From our Distiller...The Proper Way to Drink Whiskey
There has been an article going around recently via Facebook, as well as a few other articles on the web, dictating how one should drink whiskey (Scotch, bourbon, rye, etc). Most of the information is pretty good, but unfortunately, some is not well-researched and is really just personal belief presented as being backed by sound, scientific evidence.
The big controversy--people get very passionate about this--is whether whiskey should be enjoyed undiluted, or with some water added. I was perusing the online comments of an article on whiskey drinking and a popular boast was, “The distiller put it in the bottle at this proof, and that is how he/she intends us to drink it!” Did they ask the distiller? Our Big Spring Barrel-Aged Rum clocks in at 100 proof. I, the distiller, do not like to drink this neat because I’ve found that the rum really opens up when it is served on the rocks. That then begs the question, “Why not simply bottle the rum at a lower proof?” Our rum is at 100 proof because that is where we like the flavor best, particularly when consumed on the rocks. If we had bottled it at a lower proof, and consumers subsequently diluted it with water and/or ice, it wouldn’t have the same full, rich flavor. This would apply to any whiskey or aged spirit.
Another reason why a bottle of whiskey might be at a particular proof is because of a phenomenon called louching. There are several organic compounds (congeners) found in whiskeys. Some of them are much more soluble in ethanol than in water, such that when the proof is dropped to below a certain level, the compounds come out of solution and turn the whiskey cloudy. This is why our white whiskeys are at the proof they are. If we go lower, they turn cloudy, which then requires filtering, which can affect the flavor.
So why would someone want to add water to their aged spirit after pouring from bottle to glass? The classic line is that this “opens up” i.e. releases, the aroma, and at the same time cuts down some of the alcoholic burn one may experience as it is swallowed. Several research papers were published in the 90s that examined this phenomenon. These papers looked at how a variety of compounds, such as those extracted from oak barrels, affected the aroma compounds released from whiskey (or model spirits). They looked at this phenomenon at several different proofs, and saw that the higher the proof, the lower the amount of aroma compounds released to the atmosphere. Another article I saw stated that the amount of water typically added to one’s whiskey was not enough to cause the release of additional aroma compounds (the author’s opinion--no scientific evidence was provided), and that the increased aroma is simply due to less alcoholic burn in the nose thereby allowing one to better smell the aromas that are present. Ultimately the author’s argument was an anecdotal one as to why there was more aroma with dilution, favoring his pet theory over the research that had been published.
Some folks like the burn of high proof whiskey, and others prefer to tame the burn with a little water. Ultimately, when it comes right down to it, you should drink your whiskey the way YOU like to. I recently became aware of a group in the Philadelphia area called Whisky Blasphemy, and this is their credo as well. If you want to drink your $100 bourbon with coke, that is your choice. My approach to any new bottle of whiskey I buy is to try it three ways. First I try it neat, right out of the bottle and into a glass. The next time I drink it, I will add a splash of water, and then finally on the rocks. I then decide which I liked the best and that is how I will drink the rest of that bottle. The folks at the Scotch Whiskey Research Institute would agree. They say some Scotches are better neat and do not taste as good with a little water added, and other are much better with a bit of water added. They have some theories as to why this is, but nothing conclusive yet. I recommend conducting your own research with whatever spirits you have on hand!