Barley growing conditions found to affect whisky characteristics
We're all familiar with the cliché of the wine aficionado who is able to tell where a wine's grapes were grown, based on its flavor. Well, new research indicates that a similar thing can be done with whisky, according to where its barley was grown.
The recent study was commissioned by Ireland's Waterford Distillery, and was led by Oregon State University's Dr. Dustin Herb. It involved planting and harvesting two common commercial varieties of barley (Laureate and Olympus), both of them in two environmentally distinct regions of Ireland, over the course of two years – 2017 and 2018.
One of those regions, County Kildare, is located inland. The other, County Wexford, is on the coast. Among the other differences between the two counties are their soil types, along with the temperature ranges and rainfall levels during the barley-growing season.
Both years, all of the barley grain was harvested, stored, malted and distilled in a standard fashion. The result was an assortment of whisky-precursor beverages known as "new make spirits" – in order to be officially classified as whisky, a new make spirit has to be matured in a wooden cask for no less than three years.
These spirits were then analyzed utilizing gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, plus they were assessed by a six-person trained sensory panel. In both cases, it was found that the aromatic profiles of the different batches varied significantly based on the barley "terroir," which is a term for the environmental conditions in which it was grown.
More specifically, the spirits that came from County Kildare tended to have "sweet, cereal/grainy, feinty/earthy, oily finish, soapy, sour, stale and mouldy" characteristics, whereas those from County Wexford were more reminiscent of dried fruit and solvent.
"What this does is actually make the farmer and the producer come to the forefront of the product," says Herb. "It gets to the point where we might have more choices and it might provide an opportunity for a smaller brewer or a smaller distiller or a smaller baker to capitalize on their terroir, like we see in the wine industry with a Napa Valley wine, or Willamette Valley wine or a French Bordeaux."
Differences were also noted between spirits that came from the same type of barley, that was grown in the same place, but in different years. Plans now call for a larger five-year study, which will look more closely into the effect of vintage on a whisky's flavor and aroma.
A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Foods.
Source: Oregon State University