What is the best type of water for distilling Whisky?

What is the best type of water for distilling Whisky?

This is not an article about how different types of water added to your glass of whisky can affect the taste. For instance, tap water verses Mineral water or water sourced from different regions. (However, it does sound interesting and so I might deal with this in a future post.)
The Whisky Water Myth
Furthermore, this is not an article about whether specific flavours in the water source used to distil the spirit can be tasted in the whisky. If you have ever been to Scotland then you will soon find out that the Scots have a mean sense of humour, so don't believe the distillery tour guide if he/she tells you that that peaty flavour in your glass comes from the peaty water in the spring at the back of the distillery, even if they do say it with a completely straight face.
Bruichladdich's Legendary Distiller Jim McEwan. Known for his very special Scots sense of humour.






These are photos of the River Livet, just right outside The Glenlivet Distillery. As you can see, the water is very very peaty. In fact, pouring the water directly into a glass, the thick golden brown water could very well be mistaken for whisky!

However, as everyone knows, the standard expressions of The Glenlivet whisky are not peated at all and they don’t even use the water from the Livet River for distilling. They use a water source called Josie’s Well.
You will also often read, especially in American Whiskey blogs about Bourbon distilleries, of the mystical influence upon their whiskey from that underground stream…. but it’s all a marketing ploy and a complete myth!
The Speyside region is famous for its water. In fact the name comes from the main river in the region, The River Spey.


As beautifully scenic and clear as the river is, its water is not suitable for making whisky.....

Water, Water everywhere but not a drop to distil.
This blog post is actually about the challenge faced by The Milk and Honey distillery, the first large commercial whisky distillery in Israel, to obtain the right kind of water for the distilling process.


The Ayalon River, Tel Aviv

Why can’t you use regular tap water from the mains in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?
Distillers will tell you that Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) and pH levels in the water are very important during the mashing and fermentation stage and determine how the yeast interacts with the barley grist and flour mash which will affect sugar absorption and the speed of alcohol production as well as levels of unwanted bacteria in the wort.
Never mind the Milk and Honey! What about the Water?
One of the major problems faced by Beer Brewers and therefore spirit distillers in Israel is the water source.
Anyone who has ever tried to drink tap water in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or looked inside their kettles will know all about Israel’s hard water source. If you don’t use filtered water then after a few weeks, the water coming out of your regular kettle or “MeiCham Shabbat” - Shabbat Urn will be coloured pure white with what looks like chunks of wall plaster floating in it.


It causes taps to leak due to a gradual build-up of calcium stone but can destroy expensive washing machines if the water is not pre-filtered. You have been warned! A lot of buildings have central water purifiers connected to the mains supply, others put in water filters in their home so that they end up with three taps. The hot, the cold and a filtered drinking water tap. Others buy bottled water to drink.
According to HaGihon Water Company in Jerusalem, the high presence of calcium and magnesium in the water is due to the fact that the water spends most of its time in chalk rocks and stone mountain aquafers. This causes a huge build-up of scale when the water is heated (creating Calcium Carbonate or CaCO3 mineral deposits). They claim however that even over time, “hard” water is not dangerous to human health.
When it comes to whisky distilling, water is used in almost every stage of whisky production:
1. For the steeping of the green barley before it is malted.
2. For mashing the malted barley grist and flour at high temperatures.
3. During the Fermentation stage where yeast and water are added inside the washback.
4. For cooling the distilled spirit through the worm tubs or condensers.
5. For diluting the spirit.
 
Calcium Carbonate and pH Levels
“Soft” water is defined as containing around 40-60 mg/Litre of Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) and “Hard” water as over 80-200 mg/Litre of CaCO3.

The pH level (the amount of acidity in the water measured from 1 to 14) is around 7.0 to 8.0 for normal “pure” drinking water. (“Mei Eden” Mineral water for instance has a pH of 7.1).

Speyside Mineral drinking Water : Calcium 12mg and pH 7.7



 Buxton English Bottled Water: Calcium 55mg, pH 7.4






Israeli Neviot Mineral Water: Calcium 57 mg, pH 7.8

Water below 6.5 pH is considered “Acidic” and above 8.5 is considered “Basic”. “Hard” or scaly water keeps pH levels high. However, as water flows through a water filtration purifier (such as a “Reverse Osmosis water filtration” system as employed by the Milk and Honey distillery), and the Calcium is removed, the water becomes more acidic, bringing down the pH level as a consequence.
See here for a photo of the Milk and Honey computerised Reverse Osmosis machine:
 
Both the Mashing and Fermentation process needs low concentrations of Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) and pH levels in the water. High concentrations of Calcium Carbonate keep pH levels high which restricts the yeast from interacting with the wort or sugars in the mash and encourages growth of unwanted bacteria. According to Biochemists who specialise in brewing and distilling, they will tell you that pH levels of around 5.5 produce the perfect acidic environment for the yeast to begin the wort fermentation process. As fermentation progresses, the pH levels drop even further, creating a more and more inhospitable environment for bacteria and a sweeter and purer wort “beer”.
I asked Tomer Goren, The Master Distiller at “Milk and Honey” about the water they produce from their computerised Reverse Osmosis Water Laboratory in the distillery. He explained that the end result of the process produces a perfect custom-made water where Calcium levels are below 15 PPM, pH levels are around 5 pH with all the right minerals they require for whisky production. (I did not ask Tomer but I suspect that this is water composition is very similar to the kind of water used for mashing and distilling in the Speyside region of Scotland).
I could not get a good look at the machinery but I would imagine that they can set the Laboratory computer to produce any kind of water from Islay peated to Speyside soft spring water, matching the exact pH, Calcium and mineral content.
By necessity, Israel has had to be at the forefront of Water purification technology and indeed today, we sell this know-how all over the world. Even by our high standards, this machine installed at Milk and Honey is quite an impressive piece of kit but now we need to see whether all this ingenuity translates into descent whisky. That will be, Be’ezrat Hashem,  my next Blog post.

Sources:
An interview with Tomer Goren. Milk and Honey Distillery.
There is a very good article here from a Tel Aviv based Amateur Home Brewer.
See article on water on the “Whisky Science” blog here:
and another article on whisky and water by “The Malt Maniacs” here: http://www.maltmaniacs.net/e-pistle-200903-the-chemistry-of-water-whisky/
 

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