Everyone but Jim Murray knows that water enhances whisky. How much water? That depends on your taste, the proof, age and style of the whisky. One can now buy water, allegedly bottled fresh from a highland spring, that is specifically suited to your whisky. And if they can sell you that it's the biggest marketing triumph since Bose.
But is your local tap water diminishing the smell and taste of your whisky or is bottled water simply a waste of money? Well, comrades, read on; the answer lies ahead. A recent series of gigs took me from Adelaide, to Melbourne, to Canberra within 48 hours. So, being both an intrepid experimenter and hardened skeptic I took the opportunity to secure a sample of tap water from each city, (bottled then refrigerated) a bottle of Evian and filtered Canberra tap water. If you really want a chemical analysis of these I'm sure you can find that information easily. I was not so much concerned what was in the water but what effect it had on the whisky. Unfortunately, my plan to use rainwater as a control was thwarted by the Magpies that decided to take a bath in it. All samples were placed in identical glass containers and stored for 48 hours before being tasted at 20 degrees C. They were also used to dilute four samples of Glenfarclas 15 at a ratio of 4 to 1 whisky to water to determine if there was any practical effect on that middle-aged, water sensitive whisky. I tasted the Glenfarclas myself but our three volunteers tasted the water blind. The samples were identified only by number and the entire test audio recorded. Below is a precis of their comments and mine, exactly as they were recorded.
Sample 1: "Smells like graphite." "Chalky taste." "Slightly gritty but not offensive."
Sample 2: "Looks a little yellow." "Can't smell a thing." "It doesn't taste terrible but a little metallic."
Sample 3: "This one is even more yellowish" "Slight acetic acid smell" "Smells like a horse blanket." "Tastes gritty and metallic."
Sample 4: "Smells like soil but not as offensive as 3." "OH! 4 is disgusting!" "4 tastes like mud, YUK!"
Sample 5: "No smell at all." "Tastes like clean water." "Mmm, I like this best, certainly!"
In the Glenfarclas 15:
Sample 1: "Oh yeah, that's Glenfarclas 15, lovely stuff, why are we doing this again?"
Sample 2: "Wow, there's a whole heap of flavour from mid-palate missing, it's just gone. I didn't expect that."
Sample 3: "Seriously diminished flavour. Everything from the entry through to the finish."
Sample 4: "Oh, this one has really killed the whisky. It's not just taken flavour away, it's added its own ugliness. Dusky, dirty, cheap"
Sample 5: "Mmm, we're back,ohh,lovely, Farclas 15 again. As good as 1....Ah, tasting 1 again.....no, just loses a little, very close.....Mmm, this one is the business. Just one more try of 1 and 5...yeah, 5 is delish, just better than 1."
Well, Your Worship, I shall now reveal the identity of the offenders:
Sample 1: Evian bottled water.
Sample 2: Canberra tap water.
Sample 3: Melbourne tap water.
Sample 4: Adelaide tap water.
Sample 5: Filtered Canberra tap water.
My conclusion? First let me say I was surprised by the results. I love being proven wrong, I really do; it's the scientist in me. The revelation of one's wrongness leads to an expansion of one's knowledge. And that has happened here. Last week I would have opined that tap water was fine and bottled water in whisky is bollocks. For those of you in Canberra, sipping from your melted snow and mountain streams, that isn't far from the truth. For those in Adelaide, however, your whisky experience will be seriously diminished by what is left in the River Murray after everyone else is finished with it and your desalination plant's outpourings regurgitated. I shared a bottle of JW Green label with friends in Adelaide on New Year's Eve and wondered why I wasn't enjoying it. Now I know. In Melbourne, things aren't so bad (except that it ain't Sydney) but still, your water is robbing your whisky of flavour. I did send a minion to Sydney to obtain a water sample for this post but she came back empty handed. I forgave her because she's gorgeous and I'm a pushover but as a kid from Manly I can tell you Sydney water is, at best, not awful.
Given that a 30ml dram of Glenfarclas 15 will require no more than about 6ml of water (for most folks) that means premium bottled water will cost around 3 cents a dram. Glenfarclas 15 costs around $4.50AU a dram (assuming a bottle purchase) so is another three cents a big ask to ensure your appreciation of it? I have no doubt, however, that for the serious whisky drinker, whisky or rum bar, well filtered water is not only a good idea but a necessity. If that isn't practical, leaving tap water to evaporate off its chemical nasties for at least a day or two also works well.
Hey, we did the experiment.
Ben Nevis: I snapped this shortly before being torn apart by midges. A species that aspires to, but falls well short of, being as objectionable as my ex-wife.