There wouldn’t be whisky without water. In fact, the word whisky comes from the Gaelic word uisge meaning water, which, in turn, comes from Latin aqua vitae (uisge beatha in Scottish Gaelic), as in water of life.
Everyone appreciates the importance of the water source when it comes to making whisky. If you’ve read my previous article ‘The Whisky battle – Laphroaig vs Lagavulin’ you’ll know how far these distilleries were willing to go in efforts to ensure the purity of their water supply.
Of course, today there are distilleries that are literally using water straight from the tap. But saying that, this is not possible for just any distillery. The country’s water sources must be pure and without harsh components. Many distilleries are located right by a river or loch where they get their water directly into the distillery. Sometimes the water is naturally filtered by ancient volcanic rocks or through other natural resources.
Should I add water to whisky?
There are several things to consider here. Firstly, distilleries already dilute their whisky with water to the level they find works best for that specific whisky. That could be to 40% or 46% ABV for example. This is why I personally never add water to whisky that has already been diluted by the distillery. For me it feels too watery even with just a drop or two, and I also find water usually makes the whisky taste more spicy than I like.
When it comes to cask-strength whiskies, which can be as high as 68% ABV(!), it is often recommended to add water to bring down the alcohol levels and to help open up those flavours. I started my whisky journey by drinking cask-strength whiskies, so I rarely add water even to those drams. For me, simply leaving the whisky in the glass for a few minutes will open up the flavours enough.
But of course, it is recommended you first try the whisky neat and then, if you prefer, add a drop of two of water after. You can always keep adding more. It is better to take it drop by drop than free pour and overdilute. There are great little pipettes available for just that purpose.
Adding water to whisky really is down to one’s personal preferences. It is not wrong to add water or not to add it. It simply is based on how the whisky best works for your palate. This is also something that may change over time.
What kind of water to use?
Secondly, I may have taken the water quality for granted in the past. In Finland the water is clean and ready to be enjoyed straight from the tap, as in Scotland. But unfortunately, not every country is so fortunate, and therefore adding water to your whisky can also really affect the taste.
All naturally sourced waters contain, to a greater or lesser degree, a concentration of elements such as calcium, sodium, etc. and compounds such as chlorides, sulphates, etc., all generally known as minerals. These come from the geological make-up of the area where the water arises. Rainwater travels down to a normally deep-seated source where the water absorbs local minerals. Most naturally sourced waters have a measurable level of minerals within them, which in historical times gave them the title Mineral Water.
At the time, the mineral content was considered a healthy attribute. However, the dissolved minerals in water heavily impact the taste of the water.
This is where brands like Larkfire come in handy.
Listen to Whisky Sisters Podcast episode on water in whisky. We tested both Larkfire and Birkentree waters.
Larkfire has a neutral taste and smell so it will not add any aroma or flavour to the whisky. I tasted it alongside filtered Italian tap water and you could definitely tell them apart. Larkfire really had no extra flavours, while the tap water was slightly savoury/salty.
Tap water may be treated with chlorine and fluoride and in some places has also been found to contain other additives and hormones, such as oestrogen. All these additives influence both the nose and the taste of the water and then, of course, the whisky.
Larkfire consulted with master blenders, professors, chemists and geologists and their research led them to the Hebridean island of Lewis, where they get natural wild water with a soft profile. The water in Lewis is held on the surface by three-billion-year-old Lewisian gneiss rock. This non-soluble metamorphic rock is part of the reason for the water’s purity and lack of mineral content.
When compared to other waters, the difference in the content is huge. Larkfire’s data taken in 2018 shows that the likes of Evian, San Pellegrino, Buxton and other bottled water brands have higher levels of solids. For example, Evian has 80mg/l of calcium and San Pellegrino 180mg/l, while Larkfire’s calcium level is only 2.7mg/l. They also measured magnesium, potassium, sodium, chloride, sulphate and more. The total of these solids came to 71mg/l in Larkfire, while Evian was 485mg/l and San Pellegrino a whopping 1050mg/l.
This obviously doesn’t mean these drinks are bad for you or taste bad, but they will definitely have an impact on your whisky if you use them to dilute your dram.
There are other brands as well that are designed for whisky dilution. For example, Uisge Source has a range of waters which should be paired with whiskies from different regions. The chemistry of Uisge Source waters is said to match the chemistry of the waters used in whisky distillation in each region. Hard, mineral-rich spring water from the Highlands for Highland whiskies, soft, low-mineral spring water from Speyside for Speyside whisky, and higher natural acidity from Islay-based springs are to be paired with Islay malts. They all have different levels of solids (which are all higher than Larkfire by the way…). I have not tried these so I can’t comment on how well they actually work. Clearly their idea differs from that of Larkfire and I’d expect their waters to have a bit more flavour.
I can absolutely appreciate the quality of Larkfire for whisky dilution, but trying it out with cask-strength whiskies still didn’t change my mind on adding water to whisky. If you like a drop in your dram, please do give it a try.
I also sampled their canned sparkling water by making a Highball using another cask-strength whisky from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and it worked amazingly. I find that Highballs can be a hit and miss depending what type of sparkling or soda water is being used. Many pubs and bars use soda straight from the gun, which usually is a bit salty. Larkfire had an ideal level of fizziness, and it didn’t bring any extra flavours into the drink. I could still clearly taste the whisky in question.
I’ll definitely be stocking the sparkling water at home.
Do you add water to your whisky? If yes, do you use tap or bottled water? Please share your whisky and water thoughts by commenting below.
Disclaimer: Larkfire gifted me some samples of their waters with no requirement to feature them, although it did give me the idea for this blog post.