Whisky Advocate

The drop that makes the dram

September 5th, 2012

Jonny McCormick, Whisky Advocate contributor brings exclusive news of a new product which could enhance your enjoyment of single malt Scotch whisky.

Here’s the thing. When you reward yourself with a decent single malt whisky, most of us add a little splash of water to bring the alcohol strength down to allow the aroma and flavor sensations to blossom fully. It’s a personal thing, but do you stop to think about the water you add?

That’s where Uisge Source hopes to make a difference by launching a range of bottled Scottish spring water specifically chosen for the single malt drinker. Starting with the belief that the best water to splash into your dram is the water from which the whisky is made, they set out to research the benefits and science behind this. I’ll admit, I was sceptical at first but the arguments are plausible and intriguing. I’m aware that if I drink single malts when I’m travelling and ask for water, I may be offered anything from a giant vessel of city tap water to a bottle of sparkling mineral water depending on the establishment. Here and there, I suspect you may have had similar disappointments too (or you’re drinking in more sophisticated bars than me). The type of water you add does irrefutably alter the flavor and experience. Just try drinking a whisky you know intimately far from home with the local tap water and you’ll see the difference.

There has to be a scientific reason behind this phenomenon? Dr. Bill Lumsden, master distiller, the Glenmorangie company, agrees, “It’s the provenance and sense of place which makes single malt whisky so unique. Adding water from the same source can only help protect the integrity of the spirit”. Furthermore, the character of the water is intrinsically linked to the geology of its origin, a concept explored by Dr. Stephen Cribb, author of Whisky on the Rocks and a geologist who has studied the origins of water supplying Scottish distilleries. “The chemistry of the water used to make whisky affects the character of that whisky. Adding source water or water with similar properties will ensure that no additional chemical factors are introduced and the character remains unchanged.”

As whisky matures in the cask, the interaction draws flavor from the wood. Similarly, water draws minerals which affects its character as it filters through the terrain whether its sandstone, limestone or peat. The team behind Uisge Source come from strong whisky industry backgrounds and set about trying to establish the character of the water in different distilling regions. They measured seven key minerals and graded each water according to its Total Hardness Score. Next, they explored the localities seeking wells and springs that would provide a suitable source of high quality, pure, clean spring water. Easier said than done and I’m told several sites were rejected for not meeting the quality standards or ideal water chemistry to represent the region. In the end, they have secured supply from three private springs for the exclusive use for the Uisge Source waters. The water to complement Islay whiskies comes from the Ardilistry Spring, Islay and is the first bottled water from the Scottish Isles. It has a higher natural acidity due to the water filtering through the peat. The Highland water comes from St Colman’s Well, Ross-shire, the most northerly bottled water in Scotland and like the water used in the popular Highland distilleries, it is hard water very high in minerals. The predominance of granite in the hard rock strata of Speyside means that the soft water picks up fewer minerals and is one of the reasons behind the concentration of distilleries in the area. The Speyside water from The Cairngorms Well, Moray is from one of Scotland’s highest natural springs and provides a soft water low in minerals. The 100ml bottles are hand-filled and contain sufficient supply to complement 5-10 drams and will be sold individually or in a three-region selection pack. Expect to see them in specialist whisky retailers in the UK initially (but refreshingly, there are no restrictions on posting water internationally), but expect them to appear at other specialist retailers, whisky events and the kind of bars and hotels who keep ahead of the curve.

My take on this, as I anticipate getting hold of some and playing around with some familiar malts, is that this should help drinkers get the very best from their whiskies and makes for good discussion. I can see that partnering the whisky with complementary regional water should retain the true and original character of the whisky – an antithesis to my experiences with whiskies dulled by tap water in large cities. I find parallels with audiophiles listening to incredible music recordings through superior acoustic equipment compared to the same performance relayed through cheap tinny speakers. Similar to the successful introduction of the Glencairn glass, this could help complete the perfect serve. I’m curious and looking forward to trying it and hearing what everyone else thinks.

28 Responses to “The drop that makes the dram”

  1. Austin says:

    I wonder how long before someone, maybe the people at Bulliet, tries to bottle up some of the SW water in Shively to try and market a variation of this product to American whiskey drinkers. I say that somewhat sarcastically although I can only imagine that with this product hitting the market that someone on this side of the pond will try to replicate it for the American market.

    The bigger question I would have is, how accessible (for lack of a better word) trying a product like this would be for the average whiskey drinker. It takes a while and a lot of sipping to really start to even remotely understand the real differences between various types of whiskey, and I imagine that it takes someone who is constantly reviewing whiskey to be able to appreciate the differences in tastes that result from different water sources being used to open up the whiskey.

    I have no doubt that this product will sell with people with dispensable income, but I wonder if most people could actually appreciate this product in the way that they hope to when they buy it. Seems like this falls into the category of whiskey stones, but hey, if it makes more people think about whiskey, then all the better.

  2. Jim Clarke says:

    It’s a gimmick. If you doubt that, try running a blind tasting and see how many self-appointed whiskey experts can identify all the spirits. Having established for yourself that even the best palates are often confused by drinks that are close on the taste spectrum, imagine what difference if any is made by microscopically divergent forms of water. And then pass over these obvious gimmicks for simple distilled or pure water and save yourself plenty of money.

  3. Gary Gillman says:

    John, I think comparative tastings – whiskey diluted with these new waters vs. tap – would be interesting. A lot may depend, i) on the tap you use, e.g. I understand NYC water is particularly good, and ii) the water with which a given malt was diluted to the bottle proof, i.e., is all whisky from a given region always taken to bottling proof with local water? I would think demineralized water is often used to bring down barrel proof although I’m not really sure to be frank.

    Personally, I have found tap water fine for most purposes but I’ve never put it to a test like this. There are so many variables, I’m not sure how it will come out, but the only way to know is to try..


  4. Rick Duff says:

    Interestingly, this high quality water that is used by these Scottish distillers is NOT the water they use to lower the proof at bottling time. Many have told me it’s not good for that. Of course most is done at the bottling houses down in the big cities.

    On the other hand.. I do have bottles of Scottish Spring water, and I keep an eye dropper full for added a few drops to my drams. The water was inexpensive, and makes me “feel” better… 😉

  5. sam k says:

    Jonny, you seem to use “well” and “spring” interchangeably.Do they mean the same, or at least a similar thing in Scotland? In the U.S., a well is drilled or dug and the water is mechanically removed to gain access. A spring would be a naturally occurring flow emanating from the ground. Just curious.

    • Jonny McCormick says:

      Definitions would be the same here in Scotland, Sam. Whether it’s from the surface or sourced from a well, I think the selection was primarily based on selecting the right character of the water for each region above anything else.

  6. Joe Riley says:

    At my store, I always recommend malt whisky buyers to use Highland Spring still water from Scotland. I just like the authenticity of it. and it isn’t outrageously expensive, either.

    At Jack Rose Dining Saloon, where I work part-time, we have a water filter for the entire place, so all of our city water is filtered, and we have small eyedropper bottles where patrons may add as much or as little as they like to their whisky.

  7. Its a clever idea, but I don’t see it panning out. I seldom water down my whiskies, out of personal preference and regardless of what the boffins say. I’d rather spend my hard earned coin on whisk(e)y. And I suspect I’m not alone, this is a gimmick.

    But I could be wrong, I’m sure there were a lot of naysayers who said no-one will pay $2 for a bottle of de-ionized city tap water repackaged with a fancy name!

  8. T Comp says:

    There was Weller Water back in the ’80s from W.L Weller and Sons which was marketed in Texas. A photo was posted on another whiskey forum of bottles found from 1982. It is reported Jack Daniels once tried to sell their water too.

    When I have it my preference is bottled Ice Mountain water (very neutral tasting) but also just use filtered Chicago tap water. We have had out of town guests who normally drink well water that have commented on the chlorine smell and taste of Chicago water, which I don’t really notice, but still I filter it for my pours.

  9. Travis Kingdon says:

    Do you have a website for this John? Search engine couldn’t find it.

    • John Hansell says:

      I’m not sure if it has hit the market yet. Jonny got in on this ahead of the curve. I will let him respond with more information.

    • Jonny McCormick says:

      Well, we like to be first with the news, Travis. The company told me that they will be taking Uisge Source to whisky shows in Europe later this month, and they should be on sale by the end of this month. I suspect there will be a website when they come out but I think the first place to look for them will be the well-known online British retailers once they’ve been launched.

  10. JohnM says:

    I’ve decided to just use tap water in my whisky and spend the money I save on magic beans.

  11. Louis says:

    I do seem to remember mention in some article that the water used to reduce ABV at bottling time is demineralized, so as NOT to infuence the whisky in the bottle. With blends, it would really get interesting (or impossible) to figure out which water to use at bottling time.

    WRT to comment #3 above, NYC may have great water, but the pipes leading to our faucets are likely to be not so great. We use a Brita filter, which makes good coffee and does not seem to add anything to whisk(e)y.

  12. JohnM says:

    Are they flying this water over to the USA? Flying water around the world in bottles is preposterous. French and Austrian and all sorts of water is sold in Ireland, a country full of lakes and rivers situated under a cloud. I believe tap water has to go through more stringent checks too.

    I wish them good luck and all, but…

  13. Tadas A. says:

    The only way not to affect taste is to use distilled water for dillution.
    Whiskey is made using water to make distillers beer which in turn gets distilled. Original minerals in that water do not transfer 1:1 to the distilled white dog. Most of the minerals do not pass through distillation. So adding water from the original well/spring is actually changing taste of the whiskey that does not match taste of the bottle proof whiskey.
    Uisge Source water is a complete gimmick.

  14. B.J. Reed says:

    I love the ingenuity 🙂

  15. Smithford says:

    Are the bottles actually the size of a Glencairn glass, as per the third picture in the post? I’m hoping that’s just a case of Photoshop Gone Wrong. If they truly are that small, then I’m probably going to throw my hat in with those calling this a gimmick.

    Wait, I just re-read. They’re 100 ml. each. I’m dying to find out what the retail price is going to be for a perfume bottle full of well water. In the meantime I will set aside a little space in my pantry, next to my Whisky Rocks. 😉

  16. Mr Manhattan says:

    Wasn’t this done once a long time ago in the form of “burn water” pre-packaged in aluminized pouches that could be frozen to make ice cubes?

  17. Iain Russell says:

    Not sure it’s helpful to generalise about the character of the water used at distilleries in a particular whisky “region”, (none of which has been defined according to particular geological characteristics). For example, unlike the Speyside water from Cairngorms Well as described above, Josie’s Well (The Glenlivet) is said to have an unusually high mineral content. I think one or two other distilleries in the Glenlivet area also use spring water with high mineral content. Meanwhile, the Highland Distillery Glen Ord (maybe there are others) is said to use very soft water, so not of the same character as described re the water from St Colman’s Well in the Highland region.

  18. Gregg says:

    I did a tasting a few years ago where I served the same whisky, and had four bottles of water, each labeled from a different region of Scotland, but all really from the same distilled bottle. It was very interesting watching my friends sniff the waters, add the waters, and comment on the differences. The mind is a very powerful thing. Was it placebo? Did they really want to taste the difference so badly that the convinced themselves that there was a difference? I have no idea, but it was still fun.

  19. SydneyStewart says:

    In my extensive research for a whiskey tasting party, I found distilled water recommended as causing the least distortion of aroma and taste. Personally, I use my own well water, after filtering it because of a fairly high mineral content; but for a whiskey tasting of multiple single malts, I went with distilled water. Since the water sources for the various single malts obviously have different mineral content, my suggestion is to use distilled water if you’re a purist, or your own filtered water, unless, of course, you’re on a clorinated and flourinated, city water supply. I think the Uisge Source fad will turn out to be just that – a fad.

  20. Macrury says:

    I’m fussy about which tonic water I have with which Gin, I choose both VERY carefully – consider supermarket own-brand tonic versus Schweppes(which I personally happen to like). I like my Hendricks Gin as opposed to Gordons or Bombay Blue, with sliced cucumber, rather than lemon/lime ..that’s my preference

    Having worked central London and having to put Calgon de-scaler in my washing machine (to stop the limescale in the water killing it) and a de-scaling wire-ball in my kettle, no way would I put tap water in my precious Malt whisky. Some current ‘mineral’ waters also leave a horrible ‘length’ . Having worked in Scotland I know even tap-water tastes different in the Highlands and low-lands, even if it’s bottled.

    Nobody is right or wrong here, we just know what we like and don’t like. I for one support them, why wouldn’t I want my shirt and tie to match?

  21. macdumpy says:

    Whenever I read about bottled water, and the placebo effect, I am reminded of this admittedly un-scientific study, but it’s the best I’ve seen, and its delivery is pretty funny.

    Penn And Teller, from a show called Bullsh?t:

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