Water down your whisky for better flavour: scientists

On the rocks, neat or with water? Ask whisky fans and you’ll find it’s a contentious topic. However, Swedish scientists say mixing your scotch with water is the best way to maximize its flavour.

Swedish researchers say scotch is more flavourful when cut with water

A study by Swedish researchers supports adding water, not ice, to whisky to bring out the best flavour. (Shutterstock)

On the rocks, neat, or with water? Ask whisky fans and you'll find it's a contentious topic.

However, researchers in Sweden say mixing your scotch with water is the best way to maximize the flavours.

Their research looked at the science behind that smoky flavour typical of scotch. The study, called "Dilution of whisky, the molecular perspective," found that adding water to scotch maximizes the flavour of the drink.

Adding water forces flavour molecules to concentrate near the top of the glass close to your nose and taste buds. The flavour compounds in whisky are suspended in the alcohol and additional water forces it to rise to the surface.

For many whisky lovers who swear by drinking it neat (without water or ice) the idea that water does not dilute the flavour is counterintuitive, according to distilling consultant Mike Nicholson.

Mike Nicholson, a distilling consultant who has spent years in Scotland making whisky, says he has no doubt water improves the taste of scotch. (G. McKinstrey)

"What I do is I add a little water to it to kind of suppress the impact of the alcohol and let me gain access to the background bouquets I couldn't have had access to before that," Nicholson told CBC News.

It's a habit Nicholson, a third-generation distiller, practised long before the study.

"I'm greedy. I want all the information about my whisky," Nicholson said. "The only way I can get that is by unlocking it with water."

Nicholson, who has spent much of his career making whisky in Scotland, says some people worry they are hurting whisky by adding water.

Not so, he says.

"The whisky will smell bigger when you add a little water to it, and it tastes better, too," Nicholson said. "It does something to the texture — it softens it, makes it less aggressive."

He also discourages whisky drinkers from adding ice, saying that it is less flavourful and aromatic than scotch served at room temperature.


Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.