Bartender, water in my whiskey please
The popularity of whiskey has been growing in the past ten years in the U.S. and overseas. According to the Council of Distilled Spirits, in 2004, the U.S. sold almost 14 million cases of bourbon; in 2014, 19 million cases, generating $2.7 billion in revenue.
This has been deemed the Mad Men Effect; similarly to how Sex and the City popularized the bright pink Cosmopolitan martini, the popular show set in the 60s has helped give whiskey a status boost. As it’s flying off the shelves, consumers are sometimes overlooking the best way to drink the spirit. I recently spoke to the bar manager at Wink & Nod in the South End of Boston, a new bar that has a complete menu page reserved for its scotches, whiskeys and bourbons. The bar manager, Jace Sheehan, told me that, “bad whiskey requires water, but good whiskey deserves water.” He showed me what he meant by pouring me a taste of Highland Park scotch from one of the brand’s $100 bottles. “Take a sip of that,” he commanded, “then just add a few drops of water to it and taste it again.”
The difference was shocking to me. The scotch was less harsh, more flavorful and tasted like something I could drink a glass of without mixing it with something like Coca-Cola to cover the harsh alcohol kick.
Sheehan tells me this is because hard alcohol is comprised of ethanol and fatty acids – and those chemicals are bound together when you pour it out of the bottle. Ethanol is the alcoholic part of, well, alcohol, and the fatty acids in starchy spirits like whiskey give it the flavor.
Water breaks up these chemical bonds that make you taste the whiskey flavor hand-in-hand with the harsh vapor of ethanol. Breaking these bonds allows you to experience the fatty acid flavor without the ethanol. He also tells me that ice locks the chemical bonds together, and he cringes when people just order ice-cold whiskey, but wait a couple minutes and that ice will turn into water, breaking up those chemical bonds and coaxing the flavor of that whiskey out.
When the water and alcohol mix, the temperature in the glass rises because this is an exothermic chemical reaction - it releases heat. It dilutes the alcohol and lets the ethanol un-bind with the fatty acids and evaporate. But don’t worry, just adding a few drops of water won’t dilute your drink enough that you’ll need to drink more. So if you want to explore the different flavor profiles of the Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Campeltown and Ila scotches, this might be a helpful hint for you.