Why Whisky Pros Add Water to Their Glasses

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You are hereby absolved of the faux-macho insistence that you drink your whiskys neat.

Okay, yes, you may still get a few funny looks for pouring high-end booze over a glass full of rocks, but the science and the industry opinions are on your side: a little dilution can be good, and you should be actively pursuing it with most of your favorite whiskys.

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At least that’s the opinion of Kieran Campbell, manager at the Quaiche bar at the Craigellachie Hotel in Craigellachie, Scotland — a formidable bar which boasts between 700 and 900 unique bottles of whisky at any given time.

Campbell says the majority of whiskys “can benefit from the addition of a few drops of water.” He typically serves it alongside whisky drams in a small bottle with droppers, to make the whole process a little more exact. “It’s about finding what you like,” he says, and there aren’t really wrong answers — if you like ice, have ice.”

To get the most out of a new dram, though, Campbell recommends that you “try it as is first, then add a few drops and see how it changes.” People use the term “activate,” or the term “dilute,” but in essence, adding extra water, which you can see carve through the spirit, is upsetting the current balance of minerals, alcohol, and aqua that creates a particular taste.

And not just any water — at least not in the states. Remember that delicate balance of minerals can be offset by over-purified water, or sources with a ton of fluoride or chlorine. At the point at which you’re buying $30 or $40 pours of whisky, tossing in some tap water isn’t much better than mixing it with a soda. Maybe that sounds extreme, but at the end of the day a lot of work went into creating this initial balance, and you want to go into altering it with a surgeon’s touch, not that of a demolition worker.

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Part of it is that Scottish water is different. “In Scotland we have sandstone and limestone, and that creates a lot of rich mineral character in the water,” Gabe Cardarella, brand ambassador for Aberfeldy distillery and the other John Dewar & Sons properties, says.

Aberfeldy is a uniquely ideal brand for a discussion on water for several reasons. First, they have a totally unique water source. “This used to be a site for panning for gold,” Cardarella says, “so this is a very rich in mineral water source at Aberfeldy.” The brand is the only distillery on that water source, as well. A very old distillery used to sit on the same source, but “it eventually was knocked out in the 60s,” which left it open for Aberfeldy.

“Most of these distilleries are all sharing just a few water sources,” Cardarella says, but there are a handful of other distilleries with totally proprietary water. Glenmorangie, for instance, has total control of Tarlogie Springs, the product of “rain that has been forcing its way through layers of limestone and sandstone for a hundred years.”

Glenmorangie’s water is particularly hard, and very tasty. The locals come by with jugs on occasion and collect it for drinking. It’s not open to the public, and a few drops of the unfiltered natural water yields a completely different experience than, say, Dasani. It’s also one of a few reasons Glenmorangie is different from other whiskys in the region.

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Aberfeldy is such a proponent of adding the local water that it has begun bottling small doses for patrons. They’re typically available in Duty Free shops and at Aberfeldy tasting events. It goes well with the Aberfeldy family — particularly its 16-year-old cask-strength expression.

Cardarella recommends activating with a few drops, or freezing the source water into ice cubes, for an authentic experience, but quickly explains you’re fine with “treated bottled water, that way it’s not going to affect the character of the spirit.”

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