During my visit to the Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland back in 2006, I had an interesting encounter that shed light on the topic of enjoying whisky. While at a local pub the night before, I witnessed a man ordering a whisky in a highball glass sans ice. Surprisingly, he proceeded to pour room-temperature water into the glass after receiving his drink.
Curious about this practice, I shared the observation with the distillery ambassador and posed a question: What are your thoughts on adding 8 ounces of water to 2 ounces of whisky? His response was simple yet profound, "Drink it however you prefer, as long as you enjoy it." This philosophy became my guiding principle for enlightening others about the art of whisky appreciation.
Countless articles have been written attempting to address the quandary of adding water or ice to whisky, and how much is deemed excessive. Instead of getting lost in the details, I find it more valuable to educate people about the effects of water and ice on the flavor profile of whisky and remind them that personal taste ultimately reigns supreme.
Here's my standard explanation: When water and alcohol mix, an exothermic reaction occurs. The molecules carrying the aromas (which directly influence our perception of flavor) move more rapidly at higher temperatures. Consequently, adding water allows us to savor a wider range of scents and flavors. On the other hand, ice has the opposite effect.
When water is added to whisky, the more volatile molecules are released from the solution. If you observe closely while pouring water into your glass of whisky, you'll notice a brief formation of an oily-looking cloud around the water. Whisky also contains amphipathic molecules, compounds with both water-soluble and non-water-soluble components in their structure.
In 2007, an intriguing scientific study delved into the molecular effects of water on whisky. The researchers examined guaiacol, an amphipathic molecule, and discovered that water "pushes" guaiacol to the surface of the whisky, making it more detectable when sniffing the aroma.
I've previously discussed guaiacol in relation to peated whisky—it's a fascinating compound that adds a touch of divinity to certain whiskies. With the knowledge that water causes this compound (and potentially other amphipathic molecules) to move towards the surface of the whisky, we can now apply this understanding.
Determining the appropriate amount of water to add and whether ice is acceptable is not a fixed science. Instead, it is crucial to first taste the whisky in its neat form. Distillers take pride in their creations and have bottled them according to their belief in the optimal enjoyment. Once you've experienced a small sip of neat whisky, you can begin adding water. Start with a few drops and gradually increase until you reach a point where the whisky loses its distinct character and resembles water with a faint hint of whisky. This marks the limit for that particular whisky. Different whiskies may require varying amounts of water, and some may even taste worse with water added (remember, distilleries typically add water before bottling, unless specified as "barrel proof").
Now, regarding the subject of ice, by all means, feel free to add it! How else would you enjoy a refreshing cold drink on a hot day? If you wish to analyze the nuances of whisky, follow the steps outlined above. However, if your goal is simply to savor and relish the whisky, drink it in whatever manner brings you joy and satisfaction—remember, the most important thing is to drink it, regardless of the method!
Side Story: At a tasting the brand ambassador was asked what he thought about whisky and coke. He thought for a second then said, "it is a horrible way to enjoy whisky, but it is a damn lovely way to enjoy a coke" - And I think he was on to something.