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How Different Waters Affect The Flavor of Whisky

This is some seriously cool stuff!

A few weeks ago I tasted waters sourced from Scotland's Highlands, Speyside, and Islay regions and noticed how they brought out different flavors in scotch whisky. 

Bowmore's master blender Rachel Barrie recently performed a similar experiment, though she didn't name the source of the waters. But it turns out they were pretty similar to the waters I tasted, and her results echoed my own. I love not being totally wrong.

But the truly exciting thing is if we combine the results of her tasting with what I've learned about regional waters of Scotland, we see that the water from certain regions of Scotland, when added to whisky, seems to bring out specific taste qualities in the whisky for which those regions are known.

In other words, if you dilute a whisky with water from Islay (or in the style of Islay water based on mineral content and pH), it seems to emphasize Islay-ish flavor notes in the whisky, no matter where that whisky is from. 

Okay, let's get started. First lets see how Barrie's waters compared to the ones I tasted from UisgeSource.

 

UisgeSource Water Rachel Barrie's Water
 Highland Water: hard water, high in minerals. 225 parts per million dissolved solids and high in nitrate, calcium, and magnesium. pH around 7.7 (lightly alkaline)  Mineral-rich, with above average concentrations of Calcium and Magnesium minerals, high hardness and an elevated pH of 8.
 Speyside Water: soft water, low in minerals. 125 ppm dissolved solids. pH around 7.8 (lightly alkaline)  Soft water with low conductivity, hardness, minerals and polarity with pH 7.
 Islay Water: higher natural acidity. 183 ppm TDS. pH around 6.3. High in sulphate, potassium, sodium, and chloride.   Acidic water with higher Sodium chloride and Potassium sulphate, lower Calcium and Magnesium and pH 6-7.

As you can see, the waters we each tasted were pretty similar to each other. The only not-major difference was that the pH of Barrie's low-mineral water was more neutral than the water I tried. So I think it's fair to say that we tasted basically the same style of water. 

Now lets compare tasting notes, taking into account that Barrie is the Master Blender and the expert at this, while I'm just making stuff up as I go. Barrie noted that she didn't expect the subtle tastes in the water to bring out dramatic tastes in the whisky, but it did. They conducted a blind tasting with equal parts whisky and water. 

UisgeSource Water- My Tasting Notes Rachel Barrie's Water- Her Tasting Notes with Bowmore 12
 Highland Water: The Highland water brought out honey notes from whiskies.  The mineral-rich water unlocked additional layers of floral, herbal and peaty notes on the nose, and provided a more intense and intriguing textural experience (chalky minerality) on the tongue.
 Speyside Water: The Speyside water made both the Islay and Highland whisky taste sweet.   The soft water brought out more of the sweet honeyed and citrus fruit notes, and delivered a softer, sweeter and smooth rounded taste experience.
 Islay Water: The Islay water brought out the creme brulee and smoke.  The acidic water brought out more peppery peat, iodine and brine with unripe fruits and cereal notes.

While our notes don't agree entirely, we each found that Speyside water brings out sweetness, while Islay water brings out Islay-specific flavor notes like peat, smoke, iodine, and brine. 

I've always been skeptical about the bourbon-and-branch concept of pairing a whisky with the water from the same source. In the process of distillation, nearly all of the source water is removed from the spirit, and then it is diluted with purified (usually municipal) water. There is hardly any branch water in a finished whisky, so why bother going through the effort of pairing it? 

But yet, if we look at the results of the experiment above, Barrie's tasting notes for what the water brings out in the whisky are pretty similar to the generic tasting notes for whiskies from those regions:

 

Tasting Notes for Regional Whiskies, from a story I wrote for Imbibe Magazine a few years ago Rachel Barrie's Water- Her Tasting Notes
 Highland Whisky: these whiskies tend to yield a light smoke/peat element and flavors ranging from heathery and spicy to fruity  The mineral-rich water unlocked additional layers of floral, herbal and peaty notes on the nose, and provided a more intense and intriguing textural experience (chalky minerality) on the tongue.
 Speyside Whisky: gentle, elegant and, refined whiskies  The soft water brought out more of the sweet honeyed and citrus fruit notes, and delivered a softer, sweeter and smooth rounded taste experience.
 Islay Whisky: pungent with peat smoke, iodine, and brine flavors  The acidic water brought out more peppery peat, iodine and brine with unripe fruits and cereal notes.

Isn't that awesome? Turns out there just might be something to all that bourbon-and-branch stuff after all.

Note that Barrie wasn't trying to gauge the "best" water to pair with Bowmore. She writes, "Which water and Bowmore combination you will prefer is all down to personal taste. If you prefer a sweeter honeyed taste, adding soft water may be preferred. However, if you prefer the drier/briney tastes in Bowmore, a slightly acidic water (such as the water sourced locally on Islay) may be preferred." Read Rachel Barrie's full experiment and thorough tasting notes here.

This experiment deserves more testing. Here are some projects you and I might try to validate this experiment and take it further:

  • Survey the scotch whisky producers for more information on their waters. As I wrote previously, even distilleries close to each other may have very different water sources. 
  • Try whisky from each region paired with water from each region. In my experiment, I tried both Highland and Islay whisky and found the waters brought out the same notes in each, but it's worth trying all three of these regions. 
  • Try this with waters from the Lowlands of Scotland, and Kentucky and Japan with those whiskies. 
  • Find commercially-available bottled water that has the same or similar properties to the waters from each of these regions. (I'll get on this one right away.) If I can't find them, I may need to make them myself with what I've learned about creating mineral water
  • Then repeat this experiment with those waters to see if it still works. 

 

So, yeah, awesome! 

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Water-project-logoThe Water Project on Alcademics is research into water in spirits and in cocktails, from the streams that feed distilleries to the soda water that dilutes your highball. The research for the project is supported by Bowmore Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky. For all posts in the project, visit the project index page

 

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