Whisky is the root of many contentious debates.
Is age indicative of quality? Do older whiskies taste better? Should chill-filtered bottles be avoided? How much does terroir matter? Is there really a place for high-quality whisky in cocktails?
The list is seemingly endless. However, one of the biggest and most enduring questions to divide dram lovers the world over, is whether or not it’s beneficial (or even acceptable) to add water to whisky.
Of course, before it’s bottled, whisky has already been introduced to water at various points throughout its production process. And for a long time, whisky enthusiasts have argued that a drop or two of water isn’t a cause for horror – but actually helps to ‘open up’ the taste.
It may seem counterintuitive. Surely adding water just waters down the spirit and weakens its flavour?
But the reality is, this isn’t an urban myth. According to a growing body of research, it’s true. Diluting your dram can improve and enhance its taste – and make it much easier for you to perceive its flavours.
The science behind whisky and water
The benefit of adding water to whisky is no longer just an opinion – it’s backed by science.
In a recent study conducted by chemists at the University of Sweden, adding water was found to boost the concentration of flavour compounds at the surface of the drink – therefore giving drinkers a much more well-rounded perception of the whisky’s flavour profile and character.
Why does it do this?
The scientists developed a computer model that stripped whisky down to its most basic elements – water and ethanol (i.e. alcohol). And simulated how these molecules interacted at different concentrations with guaiacol, a molecule common in single malt whisky that gives it a smokey taste.
At higher concentrations, they found that alcohol molecules would cluster at the surface (near the air), whilst molecules associated with taste – such as guaiacol – spread out through the glass. By contrast, at lower concentrations (i.e. when a small amount of water had been added), both alcohol and guaiacol molecules clustered at the surface.
Whilst in this position, it’s much easier for our nose and palate to detect these taste molecules – therefore changing how we experience the smell and flavour of the whisky.
Admittedly, this level of chemistry-heavy chat tends to be a bit dull for the average whisky drinker. But really, there’s no need to worry about how the molecules interact or arrange themselves in the glass.
All you need to know is that it’s now scientifically proven – adding a few drops of water to your dram will bring out or ‘open up’ its unique flavours. And could potentially add to your enjoyment of the drink.
How much water should you add?
If whisky and water is a winning combo, this revelation begs a second question:
Is there a perfect ratio of whisky to water?
Technically, no. There isn’t a specific one-size-fits-all formula.
Even though the research points to a reason why taste is improved by dilution, the scientists provide no guidelines for how much water to add. It seems this comes down to preference, your personal tolerance to alcoholic spirits, plus the nature of the whisky itself.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s recommended that you should add water very gradually until the alcohol ‘burn’ disappears and the whisky opens up. Start by sipping it ‘neat’, then add 2-3 drops at a time – noting the change in flavour as you go and comparing it to the undiluted aroma and taste.
By tasting the whisky at various ABVs as you dilute it – and, in turn, transforming its chemical structure and molecular arrangement – you can get a much better understanding of its flavour profile, and the specific ratio that you like best.
Pouring water straight from a bottle or glass can be a bit heavy-handed. Therefore, experts usually advise using a glass dropper or pipette instead. This allows you to add very small drops of water one at a time – ensuring a highly precise level of control and helping to avoid over-dilution.
Top tip: If you don’t have a pipette to hand at home, a straw works just as well. Simply dip it in a water glass and hold the top to retain the liquid, then remove your finger to release the water.
Ready to dilute the water of life?
Time to join the scientists and conduct your own experiment.
Perhaps you’re already convinced that you should add water to whisky? Or maybe you’re still a little sceptical? Either way, this is the perfect excuse to set aside a couple of hours, enjoy your favourite tipple and dabble with a few different whisky and water combinations.
Here at Whisky Tasting Company, we have a diverse range of whisky tasting sets to choose from, including everything from classic single malts and scotch whisky selections to old and rare varieties, premium drams and international line-ups.
Whether you’re a whisky beginner or a fully-fledged connoisseur, why not treat yourself to the set that appeals the most and figure out the ideal balance of whisky and water that suits you?
If you have any questions about any of the whisky tasting sets available in our store, or would just like a chat about the potential benefits of diluting whisky, you’re always welcome to get in touch. Just give us a call on 01743 247220 or fill out our online enquiry form.
And if you do add a few drops of H2O to our featured whiskies, be sure to let us know what you think by tagging us on social media using @WhiskyTastingCo. We’re just as intrigued as you are and would love to hear your verdict!