Haven’t we all been enchanted by promotional whisky literature romantically informing us about their brand’s connection to place and its special water source.
‘All year round spring water bubbles in the glen.’ ‘Pure and soft.’
The longer copy paints word pictures of the bucolic rugged Scottish countryside and clear streams of iron-free water in Bourbon country. It gives the distillery and its whisky a terrestrial connection to place. It can also be the most elusive and enigmatic element in whisky.
So how important is water and what role does it play in our whisky?
There are two ways we can understand water in whiskies we drink; we’ll call it quantitative and qualitative water. The quantitative method informs us just how much water is used and how much will make direct contact with the whisky in our bottle. Qualitative looks at where the water comes from and to what degree some whiskies can claim their geographic water credentials.
Lots of water is needed to make whisky, but very little makes contact with the whisky we drink. This is called process water. There are only a few points in the distillery where process water interacts with whisky.
The first point of contact is brewing when the grain is mashed, sparged and the liquid sent for fermentation. More than 90 per cent of this contact water is used here. Next is cask reduction where the distilled spirit is broken-down for maturation. The final stage dilutes the mature whisky to bottle strength. Plus a small amount for cask rinsing, line flushing and bottle washing.
Industrial water makes up the bulk of the water usage for cooling, heating (steam boiler for the stills), cleaning (washing down the plant to prevent contamination) and other general uses. The next question you’re likely to ask, is where does this water come from?
Today, distilleries have a fairly wide choice of water sources from municipal mains, aquifers to springs to rivers, even a glacier.
Whereever the water comes from, distilleries must satisfy ever-increasing regulatory barriers set by local EPA on water standards. They’re even tougher with distillery waste water disposal, where spent pot ale (high BOD levels), heavy metals (copper), even the temperature of the discharged waste water is all vigilantly monitored.
When our whisky is ready to be bottled from the cask, it’s broken down to its label strength. On-site distillery bottling lines use treated water, employing devices like demineralisers, ultraviolet sterilisation and carbon activated filters to remove minerals, salt ions and microorganisms. Many whisky brands are bottled off-site using treated mains water at specialist bottling centres in Dumbarton, Glasgow to Chicago. We might call this secondary water provenance. When bulk whisky gets exported overseas, it is bottled using the import country’s local water. I’d be remiss here, not to point out water’s influence does not stop at the bottle. Few people drink whisky straight, so the vast majority of drinkers mix whisky with water or ice, in cocktails and carbonated drinks.
Water and whisky have many touch points, from brewing to drinking.
We haven’t even ventured into growing the grain and malt barley before it arrives at the distillery.
The wide range of potential water sources where whisky has different contacts makes provenance both elusive and enigmatic.
Beyond these seemingly contrary manufacturing facts, there looms something larger and more powerful. It’s our imagination.
Whisky can vicariously transport us to a different time and place. A wooded glen, a bubbling brook, to an unchanged ancient landscape. In these instances myth and reality mix agreeably like water and whisky. As the saying goes, drink the story and enjoy the whisky.