How Water Can Actually Enhance Alcohol's FlavorS

Water's essential for cooking, but it's a little bit boring. It's tasteless, neutral, and generally lacking the pizazz of other popular flavor-enhancers like salt, pepper, herbs and spices. But as it turns out, water can actually enhance flavor. Huh!

It all started when a bartender in London observed to Times writer Harold McGee that watered down cocktails could actually smell stronger than stiffer ones. Drinks like water and whiskey are far from uncommon, but in addition to cutting down the alcohol's bite, the water also intensifies the drink's aroma.

That might seem like exactly the opposite of what should happen, but, McGee explains, aroma molecules tend to cling to alcohol molecules, and when there's less total alcohol in the drink, the aroma molecules evaporate more readily and you get a fuller, stronger smell. And with smell being so closely tied to taste, the diluted drink can still seem plenty flavorful.

But that's just the start. Water, McGee found, had an even more significant effect on some wines—specifically stronger wines, those containing greater than 14% alcohol:

I couldn't find any recent trials of wine dilution, but it's been practiced since the days of ancient Greece, so I went ahead and tried it on a California zinfandel with 14.9 percent alcohol. I poured a partial glass of the wine and added about a quarter of its volume in water, to get it down to 12 percent.

A glass of the full-strength wine tasted hot, dense, jammy and a little sulfurous, while the diluted version was lighter all around but still full of flavor, tarter, more fruity than jammy, and less sulfurous. It was no substitute for a true 12 percent wine, made from grapes harvested with less fermentable sugar and a different balance of flavors that we taste full-strength.

But the watered-down wine was surprisingly pleasant, and maybe more suited to summer evenings than the intense original. I ended up alternating sips and enjoying the contrast.

Double fisting, he means. So next time you're playing mixologist, don't dismiss water as something that can just be used to take the edge off. It turns out it can make some drinks even tastier. [NYT]