To the principals of the nouveau regime that kick started the moribund Bruichladdich back in 2000 terroir was a cultural concept embedded in their very DNA. These men were wine merchants whose professional lives had been devoted to understanding the nuances of fine French wines – and of Burgundy in particular.
The concept of terroir, is wedded to the idea that the quality of an agricultural product is uniquely related to where it is grown. It encapsulates a belief that local conditions contribute to the character of wine, (or cheese, or meat or honey). It implies that climate and soil are important, as is geographical aspect and plant variety. In the world of wine, nobody simply grows ‘grapes’.
Wine also embraces the concept of vintage, accepting that climate varies year by year and that this is inevitably reflected in the quality of the end product. The Old World vineyards, often nurturing tiny pockets of vines which have been carefully and painstakingly classified according to terroir, produce a sometimes bewildering variety of vintages and styles. Nowhere is this complexity better illustrated than in the vineyards of Burgundy.
The priorities of modern Scotch whisky production were very different. Instead of celebrating differences in barley type and origin, the grain was simply purchased on the open market with the main criteria being not flavour profile, but the yield of alcohol per tonne. Nobody cared where it came from, who grew it, or even when it was grown. To the Scotch whisky industry, barley was just a commodity, a raw material to be obtained as cheaply as possible – only subject to scientific analysis by men in laboratories who would strive to squeeze the last drop of ‘value’ from one of the world’s most flavour-complex grains.
The fundamental aim of the big industrialised whisky companies was to produce a ubiquitous, homogenised, standardised product that the consumer would recognise wherever they were in the world.