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Water Shown to Enhance Whiskey

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According to a new study, adding water to your Whiskey may act as a flavor enhancement. Molecular chemists in Sweden have found a scientific reason behind the age-old practice of adding a few drops of water to a dram. 

Due to the fact that Whiskey includes a complex variety of molecules that contribute to its unique taste, it is a liquid of much interest to the scientifically inclined. Guaiacol is one such molecule, which provides much of the smokiness associated with some more heavily peated or aged Whiskeys.

According to CNN, Guaiacol is the molecule that two researchers from the Linnaeus University Center for Biomaterials Chemistry in Sweden focused on for their study, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Assessing both bottled and cask-strength Whiskey, the pair found that bottled Whiskey has been diluted to about 40% alcohol by volume, down from 70% after distilling. On the other hand, cask Whiskey tends to be stronger, at about 55% to 65% ABV.

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The scientists found that guaiacol is most present at the surface of Whiskey when water is added, which is why Whiskey with added water tastes better. To put this in the simplest terms possible: the taste molecules are at the top of your glass.

“From a molecular perspective, water and alcohol don’t completely mix,” co-author Ran Friedman revealed to CNN.

“Instead, we have clusters of water molecules and clusters of alcohol molecules. When Whiskey is diluted, the alcohol is driven to the surface, and many of the taste molecules follow it because they like to be in a slightly less aqueous environment. The taste that we experience is therefore enhanced — but there’s a limit. If we dilute the Whiskey too much the concentration of the taste compounds is reduced and the drink will be meager.”

“The most interesting finding was that at high alcohol by volume concentrations 59% and up, cask-strength Whiskey the taste compound was surrounded by ethanol molecules in the solution,” Friedman wrote.

Strangely, Friedman and colleague Bjorn Karlsson didn’t find this out my tasting Whiskeys. No, they were able to reach the conclusion via a computer simulation of the molecules involved.

“They enable us to follow on chemical processes as if we’re watching a molecular movie. We usually work on problems that have something to do with biology or human health, but at some point got interested in understanding why dilution affects the taste of Whiskey,” Friedman said.

“We believe that the principles we describe are true for a long list of taste compounds,” Friedman said.

“In that case, one can find an optimal alcohol content for a spirit to taste best for many drinkers. The conclusions may also apply to the food industry, as some extracts that are used in the industry are stored in diluted alcohol solutions.”

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In recent years, the idea of adding top-quality Whiskey to either ice or a drop of water has come to be more widely accepted by aficionados. Now, there’s finally some scientific evidence to back up what was once seen as the worst of all heresies by Whiskey lovers everywhere.

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