From the French word terre – ‘land’
Meaning: The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate or the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine (or whisky?) by the environment in which it is produced.
From the French word provenir – ‘to come from’
Meaning: The place of origin or earliest known history of something or a record of ownership of a work of art, used as a guide to authenticity or quality. i.e. the chain of custody.
In our current climate the provision of food for consumption is going through an ethical revolution. People are more and more interested about where it comes from, how it was made, what conditions it was grown in (animal or vegetable), was it ethically treated, is it free from GM modification, was it organic, is it good for the environment, etc. etc. The gold standard at present is the ability to trace the product back to the exact producer or farmer and detail its path from field to plate. Food must be clean, green and ethical and companies have been warned to ignore this at their peril!
So how in this current climate have Scotch producers and their marketing departments responded to this? Do we have bottles detailing the exact casks used in the marriage batch, detailing each of their ages, uses and origins? Do we have the terroir details of the type of barley used, where it was grown and when? Do we have limited edition bottles that state the exact bottle number and declare how many bottles were produced in that limited batch and a certificate to prove authenticity? Sadly in most cases we do not. In fact in recent years the trend within the industry has been to move away from even the most basic of information such as the age of the whisky in the bottle, giving only the detail of which distillery the product was distilled, and in some cases that may be all as spirit can be tanker-shipped to be interred into oak casks elsewhere and mature in vast hanger-like palletised warehouses in the central belt of Scotland where climactic conditions equate to minimum loss in this maximum profit driven model. So long as you the consumer assume that ‘distilled at distillery X’ means it was matured by the sea in centuries old traditional stone-walled and earthen-floored dunnage warehouses where it is subject to the environment and breathes in the terroir as the marketing & press releases tells us it should then where’s the problem – right?
Similarly the oft-quoted but much maligned and misunderstood quote that [upto] 60% of the final flavour of whisky comes from the cask – work that came out of a distillery renowned as having one of the lightest new make spirits distilled! As a scientist that means 0% to 60% is your cask range of influence. Stick your spirit in an under active cask and you could be lucky if upto 6% of the final flavour comes from the cask. In a standard maturation the spirit:cask influence is hopefully 50:50 with some of the better casks overpowering the spirit to make 40:60. In essence great casks are no fix for poor spirit, however practices in spirit production almost industry-wide have focussed on maximum gain ‘litres of pure alcohol per tonne malted barley’. Some well known factors reduce this. Assuming the majority barley used is east coast, Scotland or England, with good balance of nitrates and starch. Malting is a mass industrialised process for all but a rare few distilleries. Pretty much everyone is using the same distillers yeast, selected for output over and above any flavour qualities. So the bottom line is efficiency is driven by peating level or not, as the phenols in peat retard yeast activity and directly influence available alcohol produced.
In effect these changes have led to the ‘vanillisation’ of whisky output, with a frank uniformity of spirit produced regardless of distillery, to slumber in identical casks in palletised warehouses for nowhere near as long as you’d hope (I’m talking about you no-age declaration whisky) to be married together, chill filtered and coloured. Meaning release after release are just as bland as the last… Compound this with a frightening lack of innovation from some of the biggest whisky producers, leads to a bleak future.
Perhaps not, as within the industry are small voices or sometimes silent voices of those who either are innovating or sticking to their principles. There are still distilleries that malt their own barley, some only for special batches or to try add a little of their own character to the maltsters provisions. There are companies independently bottling individual casks with cask fill and empty (bottled) dates, indicating vintage and distillery though perhaps scarce on maturation conditions/locale, but still attempting to achieve as much transparency as possible regards the whisky in the bottle. Indeed there are still blenders such as Compass Box being the fly in The Scotch Whisky Associations ointment by constantly innovating over, through and around the current rules and regulations. There are distilleries producing Organic whisky, local barley expressions, vintage and age-declared expressions as standard.
So perhaps all is not lost. It thus lies with us the consumers to vote with our palates! The whole industry operates on some level of brand loyalty, fan bases and appearance. If it tastes good, buy more, tell your friends, speak out and congratulate those producers and companies you like.