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Swedish scientists found that dilution might be the best thing for enhancing flavors.

Devon Walsh
Updated August 17, 2017

Despite what some whiskey purists might claim, science says you actually should add a little water to your whiskey. It’s been said for awhile that, when poured into bourbon or Scotch, water erupts surface tension and increases aroma. In a study published today in Scientific Reports, Swedish researchers established that this pairing suggestion is scientifically true. It’s all about the chemistry.

Let’s break it down. Whiskey is composed of water and ethanol. The molecule guaiacol, which binds to ethanol, is responsible for the beverage’s beloved smoky quality. Water repels both ethanol and guaiacol. Using a computer model simulation, a chemistry team at Linnaeus University found that when the ethanol and guaiacol are diluted with water, the molecules disperse upwards, to the top of your tumbler, and become more apparent.

Co-author, Bjorn Karlsson told NPR, in a sort of cryptic statement that, "When you increase concentration of ethanol, ethanol will sort of be totally at the interface, fill up the total space at the interface and then start to also be found in the bulk. And then a lot of the taste compounds will then be transferred from the interface into the bulk.” Huh? Put a little more simply, water and its ability to repel helps to bring out the guaiacol to the surface. It aids your taste buds in picking up more of that smoky punch. It's part of the reason whiskey distillers dilute their stuff before they even bottle it, creating an ideal ratio that can be further fine-tuned by the consumer.

Although these researchers strongly recommend adding water, they aren’t saying how much because taste is a subjective experience. It’s really up to the drinker in question to figure out their preferred dilution level. Even Anthony Bourdain agrees a little ice cube melt isn't so bad.

So when you pour that after hours bourbon or Scotch (or really whenever, we’re not judging, it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere), don’t forget the key ingredient: water.