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The science behind "spoiling" your whiskey with water

Read that carefully, whiskey lovers. I promise you, as a whiskey man myself - it will change your drink for the better.

As all good whiskey enthusiasts and connoisseurs will tell you, a drop of water in your glass enhances the smell and flavour of the smokey, golden liquid. Turning to the slightly unconventional use of computer simulations, scientists have now been able to explain exactly why a dribble of water helps the drink.

The taste of whiskey is primarily linked to so-called amphipathic molecules, which are made up of hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts. This basically means that one side of the "taste" molecules in whiskey is attracted to water, while the other is repelled by water. And it turns out that this two-ended structure in one such molecule known as guaiacol has a major bearing on the whiskey's flavour.

Credit: Bermix Studio/Unsplash

Credit: Bermix Studio/Unsplash

Guaiacol is typically found in smokey and peaty Scottish whiskies (my personal favourites), and has previously been identified as the cause of this distinctive flavour, so beloved by many of the whiskey connoisseurs. By using computer simulations of water and ethanol mixtures with guaiacol added, the researchers were able to see how the different concentrations of the two liquids changed the behaviour of the flavour molecules in solution.

They found that guaiacol is preferentially associated with ethanol, as in it is more likely to bind to the alcohol molecules. When the alcohol concentration is at or above around 70 percent, as it is when it is first barrelled, these alcohol molecules with the guaiacol in tow tend to hover somewhere around the middle of the liquid, essentially keeping the flavour from floating to the surface.

Credit: sanjoy saha/Unsplash

Credit: sanjoy saha/Unsplash

As more water is added, such as during bottling when the concentration is brought down to roughly 45 percent, the alcohol molecules tend to spread out more, meaning more of the guaiacol floats to the surface. This suggests that, in a glass of whiskey, guaiacol will therefore be found near the surface of the liquid, where it contributes to both the smell and taste of the spirit. But they found that this effect apparently doesn’t stop there.

Interestingly, a continued dilution down to 27 percent resulted in an increase of guaiacol at the liquid-air interface. This, in turn, results in a more superior flavour, something that whiskey enthusiasts could have told you before. While diluting a good whiskey down to 27 percent may seem low to some, whiskey tasters are known to take it down even further, sometimes as low as 20 percent.

Credit: Vinicius "amnx" Amano/Unsplash

Credit: Vinicius "amnx" Amano/Unsplash

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Comments (2)

  • Very interesting, but too scientific! I'll stick with the neat one, i.e. no water, no ice.

      1 month ago
  • Very interesting

      1 month ago
2