There’s little more frustration than inadvertently drowning a particularly lovely whisky with water in the name of experimentation. Whilst some would posit that any addition to a glass is a desecration, when you’re regularly reviewing high strength bottlings, sources of nearby hydration tend to come with the territory. I aim for consistency – never knowingly diluting below 40% ABV, but always attempting to assess what nuances and complexities a few drops (sometimes much more) can tease out of a whisky. Outcomes are invariably varied.
The production of whisky falls somewhere between an imprecise science and a dark art – unpredictability can be high, particularly when it comes to higher strength liquids from single casks. A similar assertion can be made with dilution. Sometimes it’s literally a wash. Sometimes the effects are negligible. And just sometimes wonderful things happen.
Whilst The Dramble doesn’t catalogue the visual effects of dilution (we’ll leave that to the lovely Phil Storey), viscimation is a real phenomenon that you all can witness. Water and alcohol possess very different viscosities - when you combine the two, you’ll be able to see vortices, eddies and ribbons forming across the surface of the liquid. Or, to provide a more day-to-day example - you’ll witness that the viscid legs that a whisky had around the sides of the glass are noticeably reduced once its ABV has been lowered. For the purpose of our reviews we look to evaluate the effects that water has on both nose and palate – and these are perhaps more comprehendible (though of course personal).
Unless you’ve sourced your dilution from the fridge or the freezer, your dilution will cause a small chemical reaction – as the alcohol and water combine, energy is released in an exothermic relation resulting in a temperature increase of a couple of degrees centigrade. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s often enough to for the liquid to release more aromas – in common parlance, this is what we mean when we suggest a whisky is ‘opening up’.
On the palate, the effects of reduction are different, and more guided by our own physiology. How your mouth reacts to alcohol, particularly at higher strengths is a function both of your own genetic makeup as it is your past experiences. Think of it rather like a chilli pepper – even the most ardent of spice fans had to start somewhere. Reducing the inherent ABV of a liquid can increase our ability to perceive flavours – particularly those that are more fruity. At the upper end of the realms of cask strength whiskies, there’s sometimes less gradation – with vagueness between sweetness and spice, but a lower nuance overall due to the bite of the alcohol itself. That said, there’s no hard and fast rules here – your palate functions as uniquely as you do – and likewise, I am firmly of a belief that there’s a ‘golden strength’ for whisky (which almost never 40%) where aroma and flavour definition are maximised alongside weight and texture. The perfect storm in a Glencairn.
Today’s review is of a very recent bottling from Whiskybroker – I’ve picked it for two reason – firstly, it’s from Ledaig, which longer-term readers will know I’ve been having a love-in with for years. But, more relatedly, it’s a bottling that I felt was dramatically improved by the addition of water.
The expression is part of the indy bottlers’ ‘Galloway Series’ – nothing unusual liquid wise, but adorned with some beautiful photos from across Galloway by local photographer David Maccredie. Distilled in February of 2008 this Ledaig has been matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead (#700057) for 11 years before being bottled a couple of weeks ago at 58.4% ABV. As with all of Whiskybroker’s bottlings, it’s quite reasonably priced by today’s standards - £60 and still available from the Whiskybroker website.
Nose: Sharp and piquant with brine, and salt and vinegar crisps. A mineral edge of slate and flintiness is tempered by leftfield aromas of fish tanks, haylofts and plasticated smoke – more coastal and faintly farmy than blatantly dirty, rubbery and borne of a running engine. Sweetness is zesty with fresh lemons, and orange marmalade, but also inland with some bees honey. Reduction works a treat here – greater ashiness with coal hearth, more farminess with barns and sties, and a great supplementary kick of fruity but smoked lemon juice. Not a world apart from its original state, but rounder, and to my nose, more inviting.
Taste: A strident but oily arrival – cod liver oil and paraffin, alongside burnt leaf mulch, damp dog and boiled vegetables. There’s still plenty of salinity here with sea water splashed granite and brined olives. The mid-palate becomes more explicitly phenolic, with touches of rubber drive belts, menthol, eucalyptus and smouldering hay. The addition of water transposes things wonderfully – where once things were vociferous and vegetal, now they’re somewhat restrained, juicy and fruity – smoked pineapple chunks, tangerines and petrol-soaked lemon peels.
Finish: Medium to long with tangy citrus and grapefruits played off against sandy mineral beaches
I’m all for weird Ledaigs, but here, I’ll happily accept some limitations of oddness for a fruity windfall. Out of the bottle, this Whiskybroker Ledaig feels quite typical – it’s sharp, chiselled, and with an entirely expected amount of perversely peated spirit. Whilst drinkability is surprisingly high at 58.4%, it doesn’t blow me away – I’ve had both more precise and more extreme examples. However, reduction here feels akin to The Taming of the Shrew – what was once headstrong and obdurate becomes subjugated to bright, pronounced fruitiness – though never at the expense of either intelligence, nor innate inner power.
With thanks to Loz for the sample.