On the Blog // Whisky & Water by Joe Ellis

August 21, 2018

Blog post

If you didn’t already know, the word “Whisky” comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha which was taken quite literally from the Latin phrase aqua-vitaewhich means “Water of Life”.

Water is such a crucial part of the whisky making process, from start to finish from the malting, right the way through to the bottling! I mention bottling, because Scotch whisky has to be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV which means (if your whisky has indeed been bottled at 40% exactly) 60% of your bottle of whisky is water. It’s this last part which makes some people not want to add water to their glass of whisky, but in my opinion people who refuse to ever add water to their whisky are really missing out on a whole host of new flavours and experiences.

I say this with authenticity and genuine experience, because for a good few years whilst reviewing whisky I flat out refused to add water, trying to experience whisky in its “purest” form. It is only in the last 3 years where I’ve now started adding water to my glasses of whisky, and the difference it has made is huge! I find that dropping the alcohol percentage slightly will stop my palate from becoming completely anaesthetised from the strength, especially with cask strength whiskies, which means my tasting notes are much better. I also start to pick up a whole host of difference flavours and aromas that I couldn’t detect before, obviously I can’t tell you exactly what kind of flavours, because it depends on the dram! This may sound obvious, but it also keeps me hydrated more and this is crucial, especially if you’re attending a whisky festival and you have many whiskies that you want to try throughout the day.

Now for the geeky part! There are a huge amount of chemical compounds that whisky contains that are influenced by a multitude of things, for example lactones come from the oak casks whisky is matured in; responsible for flavours such as coconut. Aldehydes also come from oak casks, but deliver flavours such as vanilla, whilst Furfural can contribute to an almondy grainy quality. Esters contribute banana, sweet apple and pear drop aromas. (Just to get extra geeky, Esters are the compounds that are removed when whiskies are chill-filtered because they cause cloudiness). There’s also the phenolic compounds which occur when barley is dried using peat fires. Within phenolic compounds we have Guaiacol and Eugenol which give us bitterness, smokiness and medicinal smells.

There was a recent scientific study carried out in Switzerland by a computational chemist and author Bjorn Karlsson and his colleague Ran Friedman to see what the effects of adding water to whisky were. Karlsson and Friedman focussed specifically on the guaiacol compound and they found during their computer simulations that when they diluted the whisky down to 45%ABV the guaiacol sat at the top of the liquid rather than in the middle which made it much more reactive with the air and therefore contributing a better aroma and flavour. However when they kept the whisky above 59%ABV the guaiacol sat in the bulk of the whisky and so the notes and aromas were hidden and harder to pick up. So next time you’re drinking a cask strength Laphroaig or a Bowmore Vaults Edition, remember that more water = more flavour!! (For more info on this study, click here https://www.livescience.com/60158-why-whiskey-tastes-good-diluted.html)

This is why Master Blenders, that’s right, the experts who actually make the whisky you drink will water their whisky down to 20%abv in their blending labs in order to pick out the more nuanced flavours and chemical compounds that the nose simply cannot detect at higher strengths. True masters of their craft like Gordon Motion, the Master Whisky Maker at Highland Park and Kirsteen Campbell the Master Blender for Famous Grouse and Naked Grouse will do the very same thing. So next time you are drinking your glass of Highland Park 12 Viking Honour or enjoying the delicious sherried nuances of Naked Grouse, do me a favour, honour the master blenders that have the incredibly hard job of making the whisky, and add a few drops of water.

Finally. My top tips for adding water to whisky:

  • Go for it. Don’t be put off by whisky drinkers that tell you not to.
  • Start by adding a few drops. I like to start with a quarter of a teaspoon or if the whisky is 40% I might add a couple of drops from a pipette
  • Start by trying the whisky neat, then half way through start adding water. So you can compare and contrast.

Have fun and let me know your thoughts!


Joe Ellis – Whisky Specialist