The process of slowly bringing water into barrel strength whisky is called “marrying” the spirit with water. And the best water to use for marrying whisky is rainwater.
Water: sustains life on earth. Whisky: a fun way to serve water.
Whisky is mostly water; in fact, it’s about 60% water. The other 40% is delicious, fermented fun. It should come as no surprise that the quality of the water affects the quality of the whisky. What is surprising is the choice some distillers make around water. For the eco-distiller, water source and water consumption are core concerns.
No single process or single technique can guarantee good whisky, but it can be ruined by a misstep or careless practice along the way. One critical step is the reduction of alcohol from barrel strength to bottle strength. The type of water and reduction process can have profound and sometimes devastating effects on the finished whisky.
The process of slowly bringing water into barrel strength whisky is called “marrying” the spirit with water. And the best water to use for marrying whisky is rainwater. Rain is naturally distilled water. It is soft, with no dissolved minerals. Unlike artificially distilled water, rain has dissolved CO2 that it picks up during sky fall. Rainwater brings to the whisky softness and a gentle nip of acidity from the carbon dioxide. A marriage literally made in heaven!
Take it slow. Marry whisky with rainwater by slow reduction.
Marrying whisky with water, like any good marriage, requires patience and attentiveness providing tangible and noticeable benefits. Even casual whisky drinkers will taste and feel the difference in whisky produced by slow reduction with rainwater.
The French Cognac technique for reduction can last for years, with minute amounts of water added once a month until bottle proof is reached. They call the process “élevage,” which means to “raise-up”, like raising a child. Leave it to the French to take this marriage into a graceful, years-long process that results in posterity.
Check-out some examples of élevage and rainwater reduction
Osocalis is a Californian brandy distillery that works with rainwater. If you’re lucky enough to find a bottle of their amazing rainwater-proofed brandy, you are in for a treat. Osocalis collects rainwater only during the rainy season. The water is carefully treated to maintain freshness. A great deal of their facility’s real estate is dedicated to water storage.
A Texas bourbon distillery, Still Austin, adopted the élevage technique, and the results have been astonishing. The young bourbon is soft on the palate with refined and nuanced flavors.
Church Spirits is affiliated with Still Austin and while I may be accused of favoritism in my assessment of their product, it was the quality of their product that inspired me to forge the connection. And I know that in blind tastings, people routinely over-estimate this bourbon’s age by 5 years.
Making better whisky, today, is also better for future generations.
Reducing water use and promoting water quality is at the core of sustainable practices for any eco-distillery. Collecting rainwater is a great way to improve a distiller’s overall eco-footprint.
By using rainwater instead of treated tap water for cleaning equipment, the eco-distillery also lessens demand on public infrastructure. The local water board and ratepayers will appreciate it too.
“Making water fun” is Job One for the distiller. Doing it in a way that lessens impact on the planet respects the moral obligation we have to future generations. And, as long as there are Saturday nights and whisky, and blissful nuptials, there are going to be future generations.
Michael Rosser, co-owner of Church Spirits and Ales, is a perpetual student in ancient and contemporary distilling methods. His curiosity and yearning for knowing has made him somewhat of an expert. Join him for unique, amusing twists on the road to discovery. This is one article of a ten-part series which reflects Michael’s musings around distilling great whisky, being mindful of sustainability, and “making water fun.”