Trying to get a straight answer from anyone intimately connected to the whisky making process about whether or not water plays a part in the flavor profile of a spirit is like trying to get a teenage boy to tell you what he’s been up to for the last hour in his bedroom. They will hem and haw, pointing out that maybe it wasn’t exactly an hour, or they’d left the room a couple of times to do other things, but the question will never truly be answered. And as most master distillers I know were at one point teenage boys with a bedroom, it comes as no surprise that they have mastered the art of diversion and deflection.
Some distillers enthusiastically answer no and spend the first minute telling you why water cannot under any circumstances impart flavor to the finished product. There are phrases slung around about the filtering process, the heating/boiling regimens during distillation, and maybe even sterilization by magic lights—or more likely they said ultraviolet lights, but my note taking was a little crummy from having too many sample drams too early in the day. Regardless, it’s what many experts start out saying.
Then the questions they may or may not have answers to are thrown at them, such as:
What about ph levels? Don’t those affect flavor?
Don’t minerals influence the way yeast behaves in fermentation?
What about salts dissolved in the water and their influence in the wort’s flavor and the end product?
I can assure you, under no circumstances were these questions asked by me. But there’s always some smarty pants on the tour or online in a group discussion or at a lecture desperate to make a bead of sweat fall down the side of an expert’s head. Okay, maybe we all like to see that from time to time, but most of us don’t make a lifelong pursuit of discrediting others. It takes too much time and there’s laundry to do.
Personally, I like the unknowns. That’s the magic part I’m always referring to when talking to others about whisky. It’s hard to conceive that someone realized it was possible to sum up the parts of their country—all rugged mountains, bottomless lochs, frothy streams, plaid-covered pipers, mist-soaked sheep and grisly warriors—and pop it into a bottle to serve after dinner with a cigar. That is magic, folks. Incantations, grimoirs and kettles filled with unmentionable ingredients are likely a big part of making scotch come out of the big copper pots like they do. Thus, seeing a distiller scratch his head before answering the “water influence” query is par for the course, as he is likely sifting through what he may and may not reveal of the process that happens behind the curtain, and therefore, not on the tour.
It’s true each distillery guards their water source like Marlon Brando guarded his dinner plate, but they insist it’s due to the unpredictable nature of rainfall. Huh. Rainfall … Scotland … (insert clucking sound here).
Yes, I know some distilleries have had to shut down production in the past due to drought. In 2010 part of Islay came to a screeching halt, and several Scots, in the hills where I live, actually came to their knees at the news and went to bed pacifying a bottle of Bruichladdich, whispering reassuring words that the end was not nigh and all would be well again soon.
The fact that a distillery’s need for production water is as great as a politician’s desire for headlines makes it to the top of a distiller’s worry list when tallying up how much water is needed for each batch of booze. It’s a little like walking through New England and somebody pointing out that if they tapped all the trees in Vermont for a day, you might have enough sap to make syrup for your morning pancake. It’s eye opening for some, and more importantly, nerve-wracking for others.
Water is needed for malting, mashing and distilling, not to mention reducing alcoholic strength. The whole process is simply a series of adding water and then taking it away—and then adding it again. Rinse and repeat. And with all this water contact and contribution, is it truly unrealistic to believe that each distillery’s source may add a signature of sorts to the end result? Even if the autograph is unreadable and smeared from improper preservation? It’s possible. That’s as far as anyone is willing to step forward to say.
The influence of minerals, vegetation, peat, sand and ph levels in the water may one day appear at the top of a chemical analysis report. Maybe they already have. Maybe the reports have been buried or burned. For some sleuths, pursuing the results will leave them hopeful for a discovery. For the rest of us, we may just raise our glass in thanks to the clouds over Clynelish.