Adding a small amount of water is thought to open up the flavor of the drink, but a new study suggests there’s a point where it becomes too much – about 20%.
At this point, too much water can make whiskeys in the same group taste the same, according to the study.
According to the researchers, the findings may also help explain why larger ice cubes have become so popular, as they allow the drink to be enjoyed before it is too diluted.
Tom Collins, assistant professor at Washington State University and lead author of the study, said: “If you want to enjoy a particular whisky, this suggests you don’t want to dilute it more than about 20%.”
“By the time you get to 60/40 whiskey to water, the whiskeys are no longer differentiated by the panelists – they start to smell the same, and that’s not what you’re looking for.”
He added: “This study helps us understand why those big, square ice cubes have become so popular, because you can actually enjoy the whiskey before it’s diluted to the point where it’s not the same whiskey anymore.”
Conducting the study
Also, a jury of 20 experts evaluated six of these whiskeys, three scotches and three bourbons.
Both tests found that adding a small amount of water can change the smell of whiskies, and after 20% water added, they can start to taste the same.
Working with Oregon State University’s Elizabeth Tomasino, who led the sensory panel, the researchers found that at the 100% whiskey level, the panelists could easily distinguish all the whiskeys from each other.
They could still differentiate the whiskeys in each group at 80/20 whiskey – water, but after more water was added, the situation changed.
The study found that while within each whiskey style, flavors became more similar, the larger group of Scotch whiskeys, both single malts and blends, remained distinct from American bourbons and ryes.
Chemical analysis revealed similar results, showing changes in the volatile compounds that entered the zone above the liquid when water was added.
Whiskey is a mixture of compounds that run the scale from hydrophilic to hydrophobic, in other words, those that are attracted to water and others that are repelled by it.
Adding water sends the whiskey’s hydrophobic compounds into that space and leaves the hydrophilic ones behind, altering the flavor of the liquid, experts say.
The study found that the chemical analysis corresponded to the impressions of the panel of experts.
For example, many of the Scotch whiskeys started out with a smoky, peaty flavor but, as they were diluted, turned to a fruitier flavor known as pome.
Collins explained: “This happens because of the way dilution affects what’s in the headspace. Compounds that are associated with smoky flavors dissipate and have been replaced by compounds that are associated with fruity flavors.”
At first, American bourbons were associated mostly with vanilla and oak flavors, but as more water was added, they took on more corn and grain flavors.
The researchers suggest that the findings, published in the journal Foods, may help whiskey makers better understand how their customers will experience the drink if they choose to add water or drink it over ice.
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