Why You Should Always Add Water To Your "Neat" Whiskey
A lot of people have some very strong opinions about the proper way to drink fine whiskey. You're never supposed to have it with food. You've got to sip it nice and slow. It's best enjoyed while gazing broodily into a roaring fireplace. And you must always, always drink it neat. Well, a lot of people are wrong — especially about that last one. According to scientists (and whiskey connoisseurs the world over), a dram is best with a drop of water.
A Dropper Full of Water Makes the Whiskey Go Down
If you've ever felt that you can't drink whiskey because you can't drink whiskey neat, then we have good news for you: you shouldn't drink whiskey neat. It's just common knowledge among professional critics and tasters that adding a water drop or two (or even more) will open up the flavor and odor and lead to a much richer sensory experience. But scientists have long wondered if that's actually true, and if so, then why?
They've finally found an answer. After being encouraged to dilute their drinks by a friendly Scotsman, Linnaeus University Center for Biomaterials Chemistry researchers Bjorn Karlsonn and Ran Friedman created a computer model to describe the molecular goings-on of adding a bit of water to your whiskey. They found that the answer lied in the way that alcohol molecules interacted with certain flavor molecules, and how water interacted with them both.
You'll often hear scotches described as "smokey," and on a molecular level, that flavor is associated with the chemical guaiacol. The thing is that alcohol molecules bind easily with guaiacol, leaving them trapped in molecular bundles and unable to be fully appreciated. Just a small amount of water can break these bundles apart, which in turn causes them and the separated alcohol molecules to concentrate on the surface. The result is that the strongest odors gather where they're most easily experienced, and the surface alcohol evaporates more quickly to intensify the smell.
A World of Flavors
But not all whiskeys are smokey, especially as you get farther from Scotland. Still, it's quite likely that the phenomenon remains in effect. According to Karlsson, the molecules responsible for other common whiskey notes, such as vanilla, are very similar to guaiacol, and it's likely that those molecules would behave in a similar way. When it comes to figuring out how much water to add, however, that's got to be left up to the drinker — it's purely a matter of personal preference.
And really, your tastes should be a guiding light for the best way to drink whiskey in the first place. According to Dave Broom, the best way to drink whiskey is the way you like to drink it, and as columnist for "Whisky Advocate" and one of the world's leading experts on Japanese whiskey, he should know. In "Whisky: The Manual", he makes it clear that water isn't the only thing you can add to whiskey — even very fine whiskey.
"Drink your whisky long with water or soda, throw ginger ale at it, try it with green tea or coconut water, make a cocktail," he writes in the introduction. "Use its flavours to make compelling drinks that make you smile." In other words, if you're enjoying your drink, you're drinking it right (but his book is chockfull of suggestions for other ways to imbibe that you might not have considered).
Excited to get into whiskey but not sure where to start? Check out any of Dave Broom's books on the subject, from "Whisky: The Manual" to "The World Atlas of Whisky".
Want to learn more about the chemistry of alcohol? Listen to our conversation with Lost Spirits Distillery's Bryan Davis on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Gretta.