How Much Water to Add to Whiskey?

Waterfall 200It’s a long-running argument: what’s the perfect amount of water to mix with Bourbon to bring out the nose?

So there we were, challenged to come up with an answer by the producer of a name-embargoed, barrel-strength Bourbon to be released in May. (UPDATE: Bulleit Barrel Strength.)

Around the table a small group waited – hosted by Old Limestone Mixing Water, which bottles mineral-heavy, incredibly pure water from beneath the Bluegrass specifically to be used to cut Bourbon.

In a line across the table, glasses — each containing an ounce-and-a-half of 119-proof whiskey mixed with from one drop to 1.5 ounces of water.

As the host poured the Bourbon, the long-running argument continued. A woman at the end of the table argued that a single drop would magically break the surface tension of the water to release the Bourbon’s heady complexity. The guy next to her argued that a one-to-one mix with absolutely pure water would dilute the alcohol enough to protect the delicate tissues of the nose, allowing longer, more deliberate sniffing. Everyone else occupied positions in between.

One group sniffing one whiskey does not settle this kind of argument, but it’s interesting how quickly a consensus developed.

The favorite: the 2:1 Bourbon-to-water mix. Above that, the nose was weak and watery. Below, the alcohol fumes made it hard to separate the nose’s aromatic subtleties.

As a barrel-strength whiskey, the 2:1 cut lowered the proof to 80, the standard bottle strength of most whiskey brands. You can make the argument, as some did, that the importance is not that the cut itself but the resulting strength of what’s in the glass. Assuming normal 80-proof bottle strength, a single drop might be exactly the right amount of water to use. Others debated how a single drop of water in a Bourbon that had already been cut from barrel to bottle strength could possibly make a difference.

The debate continued unabated until everyone turned to a scientist who had been sitting quietly throughout. She shrugged.

“Is it an argument,” she asked, “that you really want to settle? I would prefer to continue my research.”

She held out her glass for more.