The water debate has long been discussed around many tasting tables. It is a topic that divides enthusiasts down the middle: to add or not add water to a glass of whiskey.
If you fall on the side of adding, there’s the question as to where that water should be sourced as well as how pure it should be. Everyone has a strong opinion in one way or another.
Long before you sip on the bourbon, it has already been introduced to water in some fashion: the initial germination, mashing and finally, proofing. Enthusiasts understand the importance of a distillery’s water source during production, but the volume and type are often overlooked.
The science behind adding water is that the spirit consists of alcohol and water molecules with various flavor compounds arranged in a particular way. The compounds and molecules change when water is introduced, changing the flavor profile. What is surprising is the ever-changing relationship between the two.
When water is added, the bourbon is diluted and compounds go from being soluble to insoluble as the strength changes. The difference between the two is that soluble compounds are not as apparent in tasting, whereas insoluble compounds are very noticeable in the flavor profile. Why? The ethanol content changes when introduced to water. Not to get too deep, but there are two poles of ethanol, hydrophilic and hydrophobic. Hydrophobic ethanol retreats when there is no more room at the top of the liquid, which becomes less noticeable. Hydrophilic is the water-loving group that bonds with the water that enhances the taste.
Ok, now that chemistry class is over, let’s return to the bourbon.
If you do like to add water, what type?
- Always stay away from mineral or spring water. Most of these waters have additives and should not be used.
- No sparkling, flavored, infused or tap water. Each will distort the authentic taste of the spirit.
- Distilled and purified are the best to use and will not cover up or mask the bourbon flavor.
You may ask, “Does all bourbon benefit from adding water?” No, longer-aged bourbons typically do not benefit from adding water. The rule of thumb is the longer the maturation process, the less likely the spirit needs water. The younger bourbons on the market may benefit from the dilution due to a higher intensity of alcohol. It also releases flavors that would have been hidden without the water.
How much to add?
The adage “a little goes a long way” is perfect when adding water to bourbon. I recommend always trying the spirit neat first, then adding water if needed. Use a straw or get a medicine dropper or pinch. A good rule is to use one drop and taste, and then continue using one drop until the alcohol burn subsides. This process will vary depending on your tolerance.
The simple fact is there is no right way, only your way. If you like a little water in your bourbon, go for it. If not and you like it neat, that is fine too.
William Shakespeare wrote a play called Henry V where he had a character, the Duke of Bourbon, so we know Shakespeare had his taste of the brown spirit.
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