I recently experienced what my farming friend calls the 'Ten Steak Experience'. My fellow guests and I sampled our way through ten different cuts of his lovingly produced beef which is nurtured on his farm. I left feeling very well fed, but also appreciating that from the first moment of conception to the final delivery of the steak to your mouth there is plenty of room for error. Error that will affect the quality of that final tasting experience.
So consider this the next time you reduce your dram with a splash of water. The liquid in your glass has been crafted through production and matured over years. It may then be blended, reduced, filtered, coloured and then bottled, packaged and set on its way into the world. The marketeers will have created the brand and the PR people will think of ever ingenious ways to bring it to your notice. Most consumers would be astonished if they knew how many checks are made along the way to avoid anything effecting the final deliverance when you take your first sip.
I suspect that somewhere out there, there is a book called The Rules of Whisky. I have never found it, but if you find a copy please let me know. One of the 'rules' is that you shouldn't put water in your whisky. My mantra is that when you have a whisky in your glass, it's your whisky to enjoy how you like. That said, I do generally reduce the strength of my dram and encourage others to do the same. This advice was given to me by Ed Dodson, the distillery manager at Glen Moray, many years ago.
Charlie MacLean was, and is, influential in my understanding of the spirit. Again, early in my exploration and sampling at the kitchen table, he encouraged my first steps in appreciating whisky. 'Enjoy drinking whisky any way you like but when it comes to appreciating whisky, especially a malt, you need to add water.' In the resurrected Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald he also advises 'the experimenter should add some water to the remainder of the spirit and drink it thoughtfully'. When analysing samples in the lab during my time at Glenmorangie, all the glasses were reduced to 20% ABV.
So what is the best water? This was the question that Graeme Lindsay asked himself when he investigated the ritual of drinking whisky. Just as the glass would add to the experience, why was the source of the water overlooked?
Dr Stephen Cribb, expert geologist, who wrote Scotch on the Rocks, knows a thing or two about water. In his book he advises 'the ideal is to be able to use the (diluting) water from which the whisky was made.' Graeme has worked for years in the whisky industry so was well positioned to ask advice from a variety of contacts, and the answer kept on coming back the same.
'It's best to use the water that made the whisky.' This statement kept emerging. And this was consistent with my findings that different waters brought out different aromas and flavours in the same dram.
He has coined the expression 'it's the drop that makes the dram' based on the opening effect that dilution creates. He wants the water to enhance the drink and tease out aroma and flavour that would otherwise stay locked in. What he describes as watering up, rather than watering down. Adding water will also reduce the burn that can often attack your taste buds when trying a whisky at full strength. "Isn't this what normal tap water can do?" I asked. "In many countries where whisky is enjoyed, the quality of the water isn't good enough for single malts. Your malt deserves something better or it may taint the whisky. By adding source water with the same chemistry you will reveal more complexity and ensure the whisky stays true to its character," was the reply.
What interested me was that it was this that inspired Uisge Source, as opposed to the science. The science is there to back it up. The closer the chemistry of the distillery source water is to the water reducing your dram, the better the experience. But with over a hundred distilleries operating in Scotland, the task of bottling each and every one wasn't practical.
Simon Gillespie, Head of Scientific Services at Scottish Water, advised Lindsay regarding the range of waters to be found in Scotland. He explained that water is classified into six categories, measuring from soft to very hard. The search for each of the springs was lengthy, especially for the Highland region, as it is so diverse in character. Reasoning that the highest concentration of Highland malts are north of Inverness it seemed logical to locate the water source in this area. The water drawn from St Colman's well in Highland Ross-shire is hard water, rich in minerals.
The water selected from Speyside is sourced from the Cairngorms. In Moray there is one of Scotland's highest natural mountain springs. It has filtered through hard granite and is therefore soft water and low in minerals. The more naturally acidic water from the Ardilistry spring gets its character from filtration through the abundance of peat on Islay.
At Aberfeldy they have commissioned Uisge Source, to bottle the water from the Pitilie Burn. The water is said to have been one of the few places in Scotland where you could pan for gold and the water has rich deposits of alluvial gold. The water was filtered through schist rock producing 'a moderately mineralised hard water.'
There is something very appealing about delicately adding a few drops of the same water that twelve years previously tumbled down the same hill to make the spirit that was now in my glass. The final cut is in my hands.