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).


Refreshing Drinks to Beat the August Heat

Everyone who knows me knows I love whiskey. Bourbon, Irish, Scotch, Rye…. It also is welcome to me.

This summer, I enjoyed a great deal of Kentucky classic’s, especially Knob Creek and Harper’s. A liquor store near my office is selling fifths for $25, so can you blame me?

I also enjoyed an odd duck of a bourbon: Sonoma County Distilling Co.’s West of Kentucky Bourbon Whisky No. 1. To the corn and rye mash the distiller added cherrywood smoked malted barley. And it shows — there is a faint cherry aroma to this oily, slightly herbal whisky. They bottled this in August 2016, and made only 300 cases, so if you want to try it, best hurry up and source a bottle.

But it now is August, and the temperature and humidity often is above 90. My Ohio blood is too thick for this weather, and my thirst turns to lighter fare. I won’t say no to a hop-bomb IPA, or a whiskey, for that matter. What really appeals, however, are drinks that are cold and crisp.

A bottle of Proud Pour Sauvignon Blanc ($18) showed up at my door a few months ago, and it well fit the bill. It noses of grapefruit and paired well with salads and roast vegetables. All the more satisfying is that buying a bottle helps fund the growth of more oysters, with which this wine pairs well.

I accidentally made the acquaintance of Zardetto Z Brut recently, which was happy luck. This bargain ($13) prosecco really hit the spot as I sweltered over a grill loaded with dogs and burgers.

I have enjoyed many rosé wines this summer. A decade ago you’d be lucky to find a couple in your local wine shop. Now supermarkets may stock offer a half-dozen or more brands, most of which are priced between $8 and $15. Brands I have tried (and whose names I recall) include Gerard Bertrand, Famille Perrin Reserve, and La Vieille Ferme. In my experience, it is hard to go wrong with rosé — I do not recall once buying a bottle and thinking, “Ugh, this is a disappointment.” (That has happened with plenty of red wines.)

No recitation of hot weather drinks recommendation would be complete without the gin and tonic. A Bombay or Tanqueray and tonic with a slice of lime is a wonderous thing. Those who want to spice up the old G&T have a wealth of options, what with the flood of new gins and the arrival of some really remarkable tonics (e.g., Fever-Tree).

Yes, summer is here, and the heat is on. But who needs water with so many other delicious, refreshing choices?

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). This column previously appeared on the American Spectator.


Moonshine: A Global History Gets Kudos from the Daily Caller

The Daily Caller‘s Carter DeWitt writes:

“Kevin Kosar, vice president of policy at the R Street Institute, recently released a gem of a book covering an oft-joked about but little understood topic — illicit distilled spirits. Titled “Moonshine, A Global History,” Kosar’s work uncovers some interesting history beyond the familiar perspective of the friendly criminal life of the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ or the garish prohibition parties symbolizing ‘The Great Gatsby’….”



Moonshine Is Not Just an American Thing. For Better and for Worse, It’s Age-old and Global.

Source: Ethiopian Still by David Stanley, WikiCommons.

Growing up in the United States, I got the impression that moonshine was a peculiarly American phenomenon. The Dukes of Hazzard television show (1979-1985) and films like Gator served up a simple story. Moonshiners lived in America’s mountains and back roads. They are honest country folk who make ‘likker’ from cherished family recipes. Moonshiners, this story goes, are poor people whose days are spent trying to outfox the police so as to carry on the traditions of their forebears and earn a living by selling white lightning to their friends and neighbors, and college students looking for a thrill.

Judging by the many books on moonshine that have been written in recent years, this “moonshine as an American thing” notion is pretty widespread. Which is understandable, because there are and have been a lot of overall-wearing, tobacco-spitting moonshiners.

But there is way more to moonshine than mason jars and fiddle music. We got a distressing reminder of that truth this past week, when the U.S. State Department warned the public about toxic liquor being peddled in Mexico. One of its victims was a 20-year old woman from Wisconsin.

Moonshine has a global history, one that goes back 600 years, and probably even further. Most certainly, moonshine is not an American invention.

Moonshine is most accurately defined as a “distilled spirit made illegally.” Like any liquor, moonshine is made by first producing a fermented beverage (a beer or wine). Thereafter, the distiller heats the beer or wine, captures the alcoholic vapors, and then condenses them into spirit.

Moonshine was born the moment that government declared that individuals needed a license to produce it. That first happened in the 1400s in Europe, although it is entirely possible the date is earlier. Government rules on strong drink date to the reign of Hammurabi, and the process of distillation was known in the days of Aristotle.

Contrary to popular myth, the word “moonshine” is not an American term used because moonshine was made under the light of the moon. The term “moonshine” hails from the British Isles. Initially, that is, starting in the 1400s, moonshine referred to the light of the moon. Over time the term evolved to mean illusory or deceptive. By the 1780s, moonshine took on alcoholic content. Lexicographer Francis Grose, who prowled the seedier parts of London in search for slang, heard moonshine used to mean unlicensed booze. His Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) includes an entry for moonshine that captures both its earliest and emergent meaning. Moonshine is: “a trifle, nothing. The white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex, are also called moonshine.’

And contrary to the often-peddled proposition that moonshine is synonymous with corn liquor, moonshine has been made from just about every foodstuff imaginable, and nearly every nation has its own version of moonshine. Kenya has Changaa’, made from sorghum and corn. Uganda has Waragi, AKA war gin, made from bananas. Myanmar has toddy made from Palm tree sap, and Mongolia has Arkhi, a horse-milk-based distilled spirit. In prisons, moonshine has been made from catsup packets, fruit juices, and other things I shall not mention.

These days, all sorts of folks moonshine. Hobbyists and foodies in search of “authentic drink” buy stills online and learn how to distill from YouTube videos. Some of these newbies eventually open licit craft distilleries. Some indigenous cultures still produce their own spirits for use in ceremonies.

All too often, unfortunately, moonshining is a criminal racket that imperils public health. Rarely a week goes by without the media abroad reporting on people getting sick, going blind, or dying from toxic moonshine. Criminals, unsurprisingly, have no reservations about swindling customers and peddling poisonous methyl alcohol (commonly called wood alcohol) and other toxic chemicals. A century ago, many western nations enacted prohibition in a religious hissyfit, and criminal gangs rushed in to serve the market. Today, moonshining is rampant in failed states with collapsed currencies and corrupt governments, and in nations where radical Islamic regimes have banned drink or heavily taxed it.

All of which is to say is that the story of moonshine is way more complicated than often portrayed. Illicit liquor flows all about the globe, and has for centuries. Which should be unsurprising, as moonshine expresses both the admirable and rascally characteristics sown in our nature.

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). This column also was published by the American Spectator.


Moonshine: A Global History Gets a Good Review from the Weekly Standard


Winston Groome writes at the July 3/10, 2017 Weekly Standard:

“Moonshine always reminds me of the time the great P. J. O’Rourke got hold of a jug of the stuff in college and it caused him to be struck blind. It seems that O’Rourke and some of his buddies in Ohio went down into Kentucky looking for moonshine to bring back for a party that night. He drank from the jug—amount unknown—and by the time he awoke next morning all he could see was white! He spent several terrifying moments until, at last, he realized he was on his hands and knees with his head hanging in somebody’s toilet.

“With that warning ringing in your ears, Dear Reader—come, let’s investigate this 10,000-year-old phenomenon known as moonshine. Contrary to popular legend, “moonshine” does not take its name from dark Appalachian mountain hollows and a sinister time of night…”



The Strange War on Alcohol Advertising

Carrie Nation, the Hatchet-Wielding Temperance Warrior.

Earlier this year, there began a drum beat to ban drinks advertising. There was the Washington Post, which ran an article titled, “For women, heavy drinking has been normalized. That’s dangerous.” To ensure readers were sufficiently panicked, they included “Nine charts that show how white women are drinking themselves to death.” The authors fingered alcohol advertising and even an Amy Schumer movie.

The ivory tower, eager to help, also chimed in. “It is a looming health crisis,” declared one academic. Addiction journal, an always cheerful read, issued a “call for governments around the world” to pass laws banning alcohol advertising. “Governments are responsible for the health of their citizens,” admonished Prof. Thomas Babor, who edited the issue and long has demonized drink. To this end, public health agencies should be empowered to enforce the ban and punish anyone who violates it.

The Federal Trade Commission, for its part, frets, “These days, advertising is almost everywhere we go — on television, in the bus, on the street, and on the Internet. Alcohol advertising is no exception. And, as is the case with most advertising, alcohol advertising makes the product look great!”

What is all so bizarre is that the data on alcohol consumption paint a very different picture of America and drink. A new Gallup survey reports about six out of ten Americans today consume alcohol occasionally, which is about the same level as it always has been.

 But what about alcohol misuse, you may wonder? Well, per capita alcohol consumption is down from 10 liters to 8 liters per year since 1980, a 20% drop. Chronic liver diseases, which alcoholics can get, is down from 15.1 individuals per 100,000 to 10.4 per 100,000 during that same period. Drunk driving also is trending downward.

But what about the children, you may ask? Well, underage drinking by high schoolers has declined over the last decade. So too is binge drinking by under-age persons. The Centers for Disease Control reports: “During 1991–2007, the prevalence of current drinking among high school students declined significantly, from 50.8% (1991) to 44.7% (2007), and then significantly declined to 32.8% in 2015. The prevalence of binge drinking increased from 31.3% in 1991 to 31.5% in 1999, and then significantly declined to 17.7% in 2015.”

All of which makes the thesis — that alcohol advertising is a peril that demands new laws and new governmental enforcers — very strange.

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). This essay previously appeared at the American Spectator.