It’s been a while since I’ve added to this blog. I finished up my third book (Amazon Kindle, “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will”) my free wheeling review of the intersection between physics and theology should you be interested.
Meanwhile I have learned much, experimented, and read more books. One of those books was “Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits” by Lew Bryson. This book is about whiskey, all kinds of whiskey. Mr. Bryson is careful to point out that rums, brandies, and other drinks, while sharing in common with whiskey both distillation and barrel ageing, are not whiskey. Whiskey comes from grain, wheat, rye, barley, corn, rice, and many others far less common, but only grains can make genuine whiskey. I’ll defer to his definition here. Rum is not whiskey it’s rum, and that works for me. Much, in fact just about all, of what Mr. Bryson says about the process of tasting whiskey applies to other distilled spirits if not all of them. In particular it applies to spirits meant to be sipped, and that certainly applies to brandies and rums.
In his delightful little book (highly recommended by the way) Mr. Bryson spends time in a few places to discuss mixing water in whiskey. This isn’t the first place I’ve heard about the reasons for this. A number of YouTube video whiskey (and rum) reviews include this step in the tasting process. I know it is common to add a little water to all of the whiskeys and rums. You don’t see it very often with brandies and cognacs. Adding just a little water to a dram of whiskey is supposed to enhance the flavors of the drink for two reasons. First by lowering the percentage of alcohol in the glass you reduce the masking effect of alcohol fumes and alcohol on the tongue. By taking out some of the fire (so it is said) you taste more of what is behind it. Second, there are flavor chemicals in the whiskey (called esters) that become surrounded and locked in by alcohol molecules. Adding a bit of water unlocks some of these bonds freeing the esters to make a greater difference to the nose and the tongue. There is more to the story, Mr. Bryson spends a very good chapter on the subject discussing for example how ice changes a whiskey’s flavor. But for now, this is enough to get us started.
Before I got into rum I was pairing cigars with various brandies, cognacs, and liqueurs, in particular a liqueur called “Irish Mist” which is a blend of some Irish whiskey and a concoction that is supposed to be something like “mead”, a wine made from honey — quite possibly the oldest kind of wine known. Irish Mist is sweet, sweeter even than all but the sweetest rums, yet still not so sweet as other liqueures like Drambui or Grand Mariner. I was casting about for another kind of spirit to pair with cigars. I’ve tried a few (even good) ryes but they came across a bit too bitter for me. Likewise scotch, not bitter, but something else, something oily I never quite got past. Tried a few bourbons that were good but by the time I’d had a few glasses from any given bottle (and I mean over a week) I was sick of the flavor. All of these were drunk neat because, so I thought, that was the proper way to understand the flavor a blender was after. A few of these drinks ended up poured over ice but that left a very watered down drink that, to me at the time, was nothing but a washed out version of the same whiskey neat.
Then I tried rum. It happened to be a Pyrat XO which happens to be a pretty sweet and fruity rum, almost but not quite as sweet as Irish Mist. It was the perfect step for me. I found an entry into a spirit category that has as much variety within it as all the other whiskies and brandies put together. In the past four or so years I’m drinking rum I never seem to have more than a dozen different rums in my collection, but I’ve gone through at least one bottle of some 50 rums and find a variety of contrasting flavors that will likely keep me busy for many more years. Until a few weeks ago, all of these were consumed neat with the exception of a few parties in Nicaragua where the only rum I could get (Flor de Cana) was always served on the rocks. That turned out OK (and I’ve had lots of FdC neat too). I usually manage to nurse a single dram through a whole cigar, even a 90 minute cigar, but at those parties I was smoking 2 or 3 cigars a night and I had to spread the drinks out over a longer interval.
That brings me up to a few weeks ago. Having read Mr. Bryson’s advice to add water I decided to try it with a few of my rums. All of my rums are between 40% and 42% ABV (alcohol by volume) by far the most common alcohol concentration in the rums I find around here. There are a very few “over proofs” like the Austrailian Bundaberg at about 53% ABV, but its pretty hard to find anything above the usual 40 or 42%. These are the same percentages you find in brandies and likewise Irish Mist. Same with most of the whiskies. After some years of drinking spirits with this much alcohol I am used to it.
Over the past few weeks I’ve taken to sipping a bit of my rum neat and then adding a tiny bit of water, maybe 5 drops in an ounce of rum. I swirl it around, sip again, and sometimes try another 2 or 3 drops. This can’t have much effect on the percentage of alcohol, but even that little bit of water quiets whatever alcoholic heat the rum carries. Most of my rums are already very smooth. The heat I get out of them is not at all harsh or unpleasant to my palate. Even so the 5 drops or so makes a difference. I can still taste the alcohol, but there seems to be much less of it. This is particularly noticeable on the nose, particularly with a younger rum. The alcohol no longer seems to overwhelm the aroma, something that also happens, to a lesser extent, if you just let the rum sit out in the glass for 10 minutes or so before nosing it. Though I don’t particularly smell any new aromas after adding the water, the old ones are still there.
When I taste the watered down rum I taste, well, watered down rum. To me it’s a little like slightly too-weak coffee. You get that flavors are there (though I don’t detect any new ones) but something of the body seems to be missing. I think the bottom line here is that I’m used to the full strength product which, remember, is only 40% ABV or so. When rums (and whiskies) come out of a cask they can be 60% or even 70% ABV. To get them to 40% the blenders add water! So if you are drinking rum (or whiskey) at 40% ABV it has already been considerably diluted. The results aren’t all bad. When I add a little water to Pusser’s or Appleton 12, some of the funk gets toned down. Perhaps people who don’t otherwise like that flavor will find it palatable that way.
I haven’t tried this will all the rums in my present collection of open bottles but I’ll get around to it. I want to understand what this process does and I know my palate has grown used to the undiluted (at least beyond 40%) product. So far I haven’t had that “ah ha” experience and I know I have to give it a fair shot.
So I return to what I said back in part III of my pairing article. Drink what you like and like what you drink. If adding a little water to your rum (or whiskey) works for your palate then by all means add water! I might not appreciate the effect, but you might. Experiment with your own taste. No one else is going to do it.