Water can make or break a whisky. Using the right water in the right quantity can make a good whisky great, but use too much water, or the wrong kind of water, and the result can be a disaster.
A key function of water is that it allows you to explore the flavours in a whisky by reducing its alcohol level. This is particularly pertinent to the Society’s single cask, single malts which are bottled at full cask strength, without the processes of dilution or chill-filtration.
“Water can be the key to unlocking a great whisky,” says Richard. “It can greatly enhance your enjoyment and expose some of the inner treasures in the whisky that are not revealed at higher strength.
What happens to the whisky?
When you add water to a Society whisky, the two do not completely mix. “You can see that by the oily swirl you get when you pour the water in,” says Richard. “What happens is that the ethanol forms structures that can shelter hydrophobic molecules from the water molecules and allow them to stay in solution. It is this refusal of alcohol to fully mix with water that allows whisky to maintain its complexity.”
How much water to add?
“Adding water reduces the capacity of the ethanol to hold the hydrophobic molecules and these are released from solution,” says Richard. As each Society cask is different, there is not a hard and fast rule about water. It depends entirely on how much you want to investigate. For example, peated whisky may not tolerate much water addition as the phenolic compounds become more soluble as water is added and will reduce the nose.”
Too much water can be too much of a good thing, according to Richard. “When you get to 50-50 whisky and water, I think that is going too far. At that level, you are really saturating the whisky, you are splitting it up too much and you won’t get the enjoyment. I like to get the bite and tang of the whisky, so for me, drinking standard 40% ABV whiskies, the perfect strength is about 35 per cent alcohol, which would mean perhaps one quarter water to three quarters whisky.”
An age-old question
Not every whisky will reward the addition of water. “I like to add water to whiskies up to about 16 or 17-years-old. But, beyond that, I tend to drink them straight. Whiskies of a much older age should be drunk in their natural condition of about 45 or 46 per cent alcohol. They tend to collapse if you add water.”
Beware the bubbles
A soda siphon used to be the norm in every bar, but Richard is emphatic: adding sparkling water to whisky will destroy its taste. “Sparkling water, particularly when it is blasted in with a siphon, splits the whisky up and completely strips the flavours out of it.”
Hard or soft
The hardness or softness of the water is also very important. “Soft, chalky water is best – it actually tends to bring out vegetable notes, almost musty. In many parts of Scotland, the tap water is pretty good and can be used in whisky with confidence. But, if you are in a place with hard water, you should always take bottled water with your whisky.”
The same care should be taken with choosing the ice to put in your whisky. “A lot of people think ice is ice, but it depends what the water is like, and also how long it has been in the freezer. Old ice can take on odours from the freezer, so always use fresh ice. You also need to be careful if you are using crushed or broken ice, as that can ‘bash’ the flavours out of a whisky.”