In lyrics, as in life, Toby Keith gets it wrong. The man who crooned about needing whiskey for his men and beer for horses omitted one crucial addition: water. (Mr. Keith also apparently has no women friends, but this is perhaps not a revelation.)
Last month, Scientific Reports published a study on the chemical benefits of adding one or two drops of water to whiskey. The molecular compound guaiacol, which imparts smoky, spicy flavors, is most present at the surface of diluted whiskey. Water actually magnifies its flavor.
Upon reading this report, one enterprising company in Wilmore, Kentucky issued a press release publicizing Old Limestone: The Mixing Water of Kentucky Bourbon.
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Arguably the world’s most specialized bottled water, Old Limestone is filtered through a limestone aquifer some 130 feet below Kentucky’s terra firma. In light of its Bluegrass State terroir, Old Limestone purports to be the ultimate bourbon mixer.
We at VinePair are cynical New Yorkers without Kentucky sunshine in our hearts, so we were skeptical about the legitimacy of $9.87 (before shipping) filtered water. We are also journalists who will use any excuse to drink during the workday, so we orchestrated a blind tasting using Buffalo Trace, Blade and Bow, Four Roses Single Barrel, and Bulleit Barrel Strength.
According to a page on the company website philosophically titled “What Is Kentucky?”, the area’s water is especially high in calcium and magnesium. Just as Tokyo ramen masters and NYC bagel makers claim local taps impart imperative minerality to their delicacies, so does Old Limestone bid for low-iron Kentucky spring water.
This is the water used by bourbon distillers, it seems. It won taste tests in Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, California, New York, and Michigan. It earned a gold medal, mixer category, in the North American Bourbon and Whiskey Competition. What’s in your water?
VinePair founder and CEO Adam Teeter monitored a blind-tasting for me and staff writer Nick Hines. He poured three glasses of four bourbons, and punctuated each with drops of three types of water: Old Limestone, corner-store Dasani, and NYC tap water.
We began by tasting the waters straight. Nick wisely noted the nose on the first smelled “like cup.” We both noticed the second glass of water had a slick, thick mouthfeel. Could this be Old Limestone? Or was Dasani just texturally weirder than I remembered?
Our first two flights of water-spiked bourbons featured Buffalo Trace and Blade and Bow. Results were inconclusive. I favored the Buffalo Trace that I thought to be accented with tap water (it was Dasani). Nick chose the one actually spiked with tap water. The Blade samples tasted fairly identical. My tasting notes cheerfully read, “Bourbon tastes like bourbon!”
When we got to the Four Roses and Bulleit flights, things took a turn. Nick and I both quickly identified the second glass of Four Roses as superior. “Cinnamon spice. Warm. Delicious,” I wrote, unintentionally channeling drunk Hemingway and Twitter Ruth Reichl.
The second Bulleit was also a clear winner. “Had the best texture and water is a texture thing,” Nick wrote. I agreed, writing, “Rich and beautifully textured.”
Adam stared at us. “You’re sure?” he asked slowly. The room felt hot. I worried we were maybe picking Dasani and he was disappointed he had hired dolts.
“You. Chose. Old. Limestone,” he said, dropping the hammer on our New York City navel gazing and editorial snobbery. We bowed our heads, disgraced.
It turns out that slippery quality we had noticed in the unadorned second cup of water was Old Limestone’s trademark low-iron, high-magnesium minerality. Or something. For reasons I struggle to understand and am loathe to admit, that thick mouthfeel translated beautifully atop the two higher-end bourbons we tasted. It made them richer, fuller, and rounder.
Yet Old Limestone gives me pause. In our digital era, the beverage industry is rife with flash-in-the-’gram trends and product developments that prioritize marketing trends. At a certain point it seems prudent to be skeptical.
And then Old Limestone comes along and defies your naysaying expectations. To paraphrase Tim McGraw, another country music alpha male, the heart don’t forget something like that.