Should I add water to whisky?
We were at a bar in Shoreditch, the lights were low and the pillars of exposed brick cast shadows that crossed on the floor. The air was electrified by a man in a fiery ginger beard playing staccato on his Gibson. A lad in a flannel suit in front of us at the bar ordered ‘a medium dry martini, lemon peel. Shaken, not stirred.’ Seriously, we couldn’t make that up. What a git.
James was ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it, but we sometimes feel that way when we order ‘a small jug of water’ to go with our whisky. The bar in Shoreditch served us Hibiki in a tumbler and gave us a Glencairn glass full of water while a barman who had L-O-V-E tattooed across his knuckles dutifully stirred the vesper martini.
Adding water to your whisky is a hotly debated hot topic. There is no doubt that adding water or ice changes a whisky. But to start with, whisky with an alcohol level between 40% and 46% ABV has already has water added anyway. It’s called called 'cutting' and it’s done before bottling to make it more palatable. The water used in cutting is typically local to the distillery and is using the same spring water they used to make the whisky in the first place.
We think the question of whether to add water to whisky or not is a bit like online dating, something James Bond might not have much experience with; but we certainly do.
What happens when you don’t add water?
Not adding water to your whisky is the online date equivalent of meeting up for the first time and the girl telling you all the details of her mother’s hysterectomy or that her dog’s favourite Doctor Who actor is Peter Capaldi. It’s nice to get an unadulterated view of someone’s life but it can be a bit too much to handle.
Many whisky drinkers say not to water to your whisky because you should taste it in its natural form, with all of the original distillery characteristics and flavours from the cask. The only problem is that it can be a bit overpowering.
How about adding ice?
When you add ice, the whisky’s temperature drops rapidly, which calms the alcohol burn but makes the taste duller and flatter. It’s the same thing that happens when you chill a good wine too much, the molecules move closer together and it’s harder to pick up the flavour profile. The taste only comes back to reveal it’s characteristics once the whisky warms up to room temperature again. Adding ice, rather than enhancing flavours, inhibits them but makes the whisky easier to drink.
What happens when you add water?
You know that magic moment where you both say your favourite TV show when you were growing up was Buffy the Vampire Slayer? The conversation grows organically when you talk about how tragic it was that Firefly was cancelled after only 11 episodes. The intensity builds when she tells the anecdote about when the studio begged Joss Whedon to start making them again and he said he’d only do it if they let him make a film. And then she says she’s never seen Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog and she insists you take her back to your flat so you can watch it that very night .
Adding a few drops of water to the whisky opens up different, new and subtle flavours that you hadn’t previously. With cask strength whisky, in particular, the alcohol and resulting burning in your mouth can overpower even the most prominent flavours. Just a few drops of water dilutes the alcohol, reduces its effect and gives the flavours a chance to rise.
Add your water a little at a time so you can control the flavour. You can always add more water to your dram, but there’s no CTRL-Z so you can’t add less.
Have you ever had a fruit cordial without any water? Of course not it would be madness not to add water to concentrated juice and it’s essentially the same with whisky. If you drink without water, you’ll look like a cretinous fool who’s trying to impress people with how hard he is. And that’s not far off going into a bar in Shoreditch and thinking you’re James Bond.