No, science does not prove whiskey tastes better with water

Source: Björn C. G. Karlsson and Ran Friedman, “Dilution of whisky – the molecular perspective.”

The Internet is a wasteland of “you’re doing it wrong” articles. It’s a popular style of content, but often insufferable, as the author (frequently a 20-something) wags a finger at readers for doing something in a way that is deemed imperfect, be it running, eating apples, or managing your cellphone’s data usage.

So we should not be surprised that this month that bloggers loaded the Inter-webs with stories declaring that we idiots are drinking hooch wrong. Whaaaat, you ask? Well, according to these article, researchers have proven whiskey tastes better with water. So says CNN, Maxim, the Washington Post, the Verge, and innumerable other outlets.

Pretty much everything that is wrong with this “whiskey tastes better with water” blogging can be found in Vice’s,  “’Neat’ Is Not a Good Way to Drink Whiskey, Says Science.”

Start with the title. Science, ah yes, that humbling process by which we progressively test hypotheses in hopes of edging ourselves closer to the truth about some aspect of our universe. That trial and error process which moves by fits and starts and sometimes gets things wrong, like when the lab coated MD’s claimed that consuming salt will put you in the grave with a heart attack. Yes, my dear reader, the righteous spiked mace of “science” now is being swung at you for drinking undeniably wrongly.

As we read the text, things go downhill.

“For all of the grains-and-barrel alchemy of whiskey-making, there is, of course, a more scientific chemical reason why whiskey tastes the way it does—whether it’s from Scotland or Kentucky—and that reason is a molecule called guaiacol….. Turns out that at alcohol concentrations of 45 percent and lower, the guaiacol molecules in whiskey come to the top of the glass, making it smell and taste better, whereas at 59 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), guaiacol gets dispersed throughout the glass, away from the surface, and thus away from the nose and mouth of the drinker….. So, next time you’re drinking, pour one out for Björn C. G. Karlsson and Ran Friedman, whose computer modeling helps us better understand the magic of whiskey. Or, better yet, pour a little water in your bourbon—but only if it’s above 45 percent ABV. Hey, science is cool.”

What a hot mess. The “science” the author cites is a single study, which was conducted via computer modeling, not by actually taking various types of whiskey (bourbon, rye, Irish, Scotch, etc.) and actually testing them. (Which is to say nothing of different brands of any particular sort of whiskey, like Single malt Scotch whisky.) The study also notes that molecules other that guaiacol affect a drinker’s perception of aroma and flavor, but they have no proof (wink) if water dilution affects perceptions of these other yummy molecules. To boot, the scientists further point out that different types of whiskey have different levels of guaiacol in them, and nothing in their research addresses humans’ diverse ability to detect guaiacol’s flavor effects.

This blogger and the many others could have dodged these remedial errors had they bothered to read the study, which is online, and thought a bit.

More broadly, all these blog posts presume that science can dictate what people should like. Which is silly. Palates differ wildly from person to person. Some folks prefer their hooch heavily iced because the chill makes it less intense. Other feel that ice and water make their drinks flaccid and less interesting. I myself take some whiskeys straight, others I dilute with varying amounts of water or ice. Different things taste differently on different days and after or with different foods.

All of which confirms the wisdom of the guys and gals who make the whiskey. Every time I have heard a distiller asked, “How should I drink your liquor?” the answer inevitably is, roughly, “Drink it any way you like.”

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at R Street Institute and heads its alcohol policy reform program. He is the author of Moonshine: A Global History (2017) and Whiskey: A Global History (2010).


The Irish Whiskey Boom

Jameson Caskmates Irish Whiskey

Victorino Matus of the Free Beacon reports:

“According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, supplier sales for all spirits in 2016 increased 4.5 percent to $25.2 billion. Volume grew 2.4 percent to 220 million cases. As a subset, American whiskey—bourbon, Tennessee, and rye—experienced higher revenue growth (7.7 percent) and volume (6.8 percent). Irish whiskey, however, is a different story: Volume is up a whopping 18.7 percent. Revenue increased by almost 20 percent. It is the fastest growing spirit in the United States. But why?”



America’s Spirits Business Is Booming

Distilled Spirits Council, "Economic Briefing," Feb. 2017.
Source: Distilled Spirits Council, “Economic Briefing,” Feb. 2017.

The U.S. drinks business is booming, despite the finger-wagging by neo-prohibitionists. Last year’s liquor volume sales climbed 2.4 percent to 220 million cases, and the revenues were up 4.5 percent to $25.2 billion, according to data released by the Distilled Spirits Council.

Does this means America is on a bender? No. In fact, Americans are not drinking more per capita. Binge drinking is down as is underage drinking.

The growth of the sales of spirits volumes partly reflects that more Americans are adding spirits to their intake. Some 28 percent of Americans call spirits their first choice for tippling, according to a Harris poll. Robert Simonson’s recent book, “A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World,” well tells how cocktails have gone from low-quality and uncool to top-notch and chic over the past 20 years.

And when Americans drink spirits they increasingly are drinking pricier stuff from the top-shelf. High end and super premium sales are growing for nearly every category, as the table below shows.

Source: Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, “Annual Briefing Support Tables,” Feb. 2017.
Source: Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, “Annual Briefing Support Tables,” Feb. 2017.

Rising sales and revenues also also reflect continued export expansion. U.S. spirits exports increased 6.8 percent, despite the dollar being strong relative to many foreign currencies. Canada, the U.K., Australia, Spain, Germany, and Japan were the top export markets, each purchasing more than $100 million in hooch.

What will the future bring for drinks sales? Certainly, the neo-prohibitionists pose a threat. They continues blaming alcohol as an evil and advocating higher taxes and more restrictions on access. To date, the domestic market has ignored their macabre tales. Indeed, over the past decade states and localities have expanded access by permitting liquor tastings at distilleries and paring back Sunday sales restrictions. 

Internationally, things are a bit more difficult to predict. Certainly, the world is falling in love with American whiskeys—as well they should. However, our teetotaler President Donald J. Trump’s threats to renegotiate trade deals adds a wildcard into the mix. If he can cut America a better deal or partners with Congress to enact policies to weaken the dollar, drinks sales could climb. But exports could suffer if Trump greatly antagonizes foreign leaders or pulls a Brexit-type maneuver, sales could fall—which would hurt American distilleries and anyone with drinks stocks in their portfolios. Time will tell.


Want a $950 Shot of Cognac?

columbia-roomFritz Hahn of the Washington Post reports:

“For your average barfly, the Columbia Room’s prix fixe Tasting Room cocktail menu — which starts at $79 for three cocktails paired with small bites in the meticulous Blagden Alley lounge — is a splurge. But even the Columbia Room’s priciest “experiences,” which incorporate champagne and osetra caviar, are far cheaper than the cost of a single ounce of cognac in the bar’s Spirits Library.

Okay, it’s not just any cognac: It’s an 1811 Napoleon cognac, from one of the most renowned cognac vintages in history, which is why its price tag is a hefty $950, the most expensive of almost two dozen vintage spirits priced by the ounce.

For Columbia Room founder Derek Brown, a library of historical spirits is like a cellar of vintage wines. “You’re not just buying something old, you’re buying something indicative of a different era, something very rare,” he says.



Machine Lets You Blend Your Own Wine


The Economist reports on the Vinfusion, a marvelous machine made by Cambridge Consultants:

To create a new wine the customer manipulates three sliders on a touch screen attached to the machine. One moves between the extremes of “light” and “full-bodied”. A second runs from “soft”, via “mellow” to “fiery”. The third goes from “sweet” to “dry”. No confusing descriptions like “strawberry notes with a nutty aftertaste” are needed. The desired glass is then mixed from tanks of each of the four primaries, hidden inside the machine’s plinth. The requisite quantities are pumped into a transparent cone-shaped mixing vessel on top of the plinth. Added air bubbles ensure a good, swirling mix and flashing light-emitting diodes give a suitably theatrical display.



Interesting News About the Flavored Liquor Craze

Chocolate cookie dough vodka. Source:
Chocolate cookie dough vodka. Source:

Are we done with stuff like Pinnacle Chocolate Cookie Dough Vodka?

The Wall Street Journal’s Saabira Chaudhuri has an engaging piece on drinks-makers’ flavored liquors and product-line extensions.

To flavor or not to flavor: That is the question for booze makers. Alcohol executives argue that flavored extensions of existing spirits brands can attract new customers—particularly women—while reviving interest among existing drinkers.

But flavors often tend to be fads, meaning sales plummet when customers tire of the new taste. That piles pressure on alcohol makers to continually discover the next big thing or brace for wild revenue swings. “If you overdo it, you get into dangerous territory. You’re a little bit like a hamster on a wheel who has to run faster and faster just to stay still,” said Bob Kunze-Concewitz, chief executive of Davide Campari-Milano SpA, which owns brands such as Campari liqueur and Skyy vodka.

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