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Putting the Water into Waterford
Why adding water to natural whisky is a plus
March 27, 2023 | editorial | 5 minute read

An awful lot of water goes into making Waterford Whisky.

There’s the water of the hydromill, part of our ‘Technological Trinity’, which allows us to grind our grist anaerobically, preserving the flavours of the barley and protecting them from oxidation. Then the waters added during Incremental Mash Conversion before our wort is collected through the mash filter. And of course we’ll add water, slowly, gradually, in increments, as we bring the strength down to our preferred 50%, or 47% for Cuvée: Argot.

In fact we could go further and point out the role water plays as part of the microclimate for each of our farms as well as the maritime climate in which our whisky matures. But you get the picture — it is a critical part of the whiskymaking process and, along with barley, one of the two key ingredients, albeit its role in flavour is often distorted and exaggerated.

Yet there is often a certain fear, within whisky circles, of adding water to one’s whisky. As though diluting somehow breaks a kind of unwritten purity law.

We find that almost the opposite is true — that when it comes to natural whisky, adding water can in fact be a benefit, a plus.

In the first instance, it broadens the scope of times and places in which whisky can be drunk. Say you’re sitting outside on a hot, sunny afternoon with a few friends, a good spread and an air of conviviality — is a small measure of strong spirit the perfect foil? Probably not. But a glass balanced by a long measure of water, soothing the alcohol whilst bringing the freshness of barley’s aromatics to the fore and offering a level of refreshment not found in pure spirit — that can be just the ticket.

Besides, not every whisky is intended to fit the brooding, reflective, serious, late-evening-by-the-fireside role so ubiquitously thrust upon it. Some do this perfectly — no spirit better — but whisky, particularly natural whisky, is a complex creature, capable of capturing far more than that one mood.

A perfect example is our annual Micro Cuvée Pique Nique. This is Head Distiller Ned’s annual celebration of summer in all its ripe, rosy, fecund and fruit-filled exuberance. A joyful whisky; amusing even — not intended to be po-faced, serious, sombre — it hits its stride outdoors, in good company and especially when drunk with a good draught of cool water.

Even a simple teardrop of water dripped into a dram of an evening can work wonders though. Since ethanol molecules have both a hydrophobic and hydrophilic point, flavour compounds tend to huddle inwards together within a glass of whisky, literally tightening themselves in small molecule clumps called micelles. Adding just a few drops of water disrupts these miscelles — you can literally see it happening in the form of so-called ‘viscimetric whorls’, those mesmerising spirals within a glass after water has been dropped into this. Further warming the glass in one’s hands, whilst allowing the spirit to breathe, literally opens up the whisky, enables compounds to unclench and aromatic potential to be fully realised. Time, as in all things whisky, is what gives it the best chance to perform.

Our whisky is a wholly natural creature. No enzymes, no chill filtration or artificial additives. Simply Irish barley — the best we can find, every farm, field and harvest scrutinised and visited throughout the growing season — and water drawn from the volcanic aquifer. In other words, this is a robust and unctuous creature, further strengthened by the long fermentations and trickle distillation which imbue it with that rich, oily, textural body.

So water, even added in seemingly significant quantity, is not going to ‘break’ this spirit. The flavours, aromas and textures are more than strong enough to survive dilution.

Fundamentally, adding water isn’t something to eschew or be afraid of. We bottle all of our whisky at a higher strength precisely to give the drinker a range of options for experimentation when it comes to hydration. A few drops to fully ‘awaken’ the aroma compounds whilst retaining strength, or a larger draught to transform the whisky into a perfect outdoor or afternoon accompaniment — a cool, fresh glass of wine almost, in barley guise.

So play around. Experiment. Unearth for yourselves, as we constantly do at the distillery and in our own time, the ways in which natural whisky can unfurl and the various manners in which its pure, complex flavours can express themselves. Far from a hinderance to appreciation, a little playfulness and experimentation can broaden the range of possibilities for your enjoyment of natural whisky as you discover intriguing new experiences and fresh ways of engaging with single malt.

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