Vancouver Cocktail Trends
Irish Whiskey History

The Science of Dilution

While at Tales of the Cocktail Vancouver, I attended the seminar on dilution by Audrey Saunders and Harold McGee. Saunders is the owner of the Pegu Club in New York and McGee is the author of the seminal work On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.



Part of the discussion was about why we get more aroma in weaker drinks rather than stronger ones. People add water to whisky and other spirits when nosing them to release aromatics, yet this is counter-intuitive: shouldn't the whisky on its own have a more intense flavor that a whisky with just water in it?

The explanation is:

  • In strong spirits, alcohol runs out of water molecules to bond with, and the alcohol molecules begin to form clusters. This is at around 30-40% alcohol.
  • Aroma molecules like alcohol more than water. They want to leave the water they're in and release into the air.
  • When a liquid has a lot of alcohol, the aroma molecules stick with the alcohol clusters and don't escape the liquid as much.
  • Dilution dissolves the clusters and releases aroma molecules.

Saunders has been making a series of "inverted cocktails" in which she uses 2 parts of a weak ingredient like a fortified wine to 1 parts of the strong ingredient like whisky. These inverted cocktails are more aromatic than the stronger (1:2) versions of the same drink.

Other fun facts learned in the seminar:

  • Chilling also decreases aroma release, as molecules are moving more slowly.
  • Some chemicals help increase the release of aromatics into the air, such as salt, sugars, and carbon dioxide.
  • Of course, these will also affect the flavor of our drinks.