There was a time when I thought I’d be spending my professional career in a lab. I was quite fond of science class in my pre-college days. But that ended after I took a year of Pharmacy as a pre-med. All that memorizing and following procedures was not for me, so I shifted to a management course after that. I’m reminded of my past, as I told myself before embarking on what I hope is a worthwhile experiment.
Despite more geekier discussions today, dilution is still a topic that is rarely discussed. Almost everything about spirits production is being discussed nowadays. From the raw materials, to yeast & fermentation, to everything about distillation and of course whatever else comes with casks and aging. But dilution is not one of them. I think it’s quite odd since the abv of a bottle matters so much to us. I mean, one of the ways we rate a brand, or a whisky, is simply by looking at the abv.
This is something I’ve been curious about for a long time. My curiosity has consistently been taking a back seat for a while now due to a mix of reasons. Firstly, my mind usually runs amok like a puppy without a leash. Then there remains a lack of credible resources about it. Thankfully, it is discussed in Charles Neale’s Armagnac: The Definitive Guide to France’s Premier Brandy and Ed Hamilton mentions it in passing, in a Ministry of Rum post that I cannot track down for this article.
What Ed Hamilton said in passing, touched on diluting rum with water, that it brings out the alcoholic heat. The heat will prevent flavors from being identified. Luckily, it’s seemingly also the same for Armagnac and maybe, ultimately, all of brandy? To quote the entry about diluting water in the Armagnac book: “Ideally those producers that reducers will do so either immediately after distillation or very gradually over the course of several years. If done in one shot, a proper blend does not take place and the resulting spirit seems dilute – watery even. When done correctly, an Armagnac might get a dose of petites eaux or distilled water fairly on, another perhaps two years later, and a final reduction a year or so before the bottling takes place. This slow reduction, at three to five degrees a shot, ensures proper harmony within the final spirit and is more difficult to detect. Ultimately this lessens strengths a more supple spirit that can allow certain aromas to surface above the alcoholic heat.”
All of this makes me wonder why a big brand like the Glenlivet 12, which is bottled only at 40%, is so hot? In comparison, younger single malts like Springbank 10 or Ardbeg 10, which are bottled at 46%, give off less alcohol heat. I’m pretty sure it’s not about the cuts. Ardbeg and Springbank have more heads cuts (which will give more “off” or “dirty” flavors) compared to a very dull, clean and boring Glenlivet: that is catering to the criminally smooth loving drinkers. Coming from a big company that loves efficiency, I’m sure once a huge batch of something like Glenlivet 12 is ready to be bottled, is just instantly diluted to 40% after blending.
Enough guessing, I am aware that the two sources above, relate to brandy and rum, but they are both spirits. I also feel like I should use a whisky for this experiment, because the majority of Malt’s readership is whisky focused. I chose this E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled in Bond for a few reasons. Yes, it’s a whisky and it’s an official bottling from a rather big company. Therefore this should be fairly accessible and easy for anyone who tries to replicate this experiment on their own. And finally, the 50% abv allows more room for dilution.
I used this calculator to find out how much water I should add to dilute the E.H. Taylor down to 40%. The bottle picked itself, being the only high abv expression that I had open at the time.
We have 4 samples. Sample 1 is the “untouched” EH Taylor. I reviewed it before I started pouring the bourbon into the other 3 sample bottles. All the other samples are 200ml each. I will be adding a total of 50 ml to dilute each of the samples to 40%. The only difference is the frequency and quantity of water added. Also, to make this experiment even easier to replicate, I used Evian as it is internationally available.
Sample 2 will be diluted with 50ml of water in one go. I will sample this after dilution. There will be no resting. This is to simulate the instances when we drink diluted spirits in one seating.
Sample 3 will be diluted with 50ml of water over two intervals. I will add 25ml with each interval. They will be one whole week apart and will be rested for one week.
Sample 4 will be diluted with 50ml of water over 5 intervals. I will add 10ml of water five times every other day and a week of resting.
Samples 3 & 4 are merely there to see if there are differences between diluting in small but frequent increments over diluting in larger but less frequent increments.
On the nose: Slightly rough scents of peppers, honey and floral-scented varnish. Followed by very incoherent scents of cherries, raisins, vanilla, caramel and cardamom. Some sweet scents of bananas, cream, strawberries, melons, watermelons and oak to balance everything out.
In the mouth: A slightly tart, floral, woody and varnish-y flavor. Caramel, sweet corn, honey, berries, raisins, cloves and cardamom. More fruity notes like honeydew, strawberries and some muscat grapes.
On the nose: The oak, cinnamon, wooden furniture, leather and varnish are upfront. There are incoherent scents of peppers, floralness and cherries behind all that wood.
In the mouth: Oak, rosemary, thyme and soap. There comes the fruity and floral tastes but are immediately taken over by vanilla, caramel and oak bitterness.
On the nose: The initial sniff gives off rough and hot scents of asparagus, matcha tea, green tea, onions, cherries, cinnamon, bananas with cream, honey and vanilla. These are followed by hints of freshly mashed Japanese peaches,leather, fuji apples, cherries and small oranges.
In the mouth: Very thin and mellow. The initial taste is tarter and sweeter than the nose but the oak and a leather taste suddenly comes up. Then it makes way for sweet and floral notes like caramelized oranges, cherry syrup, banana liqueur, honey, dried apricots and persimmon honey.
On the nose: Softer notes of sweet scents like vanilla, cream, honey, cinnamon and cherry syrup. A second whiff gave me banana syrup, Japanese peach jam and orange marmalade.
In the mouth: A rough texture that goes with soft tastes of orange peel, cinnamon, honey and vanilla. Another sip gives more cinnamon, old wooden furniture, varnish, hints of Japanese peach jam and even weaker hints of maraschino cherry. An astringent texture mixed with tastes of soap, banana syrup, muscovado sugar, milk chocolate and cream.
Sample 1 is straightforward and simple. This is also very pleasant for a BIB and a Bourbon in a way that the wood doesn’t dominate everything. It is rich in flavor yet there is a softness to that might make a lot think this was bottled lower than 50% abv. If it weren’t for the flavors coming with short greetings, I’d give this a 7. But this is not bad for a 4 year old bourbon.
Sample 2 is not pleasant to drink. After adding water and not allowing it to rest is I guess making it similar to dropping a huge project with a short deadline on an office. Everyone panics and are scrambling as they don’t know what to do. The flavors are all in complete disarray.
Sample 3 is very thin in the mouth. Light and quick flavors. Rough and earthy on the nose and initially the same in the mouth. But it quickly gives off more floral, fruity and sweetness on the plate. The layering is more coherent. It’s easier to pick out the flavors
Sample 4 is softer and sweeter on the nose all the way and is thus more pleasant (for me at least). However, having only sweet and floral scents make it complex on the nose. In the mouth, it’s also sweet and floral but is more layered than the nose. However, it’s not as complex as sample 3 due to the lack of earthy notes. The layering of flavors here are also more coherent.
Overall, I think sample 3 is the diluted sample that resembles EH Taylor Small Batch BIB the most. All of the flavors are still there with just less quantity and a few even tea notes got added. But if someone were looking for an easy drink? Or if someone preferred Bourbon more similar to the Evan Williams profile, then sample 4 would be for them and sample 2 is just a no.
Ultimately, with this experiment, I can state how one dilutes a spirit can really affect the experience.
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