Monday, May 5, 2008

Explain about ... Adding Water Or Ice To Whisky

'Should i add water or ice to my whisky?' is a question that we get asked very often, particularly by those beginning their whisky journey. Adding water or ice can change whisky in both a positive and negative way. The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong answer, despite what you may have read or seen. Ultimately, what you add to your whisky is all down to personal taste.

In reality, most whisky already has some water added. Many people do not realise this. The process is called 'cutting' and is done before bottling. This is in order to bring the alcohol down from the high ABV strength that it may have been in the cask (often between 50-60% ABV) to a more acceptable and drinkable level for the majority of consumers, which is normally between 40-46% ABV. The water used is usually local spring water.

Often you will see or read people saying that you should never add water. We have heard some connoisseurs saying that you should not add any water because then you are tasting the whisky in its natural form with all of the original distillery characteristics and flavours. That is their own personal prerogative and choice.

However, it is worth noting that everyone that either produces whisky or creates the products that we drink - the distillers and Master Blenders - always add water when analysing the spirit off the still or whiskies to be used in a blend or single malt. This helps them to maximise the aromas and flavours to give a full analysis. They will often add different amounts too to see how the spirit or whisky performs.

By adding water to a whisky you can open up different, new and subtle flavours that you previously had not experienced. This is particularly true when drinking cask strength whiskies with higher alcohol levels (this can be up to and over 60% ABV in some cases). With cask strength whisky the alcohol and resulting burning in your mouth can overpower even the most prominent flavours.

By adding some water this dilutes the alcohol and reduces its influence, giving both the prominent and more subtle flavours a chance to shine. Imagine drinking orange squash concentrate without any water and then with water... it's essentially the same idea. How much water you add is entirely up to your taste - a few drops, a dribble, a dash ... it's your choice, and to your taste.

Water is water, right? Well no - the type of water you add to your whisky can also make a difference. Forstly, it should always be still water. Carbonated or sparkling water will effect the flavour and structure of the whisky when you add it. This is good for a nice refreshing highball-style cocktail, but not general drinking or analysing.

Tap water is treated with chemicals, especially chlorine and fluorine, and these can alter the flavour. Do you live in a hard or soft water area? Spring water is similar as it has permeated through rock over hundreds of years, picking up salts and minerals on its journey. It is best to find the most neutral water you can - this will dilute but not add any flavour to your whisky.

Adding ice is slightly different. Rather than enhancing aromas and flavours, as water can, it actually inhibits them as the ice makes the temperature of the whisky drop rapidly. This locks down the aroma and flavour compounds. It is similar to drinking a good white wine that has been chilled down too much. It will be refreshing to drink but taste a little dull and flat, and will only start to open up and reveal its full character once it starts to warm up.

The important thing about all of this is not to get too hung up on it. Experiment with different whiskies and different levels of water to find your perfect amount and combination. By doing this you will find your own way of drinking your whisky and keep it fun.

* Please note / this post has been updated from the original - July 2020.


Anonymous said...

I like your article on this very popular topic. I personally drink my scotch or whisky with two ice cubes. When whisky/scotch is drunk neat, i find there is an unpleasant burn that tends to overwhelm the whisky. the ice takes away the burn and while it may dull certain flavours, it enables me to enjoy other flavours without the awful burn.

Anonymous said...

I'm with the first anonymous on this.
I'm not a connoisseur but I love whisky (Scotch, Irish, American, I love 'em all), and I'm only recently starting to explore the extraordinarily rich and varied characters and diversities that exist in the distilling world.

However, no matter which whisky I'm drinking, I do like it with ice. Two cubes for a double in a bar, four at home - where the barman tends to be a little more generous.
The cooling ice indeed tempers the burn and enables the drink to slip down more easily. For me there is no dulling of flavour but the cool of the ice along with the heat of the whisky (or whiskey) adds an extra sensation and smoothness to an already very pleasurable drink.

btw I like this blog very much.

Anonymous said...

thank you to both of you for commenting on the article as your imput is vital. it helps me realise that i am explaining points clearly. i am sorry that it has taken so long to reply. i am glad that you enjoyed the article and hope that you continue to read the blog and contribute with comments. also, to anonymous2, thank you for you kind words about the overall blog, it is much appreciated. mc

Anonymous said...

There has been much discussion about ice in whisky but never about room temperature. When I drink red wine I am always aware of the temperature and in summer, or in very warm climes, I will put the bottle in the refrigerator for about a half hour to bring the wine down to the ideal room temperature of 16-18 degrees.

I always drink my Scotch neat but if the room temperature is high I prefer to put a small ice cube in my glass. Even before the cube melts completely I remove it leaving the whisky slightly cooler than before. When the room temperature is high, like 35-40 degrees Celsius, I find the heat from the alcohol exaggerated and the palate made somewhat flabby and tiring. A cooler Scotch will be more elegant and satisfying.

So-called "purists" are outraged by my behavior and they never cease to criticize me. I know there is no right and wrong about how to enjoy and appreciate Scotch but sometimes I would like to hear some talk about the role of temperature in Scotch drinking.


Anonymous said...

When I taste a whisky, if it is cask strength, I will smell it and taste it neat, then add a couple of drops of water and smell and taste again. Then I repeat one or two times.

Adding just a little bit of water can substantially change the character of your drink.

Thus something you don't like neat might taste more appealing after water is added.

RB said...

I was taught, by a very wise Scottish lady that you should add a drop or two...never more than five or six...of water as it opens it out releasing a warm flavour. I have found that she is right and it has the added advantage of giving me an extra sip to savour!Ice makes it too cold and by the time it has melted the whisky has drowned.

Anonymous said...

So with say Highland Park 18 (43% alcohol) what would be an acceptable amount of water, a couple of drops?

Matt C said...

Thanks for the question Anonymous. With HP18 I would firstly try it without any water as the majority find 43% ABV easy enough on the palate. Then add just a couple of drops and this will take the edge off the alcohol if its too much. Either of these should be good and show you the complexity of the whisky. More water will dilute it too much, I think. Try it out with different amounts to discover which is best for your palate.

Captain John said...

I've always had a sip of the whisky on its own before deciding on whether or not to add water, then add a few drops tasting again and if required repeat.

I feel the burn is part of the whole with whisky so ice kills this, you're freezing your tongue so you can lose a lot of subtle flavours, again though personal choice.

Ian said...

On a trip to Scotland, we ended up staying at th Inn at Yarrow, where Sir Walter Scott wrote and imbibed the local nectar. The numerous bottles behind the bar let me know I was in serious whisky territory. I recall a mdicine size bottle of the remains of an old whisky from a distillery that closed 40 years previously.

The bar staff and patrons took me under their wing and started to educate me in the ways of whisky. Add a drop or two of water to release the oils. You can physically see the change in the whisky and I maintain it opens up the layers between the flavours to make understanding them all a bit easier. It is exactly that for me, water makes it easier. The purists might see that as a cop out but I'm not a purist so I don't care. I'm an enthusiast who like to be able to enjoy his whisky.

GolfandWhisky said...

A fine guide mc.

My approach to this thorny subject varies with my mood, the whisky and - quite possible - the alignment of the planets.

Mostly it's between a few drops of water and neat but I have, on occasion, taken some ice with my whisky.

Some whiskies, in some conditions can (admittedly in my opinion) benefit from the drop in temperature that comes with an ice cube.

At the end of the day, you should enjoy your whisky. I'd suggest trying it every way; neat, with a little water and with ice. You decide what you prefer and take it from there.

Bottom line ... however you take it, enjoy it!

jack_faith said...

it matters greatly the whisky in question. Glenlivet takes ice pretty well. Keep on meaning to try a Macallan on the rocks. Irish Whiskey. I guess Bourbon would as well. Certainly worth trying but with most I think you would be diminishing the spice/heat element. As an earlier poster pointed out, be careful about leaving the ice in the drink. Best would be just stirring the ice in the whisky and then removing (like a martini).

Anonymous said...

@ Jack Faith -
Too much ice in the Macallan absolutely wrecks it. A splash of spring water is all you need to add, if anything at all. As others have recommended, remove the ice after cooling, if you want the right effect.

Ice in Laphoaig or Auchentoshan makes them more approachable to novices, but a splash of water is much better to open it up, if you wish.

In many tastings have followed the approach of tasting the whisky neat, then with a bit of water to compare.

BTW - this is a great blog!

flutterbyrose said...

I'm so glad I found this blog! Whisky was a special language I shared with my father, and though he is gone 11 years, our chats still continue over a glass of the good stuff.
I agree with what Mahmoud says - Living in Malaysia where the weather is very very hot, I find a little splash of cold water goes a long way.
And thanks so much for the frank, illuminating and unintimidating articles.

Anonymous said...

I never quite noticed any difference adding a single drop of water to 60% ABV cask strength whiskey but then again I'm not an expert taster. I do drink all 40-43% neat and enjoy it. Most well made whiskies shouldn't burn, although some 30 year olds are so smooth they don't feel like "whisky" if that makes sense. A small kick is a good thing! :-)

Anonymous said...

There are certain whiskys that should be drunk at room temperature as it gives the barley a more searing flavor. Certain Glendronach special relases come to mind. Now if it's hotter than room temp I don't know if that intensity becomes greater..? I could never drink red wine at anything but a few degrees above cellar temp as it mutes all the flavors and amplifies the alcohol when it's too warm.