People put all kinds of things with whisky. From Coke (we shudder) to simple syrup and bitters (we approve), they all do something to whisky’s flavour. But what about water? Why do we add water to whisky? Doesn’t it just water it down?
The word ‘whisky’ comes from the Scots Gaelic phrase uisge beatha - water of life. Poetic, pertinent and - let’s face it - accurate. But whisky has an interesting relationship with water.
After all, the majority of whisky is in fact H2O.
But ask any whisky aficionado and they’ll agree that adding a few drops to your dram is a good idea… after they’ve finished gruffly telling you if a whisky’s good enough, you shouldn’t have to add anything at all!
Putting just a few drops of chilled water in your whisky does all kinds of interesting things.
First, it ‘opens’ the whisky. This means more delicate flavours and aromas that might be hiding under stronger ones will develop and elevate.
Whisky lovers talk about water interacting with the oils of the whisky as well. These rich, compounds in the spirit are gatekeepers to a lot of flavour and texture of the whisky. Water releases these, helping with mouthfeel and length of flavour.
Water will also take off the harsh alcohol edge you find in some spirits and smooth out your dram.
The water will also cool the whisky slightly, improving the freshness of the spirit and helping with texture.
On top of all that, sometimes the whisky can be just too intense.
A food industry friend of mine recently compared adding a little water in whisky to drinking cordial. You don’t drink cordial straight. Water brings out the true flavours of the drink rather than watering them down.
Why not add ice?
Some people prefer adding ice to their whisky. This is ok, but there are a couple of issues. First, it’s much harder to regulate how much water you’re adding to your whisky.
A little water will do all the things we’ve mentioned, but too much will reduce flavours, textures and aromas.
Ice can also chill the whisky too much, which closes the flavours down and reduces intensity. It’s the same with wine. If you drink wine too cold, it will just taste like fridge.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, water goes stale quite quickly, even when it’s frozen. You could be adding all kinds of off flavours to your whisky when you drop a cube in.
Doesn’t adding water just weaken the whisky?
Of course, if you’re adding anything but spirit that’s the same strength as the whisky to your drink, the ABV will go down, but the couple of drops of water you add won’t make much difference. If you’re that worried about it, simply buy stronger whisky!
But even if the water does make your whisky weaker (which isn’t the point of drinking whisky by the way), the way it improves the drink is easily worth it.
If you’re not sure, taste a little neat then add a drop or two of water and see which you prefer. Sometimes it will make no difference, but it’s still interesting to try.
And whisky is not the only spirit you can do this with.
Good quality rum and navy strength gin also respond very well to a touch of water, allowing you to taste the very essence of the spirit and showing you exactly what your distiller had in mind with their creation.
Whisky pictured is the wonderful Timboon Railway Shed Distillery's Port Expression Single Malt from South Australia.