Water and whisky – adding a drop of water to a dram

Whisky is not called the water of life, or uisge beatha, for nothing. Distilleries are always built near a water source for unlimited supplies of pure spring water to reward the good stuff. But did you know that whisky is actually enhanced by adding a drop of H2O to your dram? We investigate the magic behind the marriage between water and whisky.

Whisky wise

First things first: let’s talk about whisk(e)y. The spelling whisky (plural: whiskies) is generally used in Scotland, Canada, Japan and Wales. Whiskey (plural: whiskeys) describes the liquor made in Ireland and the United States. Both kinds mature in the cask – not in the bottle, as wines do – to give them deeper and richer flavour, and that distinctive amber colour lent by the golden oak.

Single malt whisky is made using malted barley at a single distillery in Scotland, and is matured in oak casks for at least three years but often 12 or even 20. (You’ve probably heard of Talisker, Glenlivet and Laphroaig.)

We confess: the proportions are the wrong way round in this picture. Photo by Jonas Ahrentorp.

We confess: the proportions are the wrong way round in this picture. Photo by Jonas Ahrentorp.

Blended malts are a mixture of single malts from different distilleries using a mixture of malt and grain whiskies, plus flavouring and colouring. The blender will use whisky from many distilleries to produce a flavour consistent with the brand, such as that of Bells, Chivas Regal or Johnnie Walker.

Irish whiskey, on the other hand, is distilled from a yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains and aged for at least three years in wooden casks. Varieties of Irish whiskey include single pot still, single malt, single grain, and blended Irish whiskey. Jameson Irish Whiskey, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew are popular options.

Finally, bourbon is a type of American whiskey made from a grain mixture of at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred-oak barrels. See Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam or Maker’s Mark.

Drinking versus tasting

First, it should be made clear that when drinking whisk(e)y, you can technically do whatever you like. If you want to add soda or cola to your dram, that’s your prerogative. It’s when tasting whisky that you need to treat it right – by adding a drop of spring water. Drinking and tasting are two entirely different experiences.

Water and whisky – adding a drop of water to a dram.

Water and whisky – adding a drop of water to a dram.

Adding ice

Ice is merely a frozen chunk of H2O, so you can just add a block and enjoy the same effect, right? Wrong: while ice cools your drink down and creates a rich-sounding tinkling sound, it’s not the best treatment for your scotch.

Craig Kriel, whisky sommelier at Bascule Bar in Cape Town, which has over 500 whiskies from around the world on offer, advises, “When you taste whisky, you should stay away from ice and cold water.” He explains that the lower temperature liquid ‘shocks’ the whisky and causes it to ‘contract’, when what you really want is for it to open up and reveal its beautiful aromas.

Adding water

This is where pure spring water comes in. A splash of water like Valprè works to open up the whisky’s profile on the nose, all along the tongue and the palate. “When you add that little drop it takes the harshness off the back of the throat,” says Craig.

Diluting the alcohol’s strength ever so slightly makes the flavour notes softer and easier to detect. But this only works if your water is room temperature, not chilled. Also, begin with as little of a trickle as you’re comfortable with, says Craig. (Remember, your tot of whisky is only 25ml.) You can always add more water later on.

Tasting notes

During a formal whisky tasting, such as those hosted by Bascule Bar or Whisky Brother in Johannesburg, you can be guided by the sommelier in terms of what to look – or smell – out for. But it’s way more fun to let your imagination run wild. Close your eyes to discern flavours like biscuit, tobacco, leather, heather, honey, caramel, vanilla, wood, toast, grass, citrus, peat, fresh fruit, smoke, raisins, nuts, cinnamon, mint and herbs.

Happy sipping!

Brought to you by Valprè

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