Water on the mind

Q: Hi Dr Andy, I’ve seen on the Society’s Tasting Notes references to both ‘reduction’ and also the later addition of water. Are these one and the same thing? Cheers, Seán Harty, Member 24965

A: Hi Sean, good question, and I can see where there might be some confusion over this terminology! The first thing to note is that the term ‘reduction’ is used in whisky production, which refers to the addition of water (usually demineralised) at the time of bottling to reduce to bottling strength.

That’s usually down to the minimum of 40% abv for Scotch whisky, but the strength varies widely.

Somewhere between 43% and 46% abv is common, the latter for non-chillfiltered products. Of course, at the SMWS we almost always bottle at natural cask strength, so there’s no reduction at this stage in the whiskies that we go on to bottle, and that’s why you’ll be well used to seeing strengths up above 50% abv and even above 60% abv.

If the word ‘reduction’ appears in our Tasing Notes, as it often does, this is the Society’s expert Tasting Panel referring to the addition of water in the glass to reach a preferred drinking strength. When assessing casks for bottling and to create Tasting Notes, our procedure is to nose and taste the whisky (and record our notes) at both cask strength, and then reduced with some water – the amount is not specified, we all add a different amount according to preference (mine is for roughly to get to about 20/25% abv for sensory analysis, and usually drinking too).That way we think we accurately represent the member’s experience, although it’s not entirely scientific.

With whisky at cask strength, we absolutely recommend trying it neat, but you can be amazed by how much difference the addition of water can make. But there are no rules – sometimes it can greatly improve a cask strength dram to open up the aromas and flavours, and many of our bottlings are what we call ‘good swimmers’. Other times, a cask strength dram is already so beautifully balanced and delicate that water can diminish its impact. Every bottling the Society offers up is different, so the Tasting Notes will often refer to whether the Tasting Panel felt that a little ‘reduction’ or addition of water can improve the dram – or leave it a little bit flat.

Do you have any questions about the whisky making process or what the Society does? Ask Dr Andy Forrester by sending your query by email with your name and member number