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How important is water in vodka and whisky?

Without water, life as we know it would not flourish. Water is part of our make-up; 55 to 60 percent of the average adult’s body is water. It is one of the most vital elements in many of the things we produce – including making some of our favourite alcoholic drinks. Let us take a look at the role water plays in making whisky and vodka.

For whisky, the short answer to the question in the title above is: very important indeed. Water affects the taste of whisky and is used in various stages of the fabrication process. And, of course, water is one of whisky’s three main ingredients – the other two being barley and yeast.

The fact that whisky makers go through the trouble of finding the best water sources to locate their distilleries should give some indication of how important water is in the whisky-making process.

All the great names in whisky-making have invested a great deal of time and money in finding the ideal locations for their distilleries, and the biggest dealmaker in selecting a location is the quality of the water. Wherever you go in the world, you will find that whisky distilleries are usually located near natural water sources. The properties of the water these sources contain have a major effect on the whisky that is produced using them.

In Scotland, whisky distillers mostly get their water from one of three sources: springs, lochs (lakes) and rivers or streams. One such example is the Ardbeg Distillery on the south coast of the Scottish island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides. This distillery is the home of Ardbeg single malt whisky, revered by whisky connoisseurs the world over for its smoky, peaty character.

The distillery is situated close to Loch Uigeadail, a lake which is located in the southeast of the island, about four kilometres north of the small settlement from which Ardbeg whisky takes its name. Loch Uigeadail is noted for the soft, pure quality of its water. Not only is this used in the making of Ardbeg; whisky experts recommend that you use it to dilute the whisky whilst drinking it. Uigeadail (pronounced ‘Oog-a-dal’) is the Gaelic word for ‘dark and mysterious place’ and has given its name to one of the house’s top single-malt whiskies.

Scotland is also home to the Glenmorangie distillery, where Glenmorangie single malt whisky is produced. Glenmorangie distillery’s water source is the Tarlogie Springs in the Tarlogie Hills, up in the Scottish Highlands. Rich in minerals, Tarlogie spring water is the product of rain that has forced its way through layers of limestone and sandstone over many years.

As well as being an ingredient, water is used in a number of steps during the distillation process. At the beginning, it is added to the barley to make malt. At the fermentation stage, water is used for cooling the alcohol. And at the end, water is used to reduce the alcohol when the whisky is being bottled.

As with whisky, water also plays a very important role in the making of vodka. It is even responsible for giving the drink its name (‘vodka’ stems from ‘voda’, the Russian word for water). Water is used to lower the alcohol by volume level in vodka during the bottling process. The alcohol by volume of distilled vodka can be as high as 73%; adding water reduces this to between 40% and 50%.

Ideally, vodka should be completely odourless and colourless, just like water. Distillers will use the purest water available to get the vodka crystal clear. It helps the process if the water you use is naturally free from impurities - so vodka makers, like their whisky-making counterparts, are always on the search for pure water sources. For our vodka house Belvedere, the solution to this was to have their own wells. Belvedere is made in the Polmos Żyrardów distillery in Poland. The distillery has two artesian wells situated in its grounds; one is 41.5 metres deep and the other is 50.5 metres deep. The water from these wells goes through a stringent purification process, and is exclusively used to make Belvedere vodka.