For this week’s #FibFriday, sorry, but we are dealing with and cordially dispelling a little of the romanticism rife in the whisky industry - Fib of the Week #13: “Our whisky is so good because of our super unique, great quality water source!”. We have nothing against distilleries talking about the great quality water in Scotland. It’s one of the reasons we think we are in one of the best countries on earth. And there’s a lot of truth in the phrase “today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky”. But some distilleries, some distillery staff and even some ambassadors will tell you about the water source like it’s some sort of sacred glory that creates the flavour of your dram. Folk at Kingsbarns have been known to boast about their borehole down to very pure water; Bowmore and Glenlivet may each take you to see their burns. Hell, we’ve even had an otherwise brilliant tour guide at Auchentoshan praising the beautiful clear waters of Loch Katrine. Now, Loch Katrine is the water source for the whole of Glasgow, pumped by reservoir and whatnot down and then through taps throughout the city. It’s good water, but it’s just fairly standard Scottish water - as folks in Scotland might even call it, ‘Cooncil Juice’ - the only difference is that the distillery obviously uses quite a lot. As we said, in Scotland, we’re bloody lucky.
Auchentoshan make great whisky, they also use great water. But there’s nothing special about it. Studies vary on flavour in whisky, usually mainly emphasising the cask, but also with more recent work on yeast and barley varietals, sometimes even with direct reference to where they are grown (more on this in a future post). What’s pretty universally accepted is that the water has minimal if any effect on the final taste. Personally, I would say none. People have done tastings with bottled water, samples of water from the different regions individual distilleries are from, and tap water. They’ve noted a few differences and always claim that tap water is worse. Frankly, from our own tasting experience, we are inclined to say that that difference is largely down to psychology and placebo, supposed blind tastings be damned. Regardless, the difference is so minimal that, so long as you are drinking your whisky with good quality clean water, should you choose to add it, it really won’t make much difference to the taste what you use. (Birch water for example from our friends at Birkentree is a completely different story. That’s tapped directly from birch trees. Of course it’s substantially different from tap water. This post refers purely to good old H2O, not extract from great Scottish trees.).
Much the same can be said for the distillation process. Water is mainly there to breakdown chemical bonds in the mash when it’s put in at temperature, activate the enzymes, and thus to flush through the sugar. With which to feed the yeast. Now, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the brewing process here - certain hard waters may contain a number of minerals, and also water may have slightly varying acidity levels, all of which can help activate certain enzymes and reactions while brewing the wash with yeast, and thus improve concentrations of certain for example amino acids. As yet, it’s unproven how much effect specifically this has on flavour, particularly in spirits - different yeast strains and longer fermentation times are certainly more important in getting for example fruity flavours than minimal mineral concentrations in the water. We therefore won’t entirely discount different water sources having some very, very minor effect on flavour, but we would estimate it as somewhere lower than 2% of the final flavour profile of a finished whisky.
Where water *is* important in whisky however is in 2 vital aspects. Firstly, it’s important that you have a clean, uncontaminated water source. We don’t want to kill anyone with our spirits, even if they are heavily boiled to be distilled. That goes with the ubiquitous advice to drink responsibly, of course. Similarly, any contaminants will cause problems with the brewing process. Fortunately in Scotland, I believe there are no areas still that have tap water unfit to drink. Your only issue will be a building with very old lead pipes, or a house that is so remote it is not hooked up to the system and thus has to rely on its own water cistern, where water may not be treated properly or else hang around and get stale (if you have one of the systems, always treat them right and use your water). Despite a few mistaken detractors, mainly among those few people who don’t like to drink water anyway, it’s widely accepted that Scottish tap water is some of the best in the world - frankly we think it’s delicious. So no problems there for any water source in Scotland.
Secondly, hard versus soft water. Ever needed to de-scale your kettle? - we are looking at you, the good folks down in England. Well, it’s very unusual to need to do that in Scotland (although some mainly older folk still try to do so mainly for funsies). This is because the vast majority of Scottish water is considered soft. While it might run through certain mineral deposits, it is very pure and free from, frankly, pebbly or gummy, yucky shit. Hard water by comparison is rich in heavy mineral deposits, often limestone. It’s these that stick to your kettle or other active surfaces, gum them up, and reduce effectivity. When we are making whisky, we want lots of interactions with the yeast and if they are using it wood of the wash backs, especially with the copper of the pot stills when we distill, with the wood afterwards when we fill the barrel. If we are continually using hard water, the pot still and the mash tun get incredibly dirty and processes are not as efficient. It is safe enough to distil with liquids brewed from hard water, but it’s a pain, less efficient and requires more cleaning. So Scotland is blessed with lots of soft rather than hard water across our water sources and even tap water. Isn’t it great?
And that’s all there is to it really. A great source of clean, high quality water. Ideally soft water so that everything runs efficiently and we don’t have to clean so much. That’s what water is for, and that’s what Scotland has in abundance - it certainly rains enough. AND we have very pretty hillside for run-off back into the burns, lochs and official reservoirs. Some people may be annoyed by this post, particularly where we descry the importance of water from individual regions- but that’s our experience and the science discussed is bang on. This really is all there is to it. Isn’t Scotland a lucky, lovely place? Slàinte! 🥃
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