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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).