When I was in my early 20s, living in Austin, Texas, and still a relatively inexperienced drinker, I had a slightly older friend who favored Scotch & Soda. Upon entering one of his usual haunts, this commanding fellow would bark, “two Dewar’s & Sodas with a twist.” I would sip mine, even though I despised the wan, punchless, boring, watery concoction.
Fast-forward 15 years, and I’m fixing a Whiskey & Soda nightly—and loving it. What happened? Is it just my old-man-ification? I don’t think so. Instead, I believe I’ve come to appreciate the subtle art of dilution and the sweetness, the liveliness and the sheer drinkability that a little bit of water can bring to an otherwise pure and complex spirit.
It turns out my newfound predilection has scientific heft. “Aroma molecules are also more chemically similar to alcohol molecules than they are to water, so they tend to cling to alcohol, and are quicker to evaporate out of a drink when there’s less alcohol to cling to,” wrote food scientist Harold McGee in The New York Times. “Add water and there’s less alcohol to irritate and burn, and more aroma release.”
To my mouth, the liquor’s flavor emerges in a way that doesn’t batter the tongue. The bubbles make the mixture quaffable and refreshing, especially suited for a sticky August evening. I don’t use a prized single malt or rare bourbon, but rather a good-quality, high-intensity blend like Pig’s Nose Scotch or a mid-range bourbon like Bulleit. The chunkier the spirit, the better it works. Be sure to find whiskies in which the toast and woodiness is balanced by the fruity sweetness of malt or grain.
I prefer a ratio of two parts soda to one part whiskey, which can carry you through a whole night—the buzz builds slowly and is easy to maintain at a gentle, humming level. If only I’d understood that 15 years ago.
Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco-based writer and co-author of the James Beard Award-winning book Secrets of the Sommeliers.