Scotch whisky inspires a near cult-like devotion among circles with an affinity for malt beverages. Known for its pungent, peaty aroma with a long, lingering finish, Scotch whisky, the iconic malt beverage from Scotland, is designed to sip, and not shoot akin to its popular siblings like Vodka and Tequila.  

How to do you prefer sipping your favorite Scotch? This quintessential question can generate a diverse set of responses some of which include I take my Scotch neat, I prefer adding a splash or a few drops of water, I like my Scotch with a few ice cubes, or I like to blend my Scotch with soda and/or coca-cola.    

While there are no “correct” responses, because drinking alcoholic beverages is a matter of taste and preference, aficionados have long recommended taking your dram with a few drops of water. A Scotch enthusiast may ask why must I add water? The answers vary, but some of the more emblematic responses include:

  • Splash of water takes away the stinging or burning sensation when you “nose the whisky” thereby liberating the true spirit locked in the bottom of the glass to rise to the top
  • Splash of water dilutes the alcohol volume
  • Splash of water takes away the heady alcohol smell/taste away

Nose your Whiskey

To fully appreciate the spirit, which has been craftily aged in a barrel anywhere from 3 to 25 years, you must let the nose kiss the tip of your whisky glass and then proceed to inhale deeply (your chance to “inhale if you missed it when you were young and restless”). This ritual is very similar to how you get acquainted with, or nose, your red wine.  When nosing, we are paying careful attention to the following olfactory receptacles.

  • Smokiness: Flavor the peatiness as malted barley is often thrown over a peat fire to smoke it.
  • Saltiness: Smell the distinctly maritime smell mostly unique to Islay whiskies.
  • Fruitiness: Identify the fruits contained in the alcohol which may include dried currants, apricot, peach, or cherry.
  • Sweetness: Savor the discrete caramel, toffee, vanilla, honey tones or some other confections that you might decipher.
  • Woodiness: Oak is an integral companion of the whisky-aging process, which makes the smell of wood in Scotch omnipresent.

Swedish Connection

Bjorn Karlsson and Ran Friedman, a pair of Biochemists doing nose-breaking research at Linnaeus University in Kalmar, have finally provided a truly spiritual response to why splash of water is highly recommended for deriving the optimal olfactory pleasures from whisky consumption. Scottish whisky, especially the ones from the Island of Islay, contain a group of flavor-packed molecules known as “phenols” and “guaiacol.”

Laboratory simulations reveal that adding a splash of water or H2O makes guaiacol rise to “the air-liquid interface.” Because the drink is consumed at the interface first, adding water to whisky helps to enhance its taste. The concentrations of guaiacol are in much higher proportions in Scottish whiskies than in American or Irish ones, which is why the releasing of taste/flavors is much more pronounced in Scotch whisky than in its counterparts in the US or Ireland.

The fundamental conclusion from this original path-breaking scientific study is that it behooves us not to add a splash of water when we commiserate with our own spirits while leisurely sipping that perfect Scotch whisky.

Enjoy your Perfect Dram! High Noroc!

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