How Much Water to Put in Whiskey (And Why Add It at All?)

Different strokes for different folks. Some drink their whiskey straight or neat—others like it with a dash of water.

There really is no right or wrong way to drink whiskey. But for purists, drinking it unadulterated makes the most sense. After all, centuries have been devoted to whiskey production since the Scots first distilled it in the 1400s. For many experienced drinkers, adding water negates the years that master distillers spent perfecting their craft.

How whiskey is made

Any way you look at it, distilling whiskey is an art. The final product results from carefully selected ingredients, including corn, wheat, and barley. Master distillers employ their hard-earned skills to formulate the ideal mix for these ingredients. Afterward, they subject the concoction to the following stages, each of which is crucial to the result:

  • Cooking
  • Fermentation
  • Distillation
  • Aging
  • Bottling

Given the care and precision that goes into producing every bottle, it’s understandable why many prefer to drink whiskey neat. For the most dedicated drinkers, this is the best way to appreciate the spirit’s complex blend of flavors and nuances. Many even insist on drinking it at room temperature to get the full flavor experience as the master distiller intended.

Of course, there’s a bit of allure involved in drinking whiskey straight. Throwing back cask-strength shots is an iconic image chronicled in cinema, music, and literature since time immemorial. It gives off the impression of authenticity and a devil-may-care attitude that is just downright cool.

But if you need another reason to drink your whiskey neat, its supposed health benefits might be enough to convince you to give it a try. Research suggests that moderate quantities of pure whiskey could improve circulatory system function and prevent the formation of blood clots that could cause debilitating strokes. Plus whiskey has fewer calories than beer.

Why some people add water to their whiskey

Believe it or not, there are compelling reasons to add water to whiskey as well. Of course, drinking it neat is almost universally regarded as the best way to get the spirit’s full sensory experience. But a dash of water could unlock some subtle flavor tones that you wouldn’t get otherwise.

The argument for adding water is based on a consideration of two aspects: the palate and the nose. Proponents of adding water to whiskey believe that doing so vastly improves the taste and unlocks more complex aromatic tones.

What does adding water do to whiskey?

Scientists from Linnaeus University in Sweden sought to determine why whiskey reacts to water the way it does. After a series of experiments, chemists Bjorn Karlson and Ran Friedman came up with some theories on why mixing water could improve the taste of whiskey.

One of their most significant discoveries involved whiskey’s ethanol content. Karlson and Friedman found that ethanol clusters trap the aromatic compounds of the spirit. Adding water disrupts the ethanol, releasing the compounds and allowing the concealed flavors to bloom.

Aromatic compounds are present in most food or drink. They are essential components of the flavor palette, allowing us to pick up characteristics other than sweet, salty, sour, or savory.

Karlson and Friedman also discovered that adding water results in the formation of new compounds called micelles. These result from the reaction of the fatty acid esters in whiskey to the added water. As these new compounds form, they may trap the distilled spirit’s less desirable tastes and smells.

How much water should you add to whiskey?

So how much water should you add to whiskey? Again, there isn’t any hard and fast rule for doing so. Some experts suggest taking the first few sips straight to get the full flavor character as the distiller intended. You could then add a few drops of water at a time to unlock the hidden flavors of the spirit.

Many longtime whiskey drinkers also agree that using the proper glass is essential to enjoying the full whiskey experience. For best results, go for a short and squat glass, about 4” inches tall at most.

It is also a good idea to choose a glass that has a slightly bowed bottom. This will help release the essential aromatic compounds as you swirl your water and whiskey before sipping.

Ultimately, only you can determine how to best enjoy your whiskey. But, whether you take it neat, with a dash of water, or a couple of ice cubes, good whiskey is a joy to experience.

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