Before I get ostracized by all of you whisky lovers who live and die by whisky served neat, let me say my piece.
In the past, I haven't been much of a whisky fan—I would shoot it back or add it to Coke or ginger ale, but I certainly wouldn't sip on it and enjoy it. In fact, the aftertaste directly following the shot would often make me gag.
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But when I moved to Los Angeles and became friends with an avid group of whisky drinkers, I realized that there must be something that drew them to whisky that I was missing. So, when I was invited to go to a Glenlivet tasting last year, I decided to accept the invitation and give it a try... and what I learned from that night opened both my taste buds and my heart.
Folks, whisky is delicious—rich, complex, and absolutely yummy. And all it took for me to realize the error of my ways... was a few drops of water in the glass.
Ah, yes, I should probably address this first (so put your pitchforks away for now, please).
The answer is quite simple, and it's all based on the geographic origin of the liquor in question:
- Whisky is from Scotland, Canada, or Japan.
- Whiskey is from Ireland or the United States.
The difference in spelling originates from the separate Scottish and Irish translations of the Gaelic word. And since the Scottish and Irish distillation processes are different, the spelling denotes the different processes as well. (For example, Japanese whiskies use the Scottish distillation process, hence the categorization of Japanese whisky as 'whisky.')
For my own selfish purposes, since I am an aficionado of Scotch, I will continue to use the spelling of "whisky" throughout the duration of this article. Anyhow, I digress. Grab your pitchforks, let's talk about water!
It may sound like blasphemy, but adding water to a glass of whisky has been proven to change the look, smell, and taste of whisky—and for the better.
Aroma molecules, more similar in composition to alcohol molecules, tend to bind together; like attracts like. But with a few drops of water, the aroma molecules are dislodged from the alcohol and are freed into the air... and the scent, once locked in the liquor, is now discernible to your nose.
This is extremely important to enhancing the flavor of your whisky, because smell is an integral part of detecting flavor—in fact, the sensation of flavor is a combination of taste and smell. Therefore, it stands to conclude that anything that increases your sensory perception of one thing will lead to a similar increase in the other sense.
And speaking of taste, the drops of water affect what is detected on the tongue, too: the Thinking Drinkers also state that water makes the tongue more receptive to fruity and salty flavors, not just the usual sweet and spicy flavors of strong liquor. This further increases the complexity of what is detected upon first taste of the whisky.
So, to summarize: adding water not only increases the aroma of the whisky, it also increases our receptivity to more complex flavors that would otherwise be hard to detect amongst the strength of the liquor.
Cook's Illustrated ran a taste test that gave tasters increasing 1 tsp. increments of water per 1½-oz. sample of 80-proof whisky. Tasters were already able to discern more complex flavors and aromas after just 1 tsp., but most preferred the addition of 2 tsp. of water (which diluted the whisky to 65-proof, but also allowed them to appreciate the sweeter, fruity flavors in the liquor).
When I attended the tasting, we were given eyedroppers filled with water and encouraged to try the whisky after about 5 drops of water (and a good swirl to mix). I've found that this small amount makes a world of difference, and further dilution is unnecessary for me. However, everyone's tastes are different—some may prefer more, and others, less. Just so long as you're not reversing the ratio of water to whisky, of course...
It should go without saying, but if you're drinking whisky on the rocks (with ice), don't add extra water—you'll only further dilute the liquor. I would only recommend adding ice if you either use large ice cubes (to cut down on the amount of dilution) or the whisky you're drinking is a little cheaper; ice in whisky does a good job of taking the edge off the liquor burn that is commonly associated with cheaper kinds.
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(However... if you have whisky stones, you can still enjoy your high-grade whisky cold, if that's your preference.)
In the end, everyone has their taste preferences; even after this article, you may still think I'm a whisky heathen for even suggesting a drop of dilution in your liquid gold glass. But if I've opened your mind even a little bit to the idea of adding a few drops of water to your glass the next time you indulge, then my work here is done.