What does it mean to “open up” your whisky?
Seasoned drinkers often like to use the phrase, “open up”, to express their challenges in getting the subtle nuances of the whiskies they drink. What exactly does “open up” means? To explain this in layman’s terms, it merely refers to the patience that a drinker needs to have when drinking whisky, especially older expressions. A whisky deserves to sit in the glass for a while to allow it to reveal the secrets it is hiding inside. The aeration of older whisky is similar to that of old vintage wines. By allowing air to interact with the liquid, a drinker enables the complexities to surface.
Aeration of Whisky
Let’s explore deeper into this idea that whisky needs aeration. Some seasoned drinkers believe that old whiskies slumber long enough in the cask and should be drunk straight away from the moment the liquid hits the glass. These drinkers feel that a 30-year old whisky should not get aired because it has been aired for 30 years in the cask anyway.
However, other drinkers are more patient with their whiskies. They sip and wait while allowing air to interact with the whisky in the glass. Jim McEwan, the legendary master distiller, said, “I advocate letting a whisky sit for one minute for every year of its age. 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.”
Jim went on to say that he had a fantastic time with a Glenfarclas 50-year-old, which surprised him so much with the evolution of its flavours and profile, that he scored it 110/100. “It was so good. I kept coming back to it, and it kept coming back to me, it was incredible,” he said. “Enjoy it, savour it, and you’ll be rewarded.”
Adding Water to Whisky
Adding water is another way to help the whisky to give up its flavours to you. It accelerates the process as the water dilutes the alcohol percentage and dissipates the fumes to help you get to the characters. Nonetheless, it is probably sacrilegious to add lots of water to an old whisky instead of allowing it to sit out in the glass. You are likely to lose the core flavours of the whisky if too much water gets into the glass. “By adding water carelessly, you’re not being clever enough, you’re not thinking about what you’re doing,” Jim said.
Yes, we agreed. Due to our curiosity, we had, on occasions, added copious amount of water into our whiskies (of course, they are not old; they are not our favourites) to see how water changes the profile of the whisky. In some whiskies, the water dilutes the flavours to the extent that only the bad aromas linger (think extreme chilli spice and baby vomit). In others, the water dilutes all the characteristics.
The trick to adding water is a drop at a time. Adding a drop of water to the whisky and allowing it to sit for a minute or two before nosing it again will help you to get the aromas. The water dissipates the alcohol fumes and encourages the underlying flavours to surface.
The Science Behind “Opening Up” the Whisky
To fully understand how to “open up” a whisky, we seek to understand the science behind it. It appears that science supports both approaches discussed above.
An article from Unfiltered, the undisputed whisky magazine from SMWS, refers to Paul Hughes, assistant professor of distilling practice at Oregon State University in the USA. He explains that the main difference between the two approaches is time. The patience of allowing the whisky to open up through aeration uses time as the main component to “unbound” the molecules in the liquid. It results “opening up” the aromas of the whisky gently and naturally. Conversely, adding water to the whisky dilute the alcohol contents in the liquid, “unbound” the molecules quickly and forces the underlying aromas to surface quickly.
“There is good scientific evidence to suggest that compounds clustered when extracted from wood, so they seem to add structure to whisky. A more aged whisky, at least regarding the mass of extractives, might reasonably open more slowly, with wood extractives glueing the clusters together,” said AP Paul Hughes. “The gentle evaporation of alcohol after pouring is preferable to the ‘forced breakdown’ of ethanol clusters by adding water. However, waiting for a 40-year-old whisky to open up might test the patience, so maybe some natural evaporation with a little water would be a good compromise.”
It is still debatable whether you should drink your whisky immediately, allow it to air or to add water to it. There is no right or wrong way. It is ultimately, your preference. We had experiences where a whisky gives up its flaws after aeration instead of giving up its subtle aromas. It deteriorates so quickly that we had to pour it down the sink.
We conclude that whisky is dynamic and that only through experiments can you indeed discover the precious aromas of a particular dram.