Don’t we all deserve a bit of respect in our old age? Yes, it can take us a little longer to get moving in the morning. Sometimes it’s a struggle to haul ourselves out of that comfy armchair we’ve been relaxing in. But give us a bit of time – show us a little patience – and we’ll reward you with the depth of our experience, the extent of our knowledge, the stories we can tell.
Maybe we’re not so different from a mature single malt, which has been slumbering in its cask until a fine old age. Once it reaches the glass, it should be given time to reveal its complexities. You might be surprised to discover what happens when it’s allowed to gather its breath.
“I advocate letting a whisky sit for one minute for every year of its age,” says Jim McEwan, recently retired master distiller at Bruichladdich. “It’s a bit like wine, it needs to breathe. Give it time to open up. You don’t need to let it sit the whole time without touching it, take wee sips along the way and you’ll notice the difference, it can be quite dramatic. One of the greatest whiskies I ever tasted in my life was on a tasting panel with a 50-year-old Glenfarclas, I scored it 110 out of 100, it was so good. I kept coming back to it and it kept coming back to me, it was just incredible. With something that age, you can’t be in a hurry. Enjoy it, savour it, and you will be rewarded.”
UK Society ambassador Olaf Meier agrees that letting a whisky breathe can be the difference between tasting a relatively ordinary dram and something exceptional.
“I was helping out once at the bar at the Vaults and a colleague said to me there was a new bottle in, and that it was fantastic,” he says. “I poured it, nosed it and had a little sip; I thought it was okay, but nothing out of the ordinary. Then we got busy at the bar, and the glass sat there for at least a couple of hours. Finally I was clearing up and saw my dram still sitting there, and I went back to it and it was unbelievably wonderful. The aroma was so intense and multifaceted.
“In that case, it was a happy accident, because I’d never normally let a dram sit for that long, but that was the first time I came to believe in this idea of giving the whisky time, and it can be such a rewarding exercise. Now I often pour one and leave it to stand and pour another one to drink straight away. I often get the sense that it’s not the same whisky that I’ve poured.”
Adding water, of course, is another way to help release the aromas within the whisky, but not one that Jim McEwan recommends with an older dram.
“I think it’s a form of sacrilege to put a lot of water into an old whisky,” he says. “By adding water carelessly, you’re not being clever enough, you’re not thinking about what you’re doing.”
“In the cask, the spirit is losing about 0.7 per cent of its alcohol strength each year, so if you take that over the course of 18 years, you can see that the percentage has come down by more than 12 per cent. It doesn’t need the same amount of water – it just needs time.”
For cask strength whiskies, however, Olaf recommends carefully adding only a few drops of water to release those aromas, but still giving the dram time to settle.
“People can make the mistake when they add water of nosing the whisky immediately – but what you’re getting then is even more alcohol than in the first place, because you’re only smelling that evaporating alcohol,” he says.
“That’s why I say give it one or two minutes, let it settle and let the underlying aromas come out, the base, bottom and middle notes. Once you stop smelling alcohol, that’s when you start to get all the variations, and that takes time.”
The science would seem to bear out both approaches, in terms of the benefits of letting a whisky breathe naturally, or nudging it along by adding water.
Paul Hughes, assistant professor of distilling practice at Oregon State University in the United States, explains that the difference is more about the patience required to allow for the natural and gentle release of the whisky’s flavours, compared with the artificial disturbance caused by the addition of water.
“The ‘structure’ of the alcohol-water matrix is critical to the binding of flavours in the spirit, and in this context, ‘opening up’ is used to describe the release of flavours from that matrix,” he says. “When alcohol and water are mixed they form a true solution up to around 17% abv. That means alcohol molecules are distributed evenly throughout the water, but above about 17% abv, the alcohol starts to clump together in clusters. These clusters bind the flavours, so as abv goes up, the congeners and other flavours are increasingly bound in the matrix.”
Conversely, the dilution of the matrix with water, or the loss of alcohol by evaporation, essentially reduces the proportion of the alcohol in clusters, allowing the spirit to open up.
“There is good scientific evidence to suggest that compounds extracted from wood force clustering, so in a sense they seem to add structure to whisky. So a more aged whisky, at least in terms of mass of extractives, might reasonably be expected to open more slowly, with wood extractives gluing the clusters together. You might consider that the gentle evaporation of alcohol after pouring is preferable to the ‘forced breakdown’ of ethanol clusters by the addition of water. However, waiting for a 40-year-old whisky to open up might test the patience, and maybe some natural evaporation with a little water would be a good compromise.”
Whether you let your dram sit undisturbed or rouse it into wakefulness is of course up to you, and as Olaf emphasises, there is never a right or a wrong approach.
“That’s the beauty of whisky,” he says. “It’s never that simple or straightforward in terms of how you get the best out of it, and each time you have a unique single cask single malt in front of you, the experience can be different.
“Exposure to oxygen will generally make a whisky more expressive, but it can also reveal flaws and the dram might even deteriorate more quickly. Whisky is a living product, a work in progress, and deserves your continual attention, time and patience.”
If time is not on your side and you do happen to add too much water, there is at least some clear scientific advice courtesy of Paul Hughes about how to salvage the situation.
“Ultimately, adding water dilutes flavour and there are few things more tragic in the whisky world than adding too much water,” he says. “The only cure, of course, is to add more whisky.”
Author: Richard Goslan.