Hold the ice! Watering down your drink can make whiskies taste the same

RICHLAND, Wash. — If you want the perfect whisky, be sure its water content is less than 20 percent. Researchers say anything over 20 percent will dilute the flavor and change its taste. Adding a splash of water to your whisky has been an old trick to “open up” the flavor of whisky. According to the study, however, adding too much can ruin the drink altogether.

“By the time you get to 60/40 whisky to water, the whiskies are not differentiated by the panelists; they begin to smell the same, and that’s not really what you’re looking for,” says Tom Collins, a Washington State University assistant professor and senior author of the study.

Adding more than 20 percent water to the drink would change the aroma. Since smell and taste have a close link, this affects the overall flavor. For example, a sensory test found people could tell 100-percent whiskies apart from each other. At an 80/20 whisky to water ratio, people could still taste the whisky and differentiate it from other samples. However, after adding more water, the aromas became similar and harder to distinguish.

glasses of whisky with ice
Photo by Prem Pal Singh Tanwar from Pexels

A chemical analysis of the group of spirits revealed changes in volatile compounds in the area above the liquid when researchers added water. Whisky is a mix of compounds that range from water-repelling molecules to water-attracting molecules. Adding water makes the whisky’s water-phobic compounds run to the top of the glass to escape the liquid. The change in composition when leaving the water-loving compounds behind changes the aroma of the liquid.

The chemical analysis reflected the judgment of the panelists doing the smell/taste test. The Scotch whiskies started out with a smoky aroma, but with more water, they shifted towards a fruity undertone.

“This happens because of the way dilution affects what’s in the headspace,” Collins adds in a university release. “The compounds that are associated with smoky aromas dissipate, and they were replaced by compounds that are associated with fruity aromas.”

Similarly, the American bourbons started off with vanilla and oak scents. When the team added water, their aromas transformed into smells of the corn and grains used to make them.

The findings could help bartenders and other whisky makers know how to create the perfect drink. It could also affect how they make drinks if a customer asks for a beverage “on the rocks.” What’s more, the findings back up the practice of serving whisky with a single, large ice cube.

“This study helps to understand why those large, square ice cubes have become so popular because you can actually enjoy the whisky before it gets diluted to the point that it’s not the same whisky,” Collins explains.

The study is published in the journal Foods.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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