Some lucky scientists recently sat around contemplating whiskey and all its delicious attributes in the name of research.
They’ve determined whiskey tastes better, more full and smooth, with a bit of water.
All credit goes to Björn Karlsson and Ran Friedman at Sweden’s Linnaeus University, who relied on computer simulations to test their theory—and that of many others—that whiskey tastes better when it’s combined with just a touch of water.
According to the Swedes, the dilution of whiskey in water opens up some of its more aromatic qualities.
“The taste of whiskey comes from amphipathic molecules that have hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts,” according to one summary of the research. That’s a fancy way of saying some of whiskey’s characteristics are drawn to water while others are repelled by it. “One key molecule is guaiacol, which is produced by the grain for malt whiskey drying over peat smoke to produce the spirit’s distinct, smoky flavor.”
It’s guaiacol that sits closest to the top of the glass. It gets along really well with ethanol, especially at concentrations of 45% ethanol in liquid.
“Interestingly, a continued dilution down to 27% resulted in an increase of guaiacol at the liquid-air interface. An increased percentage, over 59%, had the opposite effect, that is to say, the ethanol interacted more strongly with the guaiacol, driving the molecule into the solution away from the surface.”
Here’s the full study if you’d like to read it.
But, in the name of science and in the spirit of teamwork, I set out to test this research myself. Someone had to do a taste test.
Whiskey has been my alcohol of choice since I was 21 or so (fully legal in the US, three years over the legal barrier in Canada).
I’m not drinking anything fancy tonight—in fact, true whisky aficionados would generally thumb their fancy noses at the stuff I usually buy. To protect my credibility, I’m not naming names. (Send me fancy stuff and I’ll happily run the test again; just saying!)
First, the straight whiskey on its own. Sharp, distinct and unmistakable for what it is. There’s a reason people might be more likely to take shots after they’ve had a few glasses of anything. It’s instantly warming as it hits my palate, a little sting, not unpleasant.
Second, whiskey that’s been sitting in a glass with a single square ice cube, chilled but not watered down. The immediate scent is a little duller, not as sharp, still tasty. The first sip is muted, not as harsh, less like something that would make a person unaccustomed to drinking straight whiskey wince.
Third, the whiskey and water. It’s been sitting in this combined state for a few minutes now, all nice and blended together. The taste is mellower but also easier to distinguish, softer but maybe a little more flavorful.
Hang on, let me try that again.
The sharp edge is completely gone. That can’t be said of the whiskey chilled with an ice cube. Maybe there’s magic in that room-temperature water.
It’s the same spirit in all three glasses, but the flavors are definitely a little different from one to another.
Back to the real scientists
Our Swedish friends ran both bottled and cask-drawn whiskey for their computer-simulated tests. Bottled whiskey has an alcohol content of about 40% after distillation, whereas whiskey straight from the cask measures about 50-65%.
The addition of water brings the smoky flavor imparted by the guaiacol up front and center when a person takes a sip of the sweet, delightful brown liquid. And since so much of our sense of taste is wrapped up in our sense of smell, adding water to whiskey makes it more aromatic, blunts its sometimes harsher edges and makes it a more pleasant beverage, especially for sipping on a warm night at the end of a long day.