Reflection in the top of a whisky barrel

Water Water Everywhere but not a Drop to Drink | Blog #4

Watering Whisky – How much is enough

If you have even a passing interest in whisky/ey. The topic of water inevitably comes up. How much is enough, am I allowed to add ice and so on, till the whisky newcomer can be completely confused or strong armed into a belief that really does not enhance their whisky experience.

Firstly why are you having a dram of whisky in the first place? Is it casually on the deck in the Summer months or with friends at a bar? Are you snuggled by the fire on a cold winters night or sitting amongst your whisky conglomerate sifting through the finer nuances of your latest acquisition?

What you should or should not be doing to your dram is entirely based on the circumstances surrounding the imminent imbibing.

My axiom has always been if you paid for it then you decide how and when you want to drink it. If you are being hosted and someone brings out a “special” dram then out of respect you should at least initially try it as they offer it.

When I talk about cask strength or higher alcohol whiskies (happens a lot) the feedback I invariably receive is that “I never put water in my whisky”. It comes as a statement of fact. Unmovable and irrevocable. As though someone had written it in stone from a mountain top with the very finger of God. But how then do you reconcile the fact that over 90% of whisky on retail or bar shelves today have already been watered by the master distillers and blenders that designed them? Most of this watering is purely for volume vs price point concerns. The legal minimum for most spirits and certainly whisky is 40%. The maximum number of bottles produced per barrel will always be the lowest alcohol number you can legally drop to. This is also an ABV (alcohol by volume) that most consumers can get their heads around and find smooth and palatable.

40% brings with it a number of relatively recently controversial and interesting topics which we will cover in subsequent blogs.

Suffice to say, however, often there is little room to play once the 40% ABV has been chosen.

Coming very soon to a kitchen cupboard near you (if not already) will be a number of drams at 46%. More room to add H20. Another whisky benchmark is this ABV could become the norm given time and consumer demand.

Cask strength, unadulterated whisky taken directly from the barrel and poured into the bottle without any water added is the ultimate toy box for any whisky enthusiast. Splash a little, or a lot, either way you are the master.

Water can bring out extra layers of complexity, soften somewhat harsh alcohol edges and make a dram smooth and subtle.

It really comes down to your pallet and how you want it. Check out my blog #2 on what makes a pallet tick to think about why you should muck around with your whisky.

Water can bring other flavors to whisky which under normal circumstances is not a good thing. Most tap water is chlorinated in smell and taste and can really ruin a whisky especially delicate and complex offerings. Try filtered or distilled water. Most bottled water works however some are heavily mineral orientated and can have a big impact on the flavor.

So how do you water your whisky? Simple answer is slowly. Have a sip “neat”, as in regardless of the amount of water added by the distiller or blender, then start to add water a few drops at a time. If you are at home you can accomplish this using an eye dropper. If at a whisky event with water bottle in hand try using the cap of the bottle to transfer water so that you can control the amount.

Attempting to use a water jug or bottle to pour directly into your dram is tough at the best of times let alone when potentially under the influence of several pre-warming ounces.

Don’t be limited however to adding small amounts if the whisky is hitting you particularly hard. 50/50 water to whisky is not an uncommon amount for many people so keep going till you think the whisky has hit the sweet spot for you.

As you add each amount stop and take another sip and think about what affect it has on the whisky. Is the alcohol as prevalent? are there more discernible flavors present? Is the nose more prominent and in what way. Did you like it more without water? Has water changed it into something almost completely different?

Exercise for the week – find the highest alcohol volume whisky in your collection and pour a healthy dram or two and play with it. If you don’t have anything over 40% then rush out to your best whisky retailer and get something higher, cask strength if possible. If you were a master blender trying to craft the perfect balance how much water would you add?

Ice,  another version of good old H2O and one of the most popular ways to enjoy whisky around the globe. This is a topic unto itself that we will cover extensively in another blog.

Write in and tell me about your watering experience in the comments.

Until then,

“Chok Dee”

Jonathan Bray

7 comments

  1. Criollo & Barley says:

    Enjoying the blog so far, and I definitely agree that the maxim of "I never put water in my whisky" certainly cuts off access to a more complete sensory experience. Science backs this up; water helps release volatile oils, and precipitates larger water insoluble molecules, both reactions leading to more fruit on the nose, and a waxier/creamier mouthfeel. So while you may prefer the experience neat, water provides you with differing versions of your dram, and that’s the main reason I love whisky – the changeable nature of it. To never add water greatly limits your experience.

    A side question if I may; Any chance you’ll be sampling the Amrut Intermediate Sherry at one of your partner stores in Calgary in the near future? I’ve been eying this bottle for a long time, but hesitate to spend the big $ before trying. Disappointed I can’t find it on the menu of any bars either (particularly Buchanans). Thanks for your feedback.

    • Jonathan Bray says:

      There is a bottle of the Intermediate Sherry available in the "heel" cabinet at Crowfoot Wines and Spirits in Crowfoot. All you need do is ask one of the staff to help you out and you can if you wish taste through the entire Amrut lineup. I would be more than happy to help out as I am close by Crowfoot. Send me an email and we can set something up.

  2. kinkminos says:

    greetings, and wishing you good luck with developing the blog in the coming weeks, months, years.

    here’s a technical question related to adding water and how it can "open up" a dram:
    why is that effect different to when the water is added by the bottler while bottling? is it because in that case the water has time to blend with the alcohol?

    • Jonathan Bray says:

      Good question – Water has the same effect regardless of if it is during the "cutting" process at the distillery or when added by the consumer after the dram has been poured. At 40%ABV there is very little room left to "open up" a dram. At this lower strength additional water could very well take away a lot of the character and flavor rather than enhance it. The biggest impact water has for the consumer is at higher ABV volumes i.e. 46% and up. This is why Cask Strength whisky is so great because its all there waiting for you to play with.

  3. kinkminos says:

    wow, you lucky buggers! no such luck with tasting before i buy 🙁
    thus, inspired by the numerous positive reviews i’ve read, i took the plunge and shelled out for a bottle of amrut fusion (the equiv of about US$ 77), which i plan to open up in the not too distant future…

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