The role of water in whisky
Water plays several important roles in the production of whisky. Firstly, water is used to clean and prepare the grains used to make the whisky. Second, it is mixed with the mashed grains to extract the sugars that will be fermented to create alcohol. Finally, water is used to reduce the alcohol content of the whisky to its desired strength. Additionally, water can help to bring out the flavours and aromas of the whisky when it is diluted before drinking.
Thus distilleries will often talk extensively about their water sources, and will in some cases use different water sources depending on the function the water serves. Newer distilleries may lack access to traditional water sources and rely entirely on distilled water. This may be purified borehole or aquifer water or even drawn from a tap. Older distilleries were typically built near to sources of water, and more than one distillery has had to close its doors due to the exhaustion of a water source.
In spite of this importance and the various uses of water within whisky it’s often one of the most overlooked areas by whisky drinkers. While we’re certainly not going to advocate the average drinker starts buying Uisge Source or similar whisky themed water brands it’s a fascinating area worth exploring.
Water during production
The mineral content of the water used in the production of whisky can play a role in the final flavour of the whisky. Different minerals can affect the pH levels of the water, which in turn can influence the extraction of flavours from the grains. Additionally, some minerals, such as iron, can produce off-flavours in the whisky if they are present in high concentrations. For these reasons, many distilleries take great care to source water with the right mineral content for their whisky. While cask maturation can do wonderful things to off-notes it’s often simpler to simply avoid the creation in the first place.
The taste of water
Water itself has at most a neutral, slightly refreshing taste, because it is a neutral substance. This lack of strong or distinct flavour, often described as “plain” or “bland” is the reason it is often used as a base for other drinks, since it won’t overpower other ingredients. However, water can pick up other flavours from the things it comes into contact with, such as the minerals in the earth where it is sourced or the substances it is stored in. So, the taste of water can vary depending on its source and how it is treated. Some people may perceive a slight metallic or chlorine taste if the water has been treated or is coming from certain sources. Overall, water is generally considered to be a thirst-quenching beverage that provides hydration without overpowering the palate.
The source of the water
The source of water used for making whisky varies depending on the distillery and the location. Some distilleries use natural springs or wells on their property, while others source their water from nearby rivers, lakes, or other natural sources. The type of water used can affect the flavour of the whisky, so distilleries often carefully select their water source based on factors such as the mineral content, pH level, and overall quality of the water. In some cases, distilleries may also treat the water to remove or adjust certain minerals or other compounds before using it in their whisky.
The taste and even nutritional benefits of water boil down to its mineral content, Doran Binder a UK based a water sommelier tells us that “H2O with nothing else is distilled water with zero minerality, which is not good for the human body” and we might add, is not good for making whisky either.
Boreholes, aquifers and mineral water
Borehole water and aquifer water are similar in that both are sources of underground water, but they are accessed in different ways. Borehole water is water that is found in a narrow, deep hole drilled into the ground, typically using specialized drilling equipment. This water is often used for irrigation or for drinking. Aquifer water, on the other hand, is water that is stored in a rock formation called an aquifer, which is a porous and permeable layer of rock, sand, or gravel that can hold water. Aquifer water is typically accessed through wells, which are drilled into the aquifer to extract the water.
Spring water, on the other hand, is water that flows naturally to the surface of the earth from underground sources, such as underground rivers and aquifers. Spring water is often considered to be of higher quality than other types of water because it has been naturally filtered by the ground. However, the quality of both aquifer and spring water can vary depending on the specific source and the surrounding environment.
Distilled versus purified water
Distilled water and purified water are both processed to remove impurities, but they are treated using different methods. Distilled water is created by boiling water and collecting the steam, which is then condensed back into a liquid form. This process removes dissolved solids, minerals, and other impurities from the water. Purified water, on the other hand, is typically treated using filtration, reverse osmosis, or other methods to remove impurities.
As a result of the different treatment methods, distilled water and purified water may have slightly different tastes. Distilled water is often described as having a “flat” or “neutral” taste, since it lacks the minerals and other dissolved solids that give natural water its flavour. Purified water, on the other hand, may retain some of these dissolved solids, and may therefore have a slightly more pronounced taste. Some people may also perceive a slight chemical or metallic taste in purified water, depending on the treatment methods used. Overall, the main difference between the taste of distilled and purified water is the lack of minerals and other dissolved solids in distilled water.
Untreated or ‘bottled at source’ water
Water that is bottled at the source is water that is collected directly from a natural source, such as a spring or underground aquifer, and bottled without being treated or processed. This type of water may contain minerals and other dissolved solids that give it a distinct flavour and character. These minerals are typically derived from the rocks and soils through which the water flows as it percolates underground. Bottled water that is collected at the source is typically tested for a variety of contaminants and impurities to ensure that it meets quality and safety standards. This testing is typically conducted by the bottled water company or a third-party laboratory.
The specific tests performed on bottled water from the source may vary depending on the type of water, the source, and the quality standards set by the company and regulatory agencies. Common tests include:
- Microbiological testing: This type of testing checks for the presence of harmful bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms in the water.
- Physical and chemical testing: This type of testing examines the water for various physical and chemical characteristics, such as pH, hardness, and total dissolved solids.
- Radiological testing: This type of testing checks for the presence of radioactive materials, such as radon and other radionuclides, in the water.
- Contaminant testing: This type of testing checks for the presence of other contaminants, such as heavy metals, pesticides, and other chemicals that may be harmful to human health.
Water bottled from the source is tested rigorously to ensure that it meets quality and safety standards before it is sold to consumers but retains natural minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc. As a result, water that is bottled at the source is likely to have a more pronounced and natural flavour, while distilled and purified water will have a more neutral and plain taste.
Flavours derived from geology
The specific minerals and other dissolved solids found in natural mineral water will vary depending on the source and the geology of the surrounding area. Common minerals found in natural mineral water include calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and bicarbonate. These minerals give natural mineral water its characteristic taste and can provide various health benefits. Natural mineral water is water that is collected from underground sources, such as springs or aquifers, and is naturally rich in minerals and other dissolved solids. These minerals give natural mineral water its characteristic taste and can vary depending on the source and the geology of the surrounding area.
Typically, natural mineral water has a slightly salty or “earthy” taste, and some people may perceive a slight metallic or mineral-like flavour. The specific taste of natural mineral water may vary depending on the composition of minerals and other dissolved solids present in the water. For example, water that is high in calcium and magnesium may have a slightly bitter or chalky taste, while water that is high in sodium may have a more salty or briny flavour.
Overall, the taste of natural mineral water is generally considered to be unique and distinct, and can vary depending on the specific composition of minerals and other dissolved solids present in the water.
The phenolic peaty flavours and characteristics of whisky are imparted through the production process and are in no way derived from the peat that production water has been in contact with. However this is not to say that the peaty water has no impact on whisky production. Peaty water is water that has been filtered through peat, which is a type of organic matter made up of decomposed plant material.
Water and whisky tasting
Whiskies have a wonderful variety of aromas and flavours, and our perception of these flavours, derived from the complex compounds formed during production and maturation, can be influenced in several ways by the addition of water. When water is added to whisky, it can dilute the alcohol content, which can affect the intensity of the whisky’s flavours and aromas. This is because alcohol is a solvent that can extract and dissolve flavour compounds from the whisky’s ingredients, including the grains, oak barrels, and permitted additives. By diluting the alcohol, water can reduce the concentration of these dissolved flavour compounds, which can make the whisky’s flavours and aromas less intense.
Water can also help to release some of the more subtle flavours and aromas in the whisky, making them more prominent. This is because water can help to break down some of the larger flavour molecules in the whisky, making them more accessible to the nose and palate. Additionally, the minerals in the water can affect the overall flavour of the whisky, depending on the source of the water and the amount used. For example, water with high levels of minerals like calcium and magnesium can add a slightly bitter or metallic taste to the whisky, while water with lower levels of minerals can produce a smoother, more mellow flavour.
Overall, the science of how water changes the flavour of whisky is complex and involves many different chemical and physical processes but the proof is there in the taste. Adding different types of water does bring about subtle changes to the taste of a whisky. In spite of this we at Whiskipedia do not advocate the use of speciality mineral water kits, at least for everyday drinking. If you’re about to crack open a 30+ year bottle of Brora then it might well be worth splashing around £17 on a three regions gift pack, but for the chill filtered and caramel enhanced supermarket bottle of Talisker this is simply ridiculous and not going to make a meaningful difference to your enjoyment.