Water & Whisky – A Do or a Don’t?

a small water carafe adjacent to a half full glass of whisky

Water & whisky, I have been drinking whisky a long time, a very long time and still don’t understand what’s the big deal! However, it’s only in the last few years did I start to feel a bit conflicted about adding a bit of water to my dram. Apparently, I am not alone since there is a good deal of chatter in the forums about the subject. So, naturally, I thought I’d join the fray.

As I said earlier, I don’t understand why this is even controversial. The fact is, adding a little water will enhance your whisky tasting experience. Plus, you are not doing anything the distiller has not already done. Unless, you are drinking a “cask strength” whisky. And even then, you’re probably drinking whisky that has already had a  bit of water added to the batch.

First Dilution

You see, as whisky goes through the distillation and aging process the alcohol by volume (ABV) fluctuates. After the initial period of fermentation the typical  “wash” has an ABV of 7-10%. However, when the heart of the “new make” is collected after distillation, the ABV has risen to around 68-72% . That’s between 136 – 144 proof, quite the alcohol concentrate!

It is at the point the distiller will make his or her first decision as to whether to add some water to the batch before filling the cask. Often times, they add water to bring the ABV down to around 63% or 126 proof. That is considered by many to be the optimum for maturing in the cask. Remember, making a good whisky is all about chemistry. So, it’s important that conditions within the cask promote the complex interactions between the whisky and wooden cask. It’s those interactions that account for the whisky’s aroma, color and taste.

Second Dilution

The second time a distiller will make a decision as to adding water will occur when they are collecting the whisky from the cask. As I mentioned, the whisky in the cask typically has an ABV of around 63%. For many of us that level of alcohol content can be overpowering and mask many of the subtle flavors of the whisky. So, the distiller will add water to take that level down to whatever they believe is optimum for that particular whisky, generally to around 40 – 43% ABV.

That makes it more palatable for the average enthusiast and releases more of the subtleties of the whisky.

Third Dilution

A small water carafe adjacent to a half full glass of whisky suggesting that water & whisky have been mixed.But that may not be the optimum level for experiencing all that particular whisky has to offer. Remember, we are not just drinking whisky here, we are conducting complicated scientific experiments. By adding a bit of tepid water — about a teaspoon or so — we initiate another series of complex chemical reactions. We begin messing with ester chains and other tricky compounds that affect the release of various vapors. The more vapors released the more complex the taste.

Bottom line, appreciating the finer subtleties of a good whisky is a very personal experience. Whisky is very complex and offers a range of tasting experiences. A range of experiences that can be altered with just a little experimentation. You may find that some whiskies are best right out of the bottle, neat, no water. However, you may also discover that by adding a wee bit of water you enable your tastebuds to discover more of the mystery hidden within the whisky. Perhaps even that elusive wisp of blackberry or the subtle taste of honey and spice.

So, get out the lab coat and goggles and experiment a little. Discover how you best enjoy a particular whisky. And then record your notes for future reference.

And you thought drinking whisky was easy!

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