Sam Simmons - Debating Malt Whisky and Place
I am always keen to feel like I am still connected to the academic environment that I abandoned for Scotch Whisky (easy decision?), so I was quick to accept an invitation to attend a lecture at Senate House, University of London at the end of January.
Chaired by Andrew Jefford, author of the excellent Peat, Smoke and Spirit, the guests included Dr. Nick Morgan (Head of Whisky Outreach, Diageo), Jim McEwan (Bruichladdich) and Georgie Crawford (Lagavulin).
Jefford introduced the evening and got the questions for debate on the table. “The whiskies produced on the Hebridean island of Islay are world renowned. But what makes these whiskies unique? Are they manifestations of the physical attributes of the island – the climate, the water, the barley, and the peat – or are they instead the consequence of centuries of craft and human artifice in the form of the malting, brewing, and distilling processes?”
Each panellist then had a chance to present their case as to how and why their whisky is distinctive, first the academic Nick, then the ever-passionate Jim, finally the ever-endearing Georgie.
The aim was not to ‘prove’ that ‘terroir exists’ or doesn’t exist for malt whisky, but to understand where the differences come from and there was no clear winner (although Jim had the highest laugh-per-minute rate). We all debated the issue casually over a pint afterwards, how important the words like “Highland” and “Speyside” and “Campbeltown” and “Islay” are to the Scotch whisky brand around the world, but I wonder, would we better without these generalisations?
Does Balvenie taste the way it does because of how it’s made? Yes, of course we believe this strongly and it informs our decision to maintain our Five Rare Crafts. But does our taste come from being a Speyside distillery? We don’t taste like any other distillery in Scotland or, indeed in Dufftown. In fact we’re over 4 miles from the River Spey. The River Fiddich runs behind our stillhouse, perhaps we should be a Fiddichside malt?
What do you think, does terroir exist in Scotch Whisky?