Sunday, 13 January 2013

Is It Sacrilege To Add Water To Whiskey?

Written by Mark Backhouse

The Whiskey Snobs Claim
I love this question but dislike those who think they may dictate how we should drink whiskey. I enjoy whisky with water, without water, with Ice, with Ginger Ale and as a base in many cocktails.

But let’s review what most of us have heard from serious whisky men. Some may be a member or members of our family or an acquaintance of the family. I heard this sentence many times from many people. I used to think they knew their stuff whereas in reality they were simply repeating urban legend and believed this statement to the point of making it their faith. This horrible sentence is:

“Sacrilege, the distiller has spent twelve years perfecting that whiskey and you destroy it by adding water.”

Let’s make it clear that the evidence does not support the whiskey snob’s claim.

The Angel’s Share
After the final distillation and prior to filling the new spirit into casks, we add water to the spirit to bring it down to optimal strength for ageing. Note that we added water! We then move these casks into aromatic warehouses where the angel’s take their share at the approximate rate of 4% in the first year and 2% of the residual amount every year thereafter. Twelve years later we have lost almost 23% of the content of the cask.

The Secret Angel’s Share
But we do not only lose volume to the angels. When we put the spirit into cask it goes in at approximately 63% ABV but when the cask is opened 12 years later the ‘cask strength’ of the alcohol has dropped to approximately 57%. This is the more important loss during ageing. The whiskey does not only lose volume but releases the more volatile alcohol’s first. This is why older whiskies become smoother. A 21-year-old whiskey will definitely be smoother than a 12-year-old whiskey due entirely to this fact.

Urban Legend Exposed
Now is the part of this revelation that exposes the whiskey snob’s belief as an urban legend. If the spirit comes out of cask at 57% ABV, how do we reduce it to bottling strength? In South Africa our standard ABV by law is 43% and most of the rest of the world is 40% ABV. We add water before bottling. Oops, this is distiller sacrilege – NOT.

(In the US and some other countries, whisky may be sold at higher or lower than 40%ABV as long as this is stated on the label. In SA it may be higher than 43% but not lower than 43% ABV).

I repeat, we add water prior to bottling to reduce the strength of the whiskey to the required bottling strength. Then - whiskey is an organic thing and goes to sleep in the bottle. When we open our whiskey, we must add water to bring it back to life and to allow it to blossom and exhibit an incredible array of notes you never get without this splash of water.

But drink your whiskey as you like it. I personally like my whiskey with Ginger Ale if we are entertaining around a barbeque. If I have a single malt whisky I add a splash of water. If I have a blended whiskey I add water first and then Ice. Never ever ice first unless it is an American Bourbon or Jameson Gold that has also used a virgin oak barrel. That’s me. Enjoy your whiskey as you want, knowing that the snobs are wrong.

Feel free to disagree with me but before you do please note that I drink all whiskies that are older than 18 years old without ice or water. Why? Because the secret Angle's share has increased and the whiskey is smooth enough for me.

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