What happens when you add water to whisky?

Scottish whisky regions

A question that has put whisky drinkers at odds for many generations, does adding water to your whisky ruin its taste, or does it elevate it? Does it help release the flavours of the whisky much better, or does it spit in the face of the many great whisky makers of the past by diluting the drink?

Well, the jury is still out on what is the right answer although there is a fair chance you might have been chastised by a chagrined older whisky lover for ‘diluting your drink’ at least once in your lifetime. Or perhaps you have had the fortune, or misfortune of being lectured about the benefits of adding water to your whisky from an overzealous new-age whisky facts dispenser?

Let’s cut right to the chase and ask the fundamentally divisive question that has always brought the whisky community to blows – “Adding water to your whisky: Is it really a good idea or a horrendous punishable offence?”

A lot of people tend to think that there exists a blanket answer to this question that covers every possible type of whisky on the planet whether it’s Scotch whisky, Bourbon or Irish whiskey; a standard bottling or a cask-strength whisky, but the truth is, the answer is far more complicated.

And while drinking a whisky neat might, or may not have its effect on your social stature at the party, if you are a whisky and water lover in a dilemma, or an open-minded whisky lover simply in the search for more knowledge, let us find if water truly should be the demonized entity of the world of whisky, or shall it be considered an ally?

Now figuring this one out depends on what kind of whisky you prefer to drink.

Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, American Bourbon, Japanese Whisky, Canadian whisky, Australian whisky and Indian whisky, no matter what your preference, they are all bottled at an alcohol strength between 40% ABV to 45% ABV.

When whisky is distilled, the stills produce a spirit that is much higher, often twice the limit of the bottled whisky. How do the whisky makers, irrespective of the region, bring down the alcohol strength of the distilled spirit before bottling?

Water

Yes, your whisky or whiskey already contains water, and therefore you would be ill-advised to add even more of it, effectively robbing the drink of its individual characteristics that the whisky makers worked so hard to impart. All the effort involved in malting the barley, distilling the spirit through custom-made stills, carefully crafting a barrel that enriches the spirit with a unique blend of flavours and aromas are all washed away when you flood your whisky glass with water all too generously.

Water: A complete no-no?

Well, there’s the tricky part. Water, when used right, and of course, in the right amount, can help bring out the best of your favourite whisky, whether it’s from Scotland, Ireland, America, Japan, India and you know where we are going with this.

A few drops of water help unlock an array of exciting flavours and aromas that tend to get suppressed over the more ‘alcoholic’ taste and aromas when drinking. Water helps ethanol and guaiacol rise to the surface, allowing the drinker to enjoy the flavours and characteristics that make every whisky expression unique.

Never-With-Water Whiskies

There are some whiskies that work wonderfully when only a few drops of water are added to it. There is no dearth of whisky brands from around the world that produce some breath-taking drinks whether it’s Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, American Bourbon or others.

If your drink of choice is Scotch whiskies such as The Glenlivet, Aberlour, Chivas Regal, or Ballantine’s, it would be advisable to restrain the addition of water to your drink only to a few drops. Anything more, and you would compromise the delightful flavour notes and aroma of these Scotch whiskies.

Among Irish whiskey brands, the divine Jameson is the most wildly popular Irish whiskey and for good reason. Other robust Irish whiskey brands such as Bushmills, Powers and Redbreast are perfect examples of whiskeys that do not require any more than a few drops of water to make the most of them.

American Bourbon whiskies such as Jim Beam White Label, and the Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey are brands that go either ways. They are adaptable both with and without mixers, and have historically been consumed by adding water, cola, and ginger ale.

Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve are excellent bourbon whiskeys that can be best enjoyed with only a few drops of water, and won’t need you to blunt down their bite.

Nikka from the Barrel, Yamazaki 12 Year Old, Crown Royal and more are some wonderful whiskies from Japan and Canada respectively that work great with only a few drops of water.

What about Cask-Strength whiskies?

The Glenlivet Nadurra series, Aberlour A’bunadh Small Batch, Bruichladdich and many more are known to produce cask-strength Scotch whiskies with an alcohol percentage much higher than standard bottlings.

Bulleit Barrel Strength bourbon, Old Granddad 114 Barrel Proof, and Stagg Jr. Barrel Proof are excellent cask strength bourbon whiskies with a significantly higher alcohol percentage. For cask strength whisky lovers who prefer a much stronger drink, adding a splash of water, or a couple of them won’t compromise the integrity of the whisky, keeping its potency intact whilst revealing complex flavours and aromas at the same time.

Indian whiskies: Water or No water?

The Indian whisky industry requires a much closer inspection since whisky brands in India are often blends of imported Scotch malts, and neutral grain spirits, whereas some terrific single malt brands too have surfaced in the past few years.

Blenders Pride Reserve Collection, Antiquity Blue, and Royal Stag Barrel Select are excellent examples of blended Indian whisky with a higher presence of Scotch malts. These whisky expressions are smoother, more flavourful and can be enjoyed with a dash of water to release the flavours and aromas.

On the other hand, the more economical whiskies such as Royal Challenge, 8PM, Bagpiper and Signature are better enjoyed with a more generous amount of water, or mixers such as soft drinks, and ginger ale.

In the end, it’s all about you

A whisky lover understands the value of treating it with the utmost respect, and honouring it by not rendering irrelevant the years of hard work and meticulous craft that went into making it.

Although when it comes to the right way, all there are, are suggestions and recommendations, but what is paramount, is that you enjoy every drop of this fascinating liquid redemption.

Cheers!