‘Whenever someone asks if I want water with my Scotch, I say I’m thirsty, not dirty’
Joe E Lewis
Purists have long said that adding water to whisky is heresy, however, it has now been proven that there is scientific merit to adding a few drops of water to a dram.
In August 2017, two Swedish scientists – Bjorn Karlsson and Ran Friedman published an article in the journal of Scientific Reports titled ‘Dilution of whisky – the molecular perspective’. The duo had carried out computer modelling to determine the effect of adding water to whisky on a molecular level, looking at what water does to various compounds in the spirit.
Their findings were, put simply, that the addition of water improves the depth of flavours the drinker can taste. Aromatics are held in guaiacol – a compound that occurs naturally when wood is burned, released when casks are charred or toasted. Guaiacol is responsible for smoky flavour in whisky.
The scientists knew that guaiacol could be trapped in ethanol (alcohol) clusters and not released fully into whisky. When water is introduced to the mix, guaiacol rises to the surface of the glass giving the drinker a full blast of smoky taste and smell upfront. According to the study, cask-strength whiskies with higher ethanol levels benefit most from the addition of a few drops of water.
This is a tricky question to answer, as the amount of water in whisky can be used for subjective enjoyment as well as a more objective analysis. Follow this 2-step guide to experiment with what is right for you:
Remember there are no right or wrong amounts, what is good for you may not be right for someone else, but that’s ok!
Again, this is an area of debate that divides whisky aficionados. Likened to stepping outside into a snowy landscape where all colour, smell and light is hidden by a white blanket some drinkers feel that adding ice to whisky removes aromas, weakens colour and dampens taste.
American whiskies and bourbons are frequently served with ice. In Japan drinking whisky with ice and water is incredibly popular and even has its own term: ‘mizuwari’ which translates to “cut with water”
Generally speaking, the larger the ice cube, the slower the rate of dilution – there are many large ice moulds on the market, including monogrammed molds if you really want to elevate your drinking.
Looking at the advice about adding water and ice to whisky given in leading books about whisky we have found the following:
‘For tasting, be more cautious, ice has a double-block effect; it both numbs the palate and “locks in” the flavours of the whisky, making them harder to detect’
Eddie Ludlow ‘Whisky A Tasting Course – a new way to think’
‘Don’t add water! Whatever anyone tells you. It releases aromas but can mean the whisky falls below 40%…so it is no longer whisky. Never add ice. This tightens the molecules and prevents flavours and aromas from being released. It also makes your whisky taste bitter’’
Jim Murray ‘Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2020’’
The experts seem to think it’s not a great idea to add water or ice to whisky, but then again at tasting sessions on distillery tours jugs of water are present and drinkers are encouraged to explore different flavours by adding water in.
It seems that this divisive issue really comes down to a matter of personal taste. Experiment with your whiskies – try adding water, try adding ice, see what you like best. The most important thing when exploring the exciting world of whisky is to enjoy the process. If you are a beginner just starting out or an expert investor selling whisky casks, whisky doesn’t mind – it is there to be loved by everyone.