Should you add water to whisky? Not always…

18 March, 2020 by Andy Young

Brendan McCarron is the Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks for Glenmorangie, this means he is in the fortunate position of learning the Master Distiller’s trade under the highly-regarded Dr Bill Lumsden.

McCarron has worked with Dr Bill on a number of Glenmorangie expressions, most notably the new Traveller’s Exclusive range. Although that range is only available through global travel retail, Bars and Clubs took the opportunity to speak to McCarron about the process of creating new expressions, and the excitement surrounding single malt Scotch in general.


Speaking about where the ideas for new expressions and new whisky flavours come from, McCarron told Bars and Clubs: “Most of them start as ideas, and honestly from things like cooking programs and watching programs about how things are made.

“It can be crazy things like someone is a biscuit factory looking at how biscuits are made and you see a machine doing something that is doing something to the wheat to make it easier to process. And you just think ‘I wonder if I could do that to barley?’

“That’s actually given me inspiration for something that I’ll maybe be able to tell you about in 10 years’ time.”


He adds: “There are things like that, but then you see cocktail makers, making cocktails and they tell you a bit of history about a different spirit, and you think ‘I didn’t know that, I wonder if I can apply that to Scotch.

“Other times something ridiculous comes into your head, if I like the way something tastes and I wonder if I could make a whisky to taste like that.

“Then there are other less inspirational stories, where we get a call and someone tells me they have wine casks from a famous Chateau that they don’t need and would we like them. Yes!

“Then they come over and this is where the real skill comes in; what are we going to put in these. Do we put spirit and age it for 12 years or do we take 10 year old Glenmorangie and see how it goes in two years and five years – these are all the things you look at.”

There is no doubt that the intricacies behind that level of planning and innovation are fascinating. Not only do McCarron and Dr Bill have to figure out how things are going to taste, and when they are going to be ready, with Scotland’s rules regarding age statements and Scotch production in general they have to factor these elements into the equation as well.


What is particularly interesting, especially regarding Scotch, is consumer attitudes to how it should be drunk – everyone seems to think they know best. But as McCarron points out Master Distillers spend a lot of time crafting whiskies, planning how it will taste and when it is right to be released.

“If we had a 21-year-old here, I would recommend we drink that neat, maybe a very little bit of water, but this one is not for cocktails.

“Generally the older a whisky get the less likely it is to take water, it tends to collapse and definitely in a cocktail. Also this is unique and rare, so experience the flavours as they are.”

But on the subject of blanketly adding water to whisky, McCarron, says that it’s not always the way to go. Take the 12-Year-Old Glenmorangie Accord in the new range, he says by adding water to the whisky you actually dull some of the sherry notes in the whisky.

“When I’m drinking a sherried Glenmorangie I think the whole point is to get the big sherry notes, and adding water for me definitely takes those notes away. People say adding water opens the whisky up, but you can actually be dulling certain characteristics.

“It’s like putting salt on food; salt makes food taste better, right? But what if you are in an award-winning restaurant and the chef has made an amazing meal, seasoned it perfectly, adding salt is not going to make that taste better. Taste it first, because he might have just made you a big bowl of salt!

“People say, ‘oh water opens up the whisky and makes it better’ but no, it’s not that. Yes it opens it up, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better, it might make it better for you, but that’s not the case for everyone.

“So if you’re trying whisky for the first time, even if it’s cask strength, if it’s the first time, try it neat because you never know this may be the one that you think, ‘oh my God that is perfection’. As soon as you put water you are never going to know.”

As well as the Accord, which is 12-year-old Glenmorangie from bourbon and Oloroso sherrt casks, the new range features 14-year old Elementa, which is finished in new charred oak casks and the 16-year-old Tribute.

The Tribute is a unique Glenmorangie as it is made using peated barley, and although the peat is only at 20 phenols, it does have a smoky tone, but it’s not an Ardbeg, and it does make you think a bit differently about this being a Glenmorangie whisky – just be sure to try it neat the first time!

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