November 07, 2018
Every Christmas, you see how your relatives guzzle their whiskey. Your dad, an old-school connoisseur, prefers his neat i.e. straight from the bottle to a lowball glass. Your Uncle Barry, who shows the least amount of respect to a premium Irish, likes his on the rocks. While your younger sister chooses her Bourbon in Alpine Manhattan form, complete with an orange twist and cherry garnish.
And then your cousin Tom (heck, you don’t even know if that’s his actual name) enters the bar, pours two fingers of Scotch, and then splash them with three drops of tap water. And leave.
“Huh,” you tell yourself, Tom is a really weird guy.”
"You need help, Tom."Photo: Pexels
Sure, there many ways to indulge on whiskey, none of which is wrong. But according to science, weird cousin Tom did it the best.
It’s How The Scots Do It
Water dilution isn’t some modern method of drinking whiskey. The Scots are doing it for centuries already. This is what chemist Ran Friedman of the Linnaeus University Center for Biomaterials Chemistry noticed in his recent trip to the country. And oh boy he was surprised. How can these guys, of most people, treat their national treasure like this? What surprised him more is that adding something as flavorless as water to Scotch somehow improved its flavor. In normal situations, adding water to other drinks just makes the taste, well, watered down. Had he not been a scientist, he’d point it out to witchcraft.
Awed and perplexed, he teamed up with fellow chemist Bjorn Karlsson to find out why. Together, they used computer simulations to see what’s going on inside that glass of fine amber liquid and published the result in the Scientific Reports journal last August 2017.
The Two Sides of It
Because “whiskey is a complicated mixture of hundreds or even thousands of compounds,” as told by Karlsson, the two scientists could not pinpoint the exact reason behind the change in flavor, but they came up with two competing theories.
The first theory suggests that adding H20 traps the more unpleasant tasting compounds in the Scotch. You see, the more prominent flavor in your whiskey is caused by molecular compounds called fatty acid esters. Think of caramel-dipped apple on sticks, but with two sticks instead of one. These compounds interact with water in a compelling way. One end, the one with the sticks, repels water molecules; while the other end, the apple this time, attracts water molecules. When water is added, these compounds form a sphere, like a bouquet of caramel-dipped apples with the sticks fasted together from the inside. This formation traps other compounds with bad flavors, leaving only the good ones for the taking.
A fatty acid ester is a result of the combination of a fatty acid with an alcoholPhoto: Wikimedia Commons
The second theory is simpler, albeit more convincing. This involves a molecule called guaiacol. This compound is responsible for the smoky and spicy aroma inherent in all whiskeys. Most bottled whiskeys contain at least 59% ethanol. At this level, the guaiacol is dispelled the throughout the mixture. In Friedman and Karlsson’s simulation, they lowered the proportion at 40%, causing the guaiacol to begin to rise to the surface. At 27% level, the ethanol molecules begin to transform into aerosol form. This frees guaiacol molecules, suspending them in the air.
Guaiacol is a naturally-occurring organic compound.Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The same thing happens when water is added to the whiskey. This makes the ethanol level goes down, frees up guaiacol molecule, and makes the smoky and spicy flavor of the drink more prominent, ready to assault your olfactory nerves and taste buds. And alas, a better tasting whiskey.
But… Ice Cubes!
You might be asking, “Why can’t ice cubes do the same? They are water, too, just colder and blockier.” Not really.
An ice cube contains too much water. This leads to watering down the taste of the whiskey too much, leaving you with a less flavorful drink. Not to mention, the coldness numbs down your taste buds, impeding it from savoring the more intricate flavors of the drink. This is the reason other people forego the ice and sips their whiskey neat.
Don't.Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The key to unlocking the flavors is finding the right balance of water to ethanol ratio, and normally this comes down to a drop or two of H20. Weird cousin Tom didn’t just randomly splash water to his drink. He’s been experimenting on this for quite a while until he found the best flavor to his liking.
You may do the same you can start with a drop or even four. You can actually do it in reverse, i.e. adding whiskey to water. You will be surprised how much difference it makes, as some drinkers attest.
Once you found the perfect harmony, your sweet spot, unlocking the flavors fit for your liking, you will never drink your whiskey any other way again.
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