You’d be surprised how many supposed connoisseurs scoff when you tell them you add water to a dram. It’s one of the more controversial aspects to whisky drinking (if that’s not an oxymoron) but, believe it or not, a debate really does exist over the merits of H2O in a dram.
So what does water do? Unlike coke, lemonade or other ghastly mixers, it’s certainly not intended to mask the taste or the aroma of whisky. Nor is it for those who ‘can’t handle’ their drink; even with the addition of water, you’re drinking something that’s as strong as neat vodka. No, the whole purpose of water is to enhance the aromas and the taste of the whisky. Let me explain:
Take any whisky we’ve reviewed, pour a dram into a glass and give it a good sniff: the first thing you’ll likely experience is a strong smell of alcohol. There’s nothing bad about that, because perseverance is key and the more you keep nosing the more you’ll start to discover. But if you add a dash of cool water, you’ll find it quietens the worst of the alcohol, and gives the whisky a little room to breathe – in fact, you’ll probably start to find new aromas, and it’ll begin to take on a completely new character. An Oban might reveal a bit more about the seaside than it would normally do, and a peaty Islay may even show a softer side than originally expected. It gives the whisky an added dimension, and offers some poorer expressions a potential reprieve.
So how much to add? Put simply, not a lot. In fact, you’re barely adding any. Mighty cask strength whiskies boom in around the 65% abv mark, but non chill-filtered whiskies come in around 46% and most whiskies are already diluted to an industry standard 40%. If you want to dilute further, then Richard Paterson recommends going no lower than about 35% abv.
Yet as I mentioned before, this is a controversial thing to do. Jim Murray (he of Whisky Bible fame) rates all his whiskies without the addition of water and Josh doesn’t tend to add water unless it really is needed. It’s a good policy, too: treat a whisky as you find it, get to know it and, if it’s still too racy, calm it down with a touch of water. Some delicate lowland whiskies can get diluted to anonymity if you’re not careful and even some giants, like the Bladnoch 18, lose all their potency and raison d’être as I found to my cost. In the end, as we stress time and again, it comes down to individual preference. One person’s chalk is another’s cheese, and there’s no objectivity in whisky tasting: it’d be a very boring world if that was the case. But please, for your sake, add as much water as you like – just don’t add ice.