Sean Murphy: Why you shouldn't always add water to whisky - despite what science says

Whisky is a personal journey catered for your unique palate, so drink it how you want and not how people tell you to, writes Sean Murphy

Published 30th Aug 2017
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

You'll no doubt have seen the articles by now (hopefully our's), the ones with headlines such as "Scientists reveal why whisky tastes better with water", "Why whisky really DOES taste better with a drop of water - according to science" and my personal favourite: "Popular Hack Used by Whisky Snobs Actually Works, Says Science".

The original article pointed out that a scientific study by two Swedish scientists found that by adding water and diluting whisky, a compound known as 'guaiacol' floats to the top providing an extra burst of the smokey flavour inherent in the uisge beatha.

Here comes the science bit - Dilution of cask strength whisky drives taste contributing compounds such as guaiacol to its surface. Picture: SWNS

Now, I'm not even going to remotely argue with the scientists here, their results, or even, their methods.

Though it is important to remember this was a single study, conducted via computer modelling, that didn't involve people actually tasting the whisky.

In fact, I won't even argue with the perceived wisdom of the aforementioned "whisky snobs", I do believe that in a lot of cases a few drops of water can add to the experience and taste of a whisky - which of course is always a good thing.

But, I would very much like to point out that whisky is an intensely personal experience and what works for one person might not work for another.

Much like food, how it is served, how it looks, where it comes from, the situation you are in - all of these things affect how much you will enjoy said dram.

Only you will be drinking the whisky, no one else can drink it for you, so why should it matter what your friend says tastes best, or how the regular at your favourite bar tells you should drink it, or for that matter, what two scientists in Sweden say?

What does matter is finding out how you like it.

I'll use an analogy I used to use in the bar - when I worked in the Potstill in Glasgow - when discussing with beginners, and intermediates alike, the individual merits of ice, water and drinking whisky neat.

Mulled wine recipe: how to make the spiced Christmas drink, best wine and glasses to use - and history explained

When asked how someone should drink their whisky, I'd always begin by responding with something along the lines of:

"However you like to drink it."

Then, I'd usually crack a joke about how I'd have to toss them out if they drank it with Coke\Irn-Bru\Lemonade\Red Bull [delete where applicable].

From there I'd usually explain that educating themselves about what each additive does to a whisky by trying it with and without ice, with and without a few drops water, would help them to work out which they prefer.

I'd then ask them to imagine a cold day in winter, when it's snowing outside, and them stepping out onto their front porch. Then I'd ask them what they can smell.

Isle of Tiree Distillery to release first single malt whisky

Normally, the answer is "nothing".

Then I explain that this is what you are doing to whisky when you add ice, dampening down the flavours, and if this is the desired effect, then that's the way to enjoy it.

From there I ask them to imagine being back on their porch, only this time it's summer, and perhaps there's the neighbour across the street is cutting the grass or there's flowers growing nearby.

What now can they smell?

To which they normally reply "a heck of a lot more".

Black Friday deals: 12 whiskies under £100 to buy this November - including Lagavulin and Aberlour

Finally, I finish by throwing in some imaginary rain, just a very light shower on this very warm day.

Suddenly, they can smell the tarmac, they can smell the dusty ground, practically everything.

Then I explain that this applies to whisky as well, room temperature is usually best (not chilled) and a little water - in the right circumstances - can make a big difference.

But most of all I point out that this is all personal taste and most importantly it's about how they enjoy drinking it.

For example, a while back I watched a documentary about salt. In it, a well-known TV presenter was informed that adding salt to terrible coffee can actually make it taste better.

In it, a well-known TV presenter was informed that adding salt to terrible coffee can actually make it taste better.

Of course, they tested the hypothesis a few times and each time, said presenter was amazed at the results, now as someone who works in an office, and by extension has drunk a lot of terrible coffee (mostly of my own making), this science seemed revolutionary.

Sadly, I couldn't achieve the same results, as when I added salt I quickly realised that it, in fact, made the coffee sweeter - a result of the salt subduing the bitter flavours.

Adding a little salt can make coffee taste less bitter- but what if you prefer bitter coffee? Picture: Pixabay

A desired effect for many, but not for me (the more the bitter the coffee the better).

Now, not only did I have poor coffee, I had poor, sickly sweet coffee.

This was the first thing I thought of when I saw the Swedish report.

There was nothing wrong with the science, but it should be used as a guideline not a replacement rule for anyone drinking whisky.

As whisky consultant - and far wiser man than me - Vic Cameron said in an interview with BBC when the original story about the scientific report broke:

"They've overscienced it."

In other words, don't overthink just enjoy.

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
Copyright ©2023 National World Publishing Ltd
Cookie SettingsTerms and ConditionsPrivacy Policy
crosschevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram