatever soil series we decide to use for that project.

Now, it’s all up to me and Neil to go through. So we might have a farm like Philip O’Brien’s [Sheestown], which is on the Elton Series Soil. There’ll be pretty standard farmers that we like to use which we can repeat from crop year to crop year. But from time to time there’ll be a reason we can’t use those particular farms for a project, so I’ll have to find a sub – a farm that’s on the same soil series and which will therefore have similarities of terroir.

Within those series there will be subseries of soil as well, so they’ll never be the exact same, but our inclination was – and now the data has shown – that the sensory attributes are very similar across subseries, which is why the major series have been divided into four large groups.


You’ve mentioned soil series. What are they?

The soil series will be based on different micronutrients in the soil. With the mother rock in Ireland there’ll be a natural division of those soils. So some of them would be more limey – heavier soils, some of them will be different components – more calcium, more marine influence, some of them could be the same soil series but one closer to the sea, one further inland, so there’s where the terroir comes in. The whole influence of different aspects of the environment. When we talk about soil series that’s just one piece of the terroir; some places get more hours of sunshine, some get a lot more rain and then there’s the inclination of the field – some places hilly, others flatter.

Then we can’t forget that the farming practices also play a huge role in terms of terroir – how the farmers treat their soil. It might be organic or biodynamic. Three weeks ago I was visiting a farm for the first time; it was in County Kilkenny so it would be the Elton soil series. We visited an organic farm and a conventional farm. Those farms are only maybe 200 metres apart, so on exactly the same soil series. But one of the farmers won’t use his field for maybe three or four years – he’d just grow different things, maybe grass or mustard throughout the winter, there’d be no crop placed on that particular field for a couple of years, whereas some of the conventional farmers might grow barley there every year with grass growing through the winter. So of course the way that soil is being treated in terms of the nutrients being given back to it will have a huge impact on the terroir. So when we get the same soil series but with one organic farmer who treats the soil completely differently to a conventional grower who may be applying treatments to that soil there will be a huge terroir influence despite just a 200, 400 metre distance between one and the other.


The point of the terroir project is to investigate the ways in which the different terroirs directly impact the flavour and character of the resultant spirit. Can you talk us through some of the distinctive characteristics that you have found to be consistently imparted by different soil series?

The analytical techniques that have been used on three of the series – Elton, Seafield and Clonroche – have shown the differences which are quite consistent to the sensory analysis that we do with our own panellists in the distillery. Elton is quite earthy, there are a lot of herbal notes to it, it’s heavy, oily, there are a lot of barnyard notes. Then when you go into the Seafield there are more floral notes; it’s much lighter and there’s some marine influence which is not so much from the wind but from the salt that’s collected on the barley – it’s the salt on the ground that the plant will be absorbing and therefore will be demonstrated in the character of that barley and eventually during malting. And then when you go into the Clonroche it will be very clovey and toasty and that is consistent with both sensory and analytical techniques. With some of them we can now see the vintage effect from year to year and it’s consistent with that soil series.


What are the dominant soils in the different main areas for our farms?

So that’s where the different subsoils come through it. Within the main soils there are 19 subsoils, which is something we’ll be looking at in more detail in the future. And we can pull out some samples within our own lab and demonstrate that. But in terms of the larger soils, it’s demonstrated well on the map – there’s lots of Elton in Kilkenny, more Clonroche in Wexford. Those are the main soils.


Are there any individual farms that you’ve found to give off particularly strong characteristics – outside of the farms who practice alternative agriculture like organics or biodynamics? Which ones really stand out in the lab?

Absolutely. It’s interesting because some of the farms that I consistently work with in the lab become quite close to my heart and they’re the ones which I pull out year after year. So now I’ll actually know that farm – even when the samples are all blinded I’ll have an inclination that it’s a particular farm because I’ve learned the attributes that it gives. They’re usually farms we’ve studied and gathered data on for a few years. My favourite Waterford Distillery farm would be Philip O’Brien, which is Sheestown. It’s about 12km from my house – and Philip’s daughter Maura works at the distillery. We know Philip well – he was 80 yesterday! – so there’s lots of personal information of course that’s an influence, but the attributes that the Elton soil give, that earthiness and a lot of dried fruit flavour are really clear. To me it almost smells like Christmas – like a Christmas pudding. You’ll be there with a gallon of whisky trying to pull samples out and then you’ll open this one up and it’s like Christmas season is open as soon as you’ve opened that lid!


And then I work a lot with Ed Harpur, who’s Bannow Island. I’ve never visited – I know where it is, but I haven’t done a trip to the farm. I intend to when the weather is a bit milder! I don’t think I’ll be heading off to that peninsula now! And again, every time I open a small jar it just gives those beautiful floral notes and cut grass. So when you go through the lexicon it’s more a fresh fruit than a dry fruit whereas Philip O’Brien’s farm would be the opposite. So those are the differences.

Another farm that I love to work with is Barry Ashmore’s. Barry’s retired now so it’s his son, Leonard Ashmore, so it could be either on the paperwork I’m sent – it’s the Ashmore family! And that’s on the Elton series. And I love working with all those because the consistency from each one, year after year, in different crop vintages, is just amazing. You would see nuances of difference from one year to another but you know their fingerprint. And that’s what happens when you’re working with all those farms on different projects.


You’ve touched on terroir being not just the soil, but this three dimensional affect of a whole place. Can you talk about the impact made by things like aspect, climate and so on on the character of the resulting spirit?

The fresh fruit definitely comes through from the farms by the coast, the grassy notes come through. The sweetness is quite different and there will be less of the clovey note – they wouldn’t be as apparent as in the Clashmore, for instance. The spices change from year to year too.

Of course everything I’m talking about here is to do with new make. We’re doing some projects to see how those flavours go through maturation. We’re trying to see the differences between maturation, in the cellar in the distillery and our warehouses at Ballygarran. But I had samples that were five years old and samples that were a few months old and even with those you can see the difference. Those flavour compounds are rearranging themselves through maturation, and some of them are much more rearranged inside the cask. They bind together with different attributes of the cask.


Can you expand a bit more on the impact of alternative agricultural practices?

In terms of the soil, when we just focussed on soil series the soils already give us the types of attributes we talked about. Those are just the inclinations of the soil. How the barley is expressed when you put it on those types of soils that have those types of minerals. But then when you go into the farming practices and what grains are they using and if it’s organic and how they treat that land. And then if it goes further, to the biodynamic, the grain will just go through so much more due to biodynamic practices.

There’s a big difference compared to the more commercially grown barley, which will go in on a good day and they’ll apply pesticides throughout and they’ll be infusing nutrients into the soil as opposed to the organic where that soil has already been pampered for a couple of years without being used and is ready to give all that goodness to the plant. And then a step further with the biodynamic – how much more the seed will have to endure, because being guided by the lunar calendar it could be literally snowing outside! So it’s not an ideal scenario for the baby seed to go into the ground – there’s some tough love – but you see how each different practice can result in a different expression. So each of these three practices is giving a different attribute even in the same terroir or the same soil series.

And how do the spirits differ between conventional, organic and biodynamically farmed barley?

The way the organic has been shown to us it has much more of a smokiness to it – almost a tobacco taste compared to some of the other notes, again according to the soil series. Up to now we haven’t been able to stand on the soil series because we didn’t have enough organic growers so the barley from different organic farms was blended together across different series. So we couldn’t say that the soil series was contributing those attributes. Next year we will have an organic farm that is completely single farm, so with that we’ll be able to tell more. With the current whiskies, there’s complete transparency, it’s completely organic, but it’s not a single farm. It’s just an organic.

Biodynamic spirit seems to have much more depth of flavour going on – at least that’s what everyone keeps saying on the panel. There’s a lot of complexity. It’s almost like the attributes are speaking much louder. So a conventional farm on the very same soil, on the range of zero to fifteen on our sensory analysis scale, might have a score of seven for floral notes, maybe organic will fetch a nine, but the biodynamic would get an eleven. So it seems to be a stronger note than in the conventional.

Can you tell us a little bit about your work with heritage barley varieties? Why you’re doing it and how the flavours seem to differ in the spirit?

So going back to basics, at Waterford Distillery we’re not saying we’re making the best whisky in the world, we’re saying we’re trying to make the most profound. And when we talk about profound, we’re talking about flavour, so that’s our quest – to find the most natural flavour. And that’s why the terroir is so important. Then when we were talking about that we thought “well what were the flavours that have been used in the past and that we’re not using any more?” And the answer’s quite simple – nowadays everything’s about yield and the highest amount of alcohol that can be achieved in production. But because Waterford Distillery are trying to make something different and that’s more about the flavour rather than the yield we’re producing, it allowed the distillery to explore different routes.

So we came across Hunter, which was a barley used maybe 60 years ago, and then we thought “well if we’re using that is there one from ever further back?”, which was the Goldthorpe, and then going even further back than the Goldthorpe is the Old Irish, which was used over 120 years ago. So at the moment I have a file in which we’re trying to analyse the sensory attributes which we find on the heritage grains.

I can’t wait – I’m literally counting the weeks now – for the Old Irish to come to my lab, so I can see the difference, because this is the first time we’re distilling Old Irish. So at the moment we have two crop years of Hunter and two crop years of Goldthorpe so I can’t wait to see the differences.

Some of the Hunter last year was really nice. Really, really nice. All of our new makes have a lot of oils – some of the Hunter’s oils are literally stuck to the glass. Clovey notes are often some of the most prominent for our whisky, but I didn’t see the clove notes nearly as high in the heritage varieties. That’s one thing I’ve noticed in comparison to some of the modern varieties we’ve done before. They have a lot of hay, barnyard, the cereal was always quite high.

We’ve been conditioned to have a modern taste for our whole lives, we’ve never had the taste of those old grains being used, so it’ll be very interesting, especially as we get to Old Irish, to see what that flavours are.

And finally, can you tell us anything about some of the other special projects you’re working on?

We call it ‘The Journey’. The name just presented itself because we thought “oh my God, this is going to be a journey of seven years”, and we were looking to find names for the project and it just made sense. So our flavour project is called The Journey.

It’s in the same vein as the heritage project. Waterford Distillery wants to get the best flavour out of different types of grain varieties and bring them together. Crossing seeds on a large scale. It’s a huge, innovative project and it will take years of research. Dustin will be putting the different seeds together, breeding all these different sorts of barley seeds and trying to extract the flavour that we particularly want. But we’re in baby steps at the moment, only growing a couple of lines. In a month from now Dustin will be in Ireland so you’ll have to ask me again then – because for two weeks we’re going to really focus on The Journey Project, and it’ll be the very first time that we see those lines grown as well.

There’s a place in Ireland called Teasgasc that does a lot of research for the agricultural and barley industries – they have proper scientific labs there and that’s where it’s grown. I’m so looking forward to going over there and seeing what they’re up to because that’s the baby steps before we do anything else – to see what the attributes of these different types of seeds that we’re breeding are. Because at the moment we don’t know, we just have the hypothesis. It may not be as we expect.

The idea is to create these varieties for flavour, rather than yield, and then to match them to their most ideal terroirs. That’s The Journey.

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