Diluting liquor is lame, right? Think again. A study published in Nature on Thursday reveals that adding some water to your whiskey actually makes it a better drink — not because it lessens the alcohol burn (which it does), but because it strengthens the whiskey’s aroma.
Two physical chemists from the Linnaeus University Centre for Biomaterials Chemistry made computer-simulated mixtures of water and ethanol (the main type of alcohol used in drinks) in the presence of guaiacol, which is the compound that gives whiskey its peaty taste.
Guaiacol is attracted to ethanol, so it can get stuck in whiskey’s ethanol particles and fail to rise to the surface of a drink and reach your nose. That’s no good: Whiskey’s complex aroma is an important part of its taste because human tongues can only register six basic flavors.
But guaiacol isn’t attracted to water. The researchers found that adding water to the whiskey disrupted the guaiacol trapped in the ethanol and caused more of it to surface, making the drink more flavorful.
The chemists worked with whiskey that was a little over 40 proof, the level at which it’s typically bottled. When they used water to dilute the ethanol down to 27 percent, the guaiacol lost over half of its contacts with the ethanol. Few of those contacts bonded to water instead, so most of the detached guaiacol was left to rise to the surface for participants’ aromatic pleasure.
Reducing to 27 proof means that the team diluted their whiskey 32.5 percent, or about a third. It’s hard to imagine any whiskey fan deciding to dilute their drink down by that much.
So, how much water should you actually add to your whiskey? Some people like to add a few drops, others a splash. Participants in a Cook’s Illustrated test preferred two teaspoons of water. Adding ice is another popular way to go; some say that large ice chunks are best to avoid over-diluting.
The study also suggests that anise-flavored liquor, like soju or absinthe, could benefit from dilution.
We can only assume that if Halle Berry had been aware of this study last month, she would have asked for a splash of water in her half-pint of bourbon before chugging it in five seconds on request at San Diego Comic-Con.
But Berry, and the rest of us, can live a better life from here on out. Next time you’re inclined to drink some whiskey, try it a bit diluted — not to remove flavor, but to enhance it.
See below: How to Smoke an Old Fashioned