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Is Water the Most Important Ingredient in Liquor?

Water's hidden role in spirits across the globe.

Shutterstock/leungchopan

In today's restaurant and bar scene, with both fancy ice programs and water sommeliers, clearly people have begun to appreciate the finer aspects of H20's role behind the bar or at the dinner table. But, water plays an even bigger role elsewhere, before it's ever frozen into those perfectly aesthetic, slow-melting ice spheres, or bottled up for exorbitantly priced sales all on its own. Water sources, and their unique and distinctive attributes, have a huge impact on the specific flavors and qualities of spirits from around the world.

Water & Whiskey

A great place to begin a global journey in search of the importance of water sources for spirits is in Kentucky. While the development of the burgeoning whiskey industry in Kentucky hundreds of years ago had more to do with farming, the limestone water is what made the whiskey particularly good to begin with, and what kept the industry rooted there.

Water sources, and their unique and distinctive attributes, have a huge impact on the specific flavors and qualities of spirits from around the world.

Kentucky's limestone water supply provides minerals to the water, filters out certain undesirable compounds, and also affects pH levels, which plays a key role in the distillation process. Step into any distillery in Kentucky and "limestone" will be a prominent player in that particular brand's story.

As it is with New York's bagels and pizza crusts, Kentucky's whiskey is imbued with minerals from local water that affect, and improve, the end product. Meanwhile, some of the best bourbon made outside of Kentucky hails from locales touting limestone water supplies.

In Japan, Suntory Whisky, which produces the YamazakiHakushu and Hibiki brands, takes their relationship and balance with nature quite seriously across all fronts. This includes with their water sources, both of which were designated by the Japanese Ministry of Environment as among the "most precious" water sources in the country.

Suntory calls their water sources "soulplaces" for the brand, referring to the concept in Japanese culture of a dwelling that becomes a source of spiritual inspiration. The brand explains: "Water, with its purity, has always been the representative elemental force for Suntory soulplaces."

The Japanese whisky giant seeks to embody balance and harmony between "the art of Japanese nature" and "the art of Japanese people" to create their tagline, "The Art of Japanese Whisky." A pure water source is an integral component of that equation.

Elsewhere in the whisky industry, in Scotland, water is actually the source of one popular misconception about Scotchnamely how it's peated. Peaty flavors do not come from water which flows through or comes into contact with peat, bur rather, is the result of using peat smoke to dry barley.

Clear Spirits

Water quality and purity is even more important for spirits other than whiskey though, where barrels and the aging process may account for upwards of 60 percent of the whiskey's final character. Vodka, for instance, has no such helpers along the way to producing a desirable flavor profile.

"For us, the biggest piece is water," explains Chris Doyle, Finlandia Vodka brand manager at Brown-Forman. "It's the number one ingredient with vodka."

Finlandia water

Finlandia takes their pure water sources so seriously, they promote stunts like this to raise awareness. [Photo by Jake Emen]

Finlandia's water source is pure glacial spring water which has been naturally filtered through moraine sand deposits that resulted from the end of the Ice Age. This process allows the company to forgo modern purification systems such as deionization or osmosis, and offers their a vodka a signature quality.

Maintaining water purity not only in the brand's home of Finland, but across the globe, has become a priority for Finlandia. They donate one percent of all U.S. sales to water-centric environmental nonprofits in conjunction with the 1% For The Planet association.

Finlandia also just released a video documentary series, Journey From the Source, highlighting unique water adventurers while seeking to raise awareness for the importance of preserving pure water sources, such as the one they depend upon for their product.

Water quality and purity is even more important for spirits other than whiskey though, where barrels and the aging process may account for upwards of 60 percent of the whiskey's final character.

"Our partners are about keeping water clean," explains Doyle. It's not only for vodka's sake, though, "But keeping water clean environmentally, and also so you can go out and enjoy it, and do cool stuff in it."

Martin Miller's Gin is another clear-spirit brand which places a premium on the purity of its water. After distillation, they proof their gin down with pure spring water from Borgarnes, Iceland.

The water they use there is said to naturally have 8 to 30 parts per million of dissolved solids, comparative to leading bottled water brands at about 300 to 400 parts per million, making it at least 10 times purer based on that measure.

Borgarnes water also has a particularly high surface tension, which the brand explains works by "inhibiting evaporation of the volatiles that want to escape quicklthe aromas, the bouquet." Therefore, their gin is touted as having a softer nose, to go along with a distinctive flavor profile, and a delicate mouthfeel. It hides more of the alcohol's heat and showcases more of the herbal flavors.

Water Purification at the Bar

Back behind the bar, controlling the specific taste of water remains important. This includes with ice used in drinks, whether it's part of an "ice program" or not. Anybody who has ever had an at-home batch of ice go bad because, who knows what was stinking up the space next to it in the freezer, can understand that controlling the flavor of ice itself is important.

Further, bars who regularly produce their own syrups and other ingredients want more control over the water they're using. For instance, at DC Harvest in Washington, D.C., bar manager Matthew Fisk filters the District's notoriously funky-tasting tap water, and then adds in his own preferred levels of minerals to ensure he's getting the perfect result from his ingredients. If he's considering every other factor and carefully fine-tuning his recipes, why wouldn't he also want exacting power over the water itself?

Across town at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, the entire three-story building has a water purification system in place. Therefore, when imbibers carefully add a touch of water from an eye dropper to a dram of whiskey, one is accurately opening up the spirit's aromas, not mucking them up with tap water.

From Suntory's soulplaces to Finlandia's glacial springs, Kentucky's limestone and beyond, don't overlook the role of water in the spirits and cocktails you love.

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