Thursday, March 15, 2012

Corroborating the Value Whisky Reviews experiment with integrating water - Part 1

I sure love the flavor density and intensity of cask strength whiskeys (and whiskys). However, they can be difficult to drink. The heat, power, and intensity of alcohol at cask strength can overwhelm the palate and the senses. The traditional solution - adding water - is problematic. As Ryan at Value Whiskey Reviews explains:

" I don't like to add water for three main reasons:
1. It never seems to do anything positive - just makes it more diluted and blander.
2. Even when you add water to tame a high-proof whisky, it doesn't seem to "integrate" and take the bite away. So now you have less flavor, and it's still too intense.

3. It's too much work figuring out how much to add and keeping track of that. KISS is my strategy whenever possible: Keep It Simple, Stupid."

I've always found that to be the case too. I allude to it again and again in various reviews on this site. For example, in my review of Bookers bourbon I wrote:

"Wow! I'm after another sip right away, but at this high a proof I must take my time. The first big question is "can I use water"? You always can, but sometimes it robs a whiskey of its heart."

In my review of Port Charlotte PC7 I wrote:

"The explosion of flavors is unusually intense and I want more right away. However the mouth sear from the high proof makes me slow down and have a drink of water every 3rd or 4th sip. Early on this intense young cask strength heat made me tempted to put water in it. Doing so cuts the heat but also dilutes the intense sweet salty smoke intensity that wows me. I opt for interspersing sips of water to cut the fire in my mouth and take this whiskey neat."

Ryan, figured out a solution - for Redbreast CS Irish whiskey anyway. He wrote up this fascinating experiment with the periods of time involved in integrating water into whisky using Redbreast 12 cask strength on Sunday, 3/11/12:

"...two days ago I poured 10 mL of bottled water into an empty 50 mL miniature bottle, then filled the rest up with Redbreast 12 CS. The end result - if I did the math correctly - should be 46-47% ABV, plus or minus. The exact number isn't too important. The important part is that that sample has been "integrating" over the last two days, and tonight, I am filling another sample bottle with the exact same ratio of water, and then pouring a dram immediately (well, after shaking to mix the water). So I am going to compare and see if there is any difference between "recently poured water" (RPW) and "integrated water" (IW)."

Ryan discovered that the sample that had been diluted with 1/5th water and allowed to sit and "marry" for two days ("integrated water" (IW)) was smoother, mellower, and more richly flavored than the sample that had just been diluted (recently poured water (RPW)). I wondered if Ryan's method of integrating water would work on the cask strength Bookers bourbon and Port Charlotte PC7 Islay Scotch single malt whisky expressions that I had previously attempted to water down - but without ideal results. So this Tuesday I put up four 50ml bottles. Two of them were filled 4/5th full of Bookers. In one of those I added 1/5 water. In the other I left 1/5th empty to allow me to mix water in at the same proportion immediately before the testing. The other two 50ml bottles were filled with Port Charlotte PC7. In one of those I added 1/5 water and in the other I left it 1/5th empty for the addition of water at the time of the test too.

So, lets see if Ryan's discovery that water integrates better with cask strength Irish whisky over time works with cask strength expressions of bourbon and Scotch whisky from Islay.

Water integration Experiment: Bookers 3/15/21012 6pm - 60 hours of integration.

Integrated Water (IW) has a noticeably muted nose. Less hot and sharp, but also less sweet and less woody. Corn and vegetal notes now prominent.

Entry is much smoother, but sweetness intensity greatly reduced. Body is thinner than uncut - but dramatically thicker and less watery than RPW. Midpalate expansion is still hot. Finish is still nice and long with Jim Beam sour note.

Recently Poured Water (RPW)

Nose is sharper, sweeter, more like uncut Bookers.

Entry has obvious watery note but the razor sharp sweetness of Bookers is plainly detectible. Midpalate heat is greatly reduced compared to uncut - but still hotter than IW. Midpalate flavors are fresher and more vivid too. Mouthfeel is much more watery, however than IW. Finish is noticably impacted. The spirit heat burn remains but the sweet and wood which dominated the finish are substantially reduced, as is the Beam diagnostic sour note.

After 30 minutes the body has noticeably improved. Sweet entry still in evidence. Midpalate still hot - but finish is getting better. After 45 minutes minor advancements on this line.

For me this is much more of a mixed bag than Ryan found. The RPW had more of uncut Booker's nose and sweet intensity on entry, but at the cost of a watery mouthfeel and an impaired finish. IW was substantially shelved down in the nose and missing the brown sugar intensity of Booker's entry. However it had much better thicker mouthfeel, midpalate corn structure, and a richer, more satisfying finish. What a conundrum. It's almost a tie - with neither one winning. Neither dilution did uncut Bookers any favors. In the future I'll still take my Booker's neat even if it means going slow and enduring the sear. However, if I do decide to cut Bookers my conclusion is the opposite of Ryan's: it's better to add water just before sipping and give it 30-40 minutes to rest and marry. Longer integration robs it of too much of it's nose and front end.

It's clear that I'm observing the same effects that Ryan found: extended time for integration yields a rounder smoother nose and front end and richer body without sacrificing the finish. However it seems that Ryan found this transformation served Redbreast 12 CS well and I found it ill suited to Bookers. The intense sweet nose and entry are Bookers greatest charms. The gains in smoothness and body and finish do not compensate for their loss in the case of Bookers bourbon.

Tomorrow we will see what happens with Port Charlotte 7...


  1. Josh, great stuff! However, I want to comment on your conclusions. I think you may be confounding two different things:
    1)how does "dilution integration" affect the dram, and
    2)HOW MUCH should it be diluted.

    For example, I know that the overall dilution level I obtained with 4:1 ratio whisky:water was simply too much dilution. I tried to not get into that in the post so as to not confuse things. My post was really supposed to be about point #1 only.

    It does depend on the whisky. For example, with Glenlivet Nadurra, when I added a splash of water it took away certain flavors/sensations that were most pleasing to me, so I stopped experimenting with water. With Redbreast, when I added a splash, I did not notice any real change in the flavor profile, and thus, I wanted to experiment with HOW do I dilute.

    So, step 1 has to be "should this whisky be diluted?" And if the answer is yes, I would tend to think that "integrated water approach" will generally be better. If the answer is no, then dram-time dilution would probably be the better answer because it would retain more of the cask-strength flavors. But, if the answer is no, the best bet is to stick with cask-strength.

    1. Excellent point. The amount of water is a critical factor. My goal in this exercise was simply to re-create your experiment exactly. In point of fact the correct amount of water here may be 1/8th, or just a teaspoon... or less.

      I guess that is the next frontier. This is just the beginning...

    2. Yeah that's the trick. It's just all over the place, which is of course why I usually stick to my "don't add water" policy!

      With Booker's the extreme complexity must come simply from being barrel-strength; if you dilute it, you're basically left with Beam Black. With Redbreast 12 CS, dilute it and you're still left with Redbreast 12, so that's a clue that maybe it can take more water than Booker's.

    3. Ryan: "I think you may be confounding two different things:
      1)how does "dilution integration" affect the dram, and
      2)HOW MUCH should it be diluted."

      I am conflating those things - but I'm aware that they are separate. In my conclusion I state:

      "It's clear that I'm observing the same effects that Ryan found: extended time for integration yields a rounder smoother nose and front end and richer body without sacrificing the finish. However it seems that Ryan found this transformation served Redbreast 12 CS well and I found it ill suited to Bookers."

      Thus I have corroborated your result - but find that I don't think it serves this particular whiskey. The fact remains that integrated water produces a smoother rounder experience than freshly poured water. I concur.

    4. Yes, you're right. I was just stuck on the first issue and you began discussing the second and I got left behind!