Visit many a traditional distillery and you’ll doubtless be told a tale of how their purest of spring waters has a dramatic impact on the final flavour of their whisky. Babbling brooks, spiritual waterfalls and liquid trickled down over the eons through mountain granite, hillside heather and peat bogs. When you taste a glass of whisky you’ll be tasting the awe-inspiring landscape itself. It sounds like an appealing and romantic notion, but unfortunately, it’s also one of whisky’s biggest myths.
Historically, distilleries have chosen their locations for two main reasons – transportation links (ingredients in, whisky eventually out) and water sources. Along with barley and yeast, water is the third vital component for the production of whisky. It is utilised in virtually every aspect of the production process. Distilleries use two different types of water – process water and potable water. And whilst their sources might vary – from steams, lochs, or even simply a tap (more on that shortly), this water is all treated to ensure it is clean and healthy prior to it entering the production process. Process water is employed for malting, to aid the germination of barley, in mashing to create the wort and in cooling and condensing. And is here that some argue that the characteristics of this water, from pure springs and heather-influenced hills underpin the eventual flavour profile of whisky.
But consider the production of whisky as a whole – the pre-treatment and filtering processes and the long fermentation, double distillation and maturation regimes. By the time the spirit is ready to bottle, it’s impossible for the purity and taste of the original water to have a discernible impact on the final flavour and character of the whisky.
Potable water is a different matter. It is used to reduce the spirit down to the desired alcoholic strength. This water is added post-maturation and does not enter the wider production process of mashing, fermentation and distillation. This reduction water needs to meet legal common standards to ensure its drinkability. However, in all cases water is homogenised. You won’t be able to taste the influence of hillside heather. And you certainly won’t detect the influence of peat – that comes exclusively from kilning and never from the water source.
Bimber’s home is in West London. We’re an urban distillery not blessed with rugged landscapes, spring water boreholes and towering waterfalls. Our process water comes from the Thames basin. It is simply tap water. However, our water is not only plentiful, it is also naturally high in calcium – perfect for our high ester producing long fermentations. It is in essence exactly the same as the water at other distilleries – carefully pre-treated and filtered to remove any and all contaminants prior to being utilised in the creation of whisky.
We’re completely open about the source of our water – you can learn about how its origin is the same as the water consumed by 9 million people across London and the Thames Valley. Or, if you’re feeling particularly geeky you can read our most recent water quality report directly from Thames water!
Whilst starry-eyed tales capture the imagination, the truth is a lot more straight-forward – regardless of the source, the water tastes like it oughta.