Sipping Whisk(e)y: What’s Water Got to Do with It?

My goal today is not to nanny you into drinking your whisk(e)y any particular way. But, I am going to attempt to provide you with a bit of wisdom about adding water or ice, or both, to your favorite brown spirit. At the end of the day, you should consume your whisk(e)y any darn way you please. Even if that way includes, gasp, mixing it with some soft drink like Coke or ginger ale.

I am no scientist nor chemist. I didn’t even sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I do, however, consume more than my fair share of bourbon. (If it wasn’t 10 o’clock in the morning as I write this, I’d even have a sip of something from my stash now for inspiration, as well as improving my general disposition.) Over the years I have evolved from a “Jack and Ginger” drinker to a sipper of bourbons “neat.” That is, unmolested by additives like ice, water or soft drinks. Neat is how I order it when out. I do often add a drop or three of water, but I maintain control of the water.

Actually, chemistry comes into play when adding anything to your whiskey. In 2018, a couple of Swedish chemists from Linnaeus University took a swing at pinpointing the chemical changes occurring in whiskey when introduced to water. It’s a mind-numbing paper with plenty of formulas and graphs illustrating the effects of water on your preferred brown spirit. But, if you can be satisfied to simply know if water affects whiskey, I can save you from going cross-eyed reviewing their findings. Yes, it changes the nose and flavor. If you need to know why, search “Karlsson and Friedman, water and whiskey” on your Web browser. And, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Because my brown spirit of choice is bourbon, I’ll concentrate on that, but water has similar effects on any brown spirit.

Water is already a major ingredient of bourbon. Study the label of any bourbon and you will find a statement of proof. Bourbon must be at least 80 proof, which is 40 percent alcohol by volume. It can’t go into the barrel at more than 125 proof (62.5 percent ABV). If a spirit is 40 percent alcohol, that means it’s 60 percent water. The higher the proof, the higher the ABV and the lower the water content. It’s math or chemistry, or math and chemistry.

Nature overcomes the math because as the bourbon ages in the barrel, some evaporation occurs. The evaporated water molecules are small enough to evaporate through the wood and out into the atmosphere. The more complex alcohol molecules are too large to evaporate through the wood. That’s why you may find a Barrel Proof bourbon that went into the barrel at 125 proof, but came out at a higher proof.

As you add water (or any other liquid, for that matter) to a pour of bourbon, you are actually reducing the proof. It’s making a chemical change to the drink. Most of the sugars, esters, phenols and other chemicals produced during the aging process attach themselves to the water molecules and not the alcohol molecules. Introducing more water stirs things up a bit, as the chemicals do some realigning with the new water molecules. All of which alters the way the bourbon smells and tastes.

The good news is, using water, you can bring down the proof of a bourbon that is bigger (higher alcohol content) than you like. My advice is to do so grudgingly. I carry an eyedropper full of water with me when I know I’ll be sipping some bourbon at a bar or restaurant. That way, I can add water drop by drop until I get it the way I like.

Adding ice isn’t the same as adding water. Yes, I know: Ice melts into water, but there’s no way of controlling the flow of water into your spirit once the ice begins melting. Regular bar ice is notoriously warm. Typically, it’s already melting before it enters your glass. Because of the moderate temperature of bar ice, the chunks or cubes melt rather quickly, which can lead to your drink having a higher water volume than you prefer.

Those big squares or balls of ice served by many upscale bars melt at a slower pace than crushed or cubed ice. A one-pound beef steak takes longer to spoil than one pound of hamburger because ground meat has more surfaces than a slab of meat. In a similar fashion, crushed ice melts more quickly than cubes, and cubes melt more quickly than a big square of ice.

We’ve already established that introducing water to a pour of whiskey lowers the proof. Melting ice does the same thing. However, ice also cools the spirit. Every additional degree of chill ice creates further masks the whiskey’s flavor. There are experts out there claiming up to 80 percent of a whiskey’s flavors can be lost by over chilling it. I’m not sure that’s the case, but chilling your brown spirit does muddle the flavor profile.

The correct way to sip a brown spirit is whichever way tastes best to you. For me, it’s neat with a drop or two of water, but getting to that point required about 20 years of committed bourbon drinking.

Russ is a long-time bourbon and craft-beer drinker who also produces the BEER2WHISKEY channel on YouTube.

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