Article by Carla Carlton; Photograph by Victor Sizemore
Some so-called purists insist that you should never add a splash of water to your whiskey, claiming all that does is dilute the spirit. Not so! Adding water can actually change the flavor in your glass, and in some cases, enhance it.
I discovered this while helping a local liquor store make its single-barrel bourbon picks. When you do a barrel selection, the distillery typically draws the whiskey directly from several barrels. You taste it at cask strength and make your choice. But in most cases, the distillery will add water to the contents of your chosen barrel before bottling it (a process called gauging) in order to bring the whiskey down to the brand’s usual proof. For example, you might taste Eagle Rare at 114 proof, but unless you’re buying it at barrel strength, the bourbon you’ll receive will be 90 proof.
To get a sense of how that would affect our selection, we added water to our samples. The difference that just a few drops made could be remarkable. In at least two cases, it was enough to change our minds about the barrel we’d chosen.
There is some science to back up our experience. In a report published in Nature, two Swedish chemists discovered that adding water to high-proof whiskey (118 proof and higher) brought a primary flavor element of the spirit called guaiacol to the surface, where its smoky characteristic could more easily be tasted.
Like many bourbon drinkers, I tend to pick up more of bourbon’s fruit notes when I add water. But water can also alter the spiciness of bourbon (and not always by muting it) and change the finish.
I like to conduct an experiment in which I taste several whiskeys neat, then add water and taste, and then add an ice cube and taste again. You can try this at home, too. You don’t have to use distilled water, limestone-filtered water, or even bottled water, although you certainly may. Tap water is just fine, unless your tap water has a high mineral content that would add unwanted flavor.
To add the water, you can use a water-dropper, an eye-
dropper, the cap of a water bottle, or even dip your finger into a glass of water and drip a few drops into the glass.
Here are the whiskeys I sampled in a recent experiment and my tasting notes:
Bernheim Wheat Whiskey (90 proof)
Neat: Grain-forward, mild, sweet
Add water: Spicier, much longer finish
Add ice: Sweetness disappears, replaced by earthy notes of sage and oregano.
Four Roses Single Barrel (100 proof)
Neat: Lots of fruit, floral, and herbal notes
Add water: Tamps everything down except for wintergreen and mint
Add ice: The nose “blooms,” becoming much more floral (in fact, this was the first time I’d ever picked up roses while nosing Four Roses); mint remains on the finish but much sweeter.
Johnny Drum (101 proof)
Neat: Mint, fruit, banana
Add water: Sweetness in front; spices along edges of tongue
Add ice: much sweeter, like a banana milkshake with nutmeg
Baker’s (107 proof)
Neat: Cinnamon, char, savory, sweet
Add water: Spice kicks into high gear, like putting gas on a fire.
Add ice: Totally flattens everything—I’ll never drink this any way but neat.
Each time I’ve done this exercise with other whiskey drinkers, at least one person has remarked, “I didn’t think I liked bourbon with water, but this has changed my mind,” while another has said, “I didn’t think I could drink bourbon without putting ice in it, but this one was actually better neat!”
I encourage you to get your hands wet and do your own experimentation. Prepare to amaze your friends—and your palate.