As you will know, water is one of the most essential ingredients in the production of all styles of whiskey across the world. Legally, Irish whiskey cannot be bottled at an alcoholic strength less than 40% Alcohol by Volume, which means that the remaining 60% of that bottle is composed of water, making water not only one of the greatest process aids, its also one of the most important aspects of the bottling process also. So, if water makes up the majority of Irish whiskey bottles around the world, how important is the source of the water? Should we elevate Irish whiskey cut with spring water, or water collected from glacial snow melt? The short answer is, no.
In the recent rebirth and resurrection of Irish whiskey, we have seen any and all facets of the whiskey production cycle become immortalised in marketing materials, lauding them as the greatest thing to differentiate a product since the slicing of the first loaf of bread. There is one fringe aspect of the process that raises its head in marketing materials more than most, the bottling water source.
In-fairness, I understand the marketing allure that localised water sources bring to a product. There is a romantic idea that taking water from the source or the ‘home’ of a brand and using it to cut the whiskey before bottling, gives the liquid a better “taste” of home or a sense of ‘terroir’.
Unfortunately, I am here to tell you that even if you take the water directly from a Holy Well on the summit of Croagh Patrick, the water cannot be used in the bottling of Irish whiskey unless it has first been demineralised.
According to the Irish Whiskey Technical File, water used in the bottling of Irish whiskey must be demineralised to “preserve the organoleptic characteristics of Irish whiskey”. This essentially means that the water must be purified in such a way that (almost) 100% of its mineral and salt ions have been removed before use.
In the Irish Whiskey industry, demineralised water is usually obtained through the process of reverse osmosis (RO). RO is a treatment process that removes salts, minerals and contaminants from water by using pressure to force water through a semipermeable membrane, filtering out all of the contaminants, leaving behind clean and essentially pure H2 and O.
This obviously negates any organoleptic benefit that well water from the summit of Croagh Patrick would imbue on the spirit, making water one of my least favourite selling points in Irish whiskey. Due to this demineralisation process, essentially, every whiskey brand’s cutting water is exactly the same, its simply pure H2O.
It is definitely worth noting that there are no regulations or government/industry guidelines forbidding a brand from collecting its own spring water, RO-ing it and using it in the bottling process of their brand. The only guidelines regarding water sources are in the FSAI’s whiskey labelling guidelines, that note the EU’s regulations regarding the exploitation of spring water sources. To use ‘spring water’ on a label, the brand owner must meet the EU’s directive.
There may be no guidelines forbidding the collection of external water and shipping it to a bottling hall to be stripped back to H2O, but I cannot see why a brand would legitimately incur this extra expense to imbue no organoleptic benefit to the finished product. Of course, if they want to, and they find a bottler that will allow them run their water through their RO system, they certainly can. This is no attack on anyone that does use this as a selling point, they’re not breaking any rules, but this is simply intended to be an informative piece to inform consumers on what the realities are behind water in Irish whiskey.