Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

In my line of work, I get to taste a ton of different whisk(e)ys. Whether I’m sipping a sample at home, in a guided tasting with a master blender in Ireland, or drinking straight from the barrel in a rickhouse in Kentucky, one thing remains constant: I’m always trying to experience each whisky in its totality. That means I’m carefully and thoughtfully taking in the color, viscosity, and aroma and how the whiskey tastes and finishes on the palate. 

Distilled spirits are often densely packed with complex tastes and smells, which means it can be difficult to pick up on everything that’s going on. To help, many whiskey experts recommend a water dropper. Adding a few drops of water is said to “open up” a whiskey and make the aromatic and flavor compounds easier to discern. All this to say: If you’re serious about whiskey, you should have a dropper. Below, we’ll go more into why. 

Proof, Dilution, and Flavor

Whiskey, or any distilled spirit, is a mixture of alcohol (specifically ethanol), water, and various other flavoring compounds. Proof and ABV (alcohol by volume) are the measures of the ratio of alcohol to water in any given bottle. The proof of a spirit is calculated by doubling the ABV percentage. For example, a bourbon whiskey that’s bottled at 100 proof, has 50% ABV, meaning the bottle is about 50% alcohol and 50% water. 

Distillers often “proof down” or dilute spirits with water a few times during the production cycle. When a spirit is diluted with water, the balance of alcohol and water changes, and the overall flavor profile changes with it. Distillers carefully measure dilution in order to ensure the whiskey smells and tastes exactly how they want to present it when bottled. In the case of bourbon whiskey, it legally can be distilled up to 160 proof, which is very high. It then is sometimes diluted before being put into barrels for aging. After aging, it’s usually proofed down again to no lower than 80 proof or 40% ABV. 

Assessing Spirits

Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

Although the distillers put a lot of thought and care into the proof they bottle their whiskey at, some extra dilution can help when nosing and tasting different whiskeys. That’s where whiskey droppers come into the equation. They allow the drinker to cautiously add small amounts of water without accidentally overdiluting.

Adding a bit of water dampens the “burn” of the ethanol, allowing all of the other flavoring compounds to come to the forefront and it becomes easier to identify the different flavor notes. Because of this, adding a few drops of water to a whiskey is often said to open up its aroma and flavor. With some whiskeys, usually those bottled around 80 proof, adding water can completely ruin a spirit by overdiluting it. When this happens, all of the desirable flavors and aromas become less prominent and the whiskey tastes flat or deflated. 

This is why most experts recommend initially trying a spirit neat, meaning without ice or any mixers. After closely paying attention to the aroma and flavor of the spirit, it’s common to add a few drops of water and pay close attention to how the flavors and aromas change. Remember, you can always add more water to a whiskey, but you can’t take any out.

Which Dropper Should You Buy?

Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

There are two styles of whiskey droppers that are commonly used in tastings: the glass pipette and rubber dropper bottle. Both styles essentially work the same way but vary in materials and appearance.

Glass pipettes are a simple and elegant way of delivering drops of water to your whiskey. Pipettes are thin glass tubes that allow the user to capture water and drop it into the whiskey. Yes, just like you used in chemistry class. To use, simply dip the pipette into a glass of water, and place your finger over the hole at the end of the pipette to hold the water inside. Then hold it over the glass of whiskey and remove your finger and the water will drop into the glass. We recommend The Glencairn glass pipette. It’s affordable, easy to use, and it matches the Glencairn glass that’s standard in whiskey tastings.

Most glass pipettes won’t break the bank, but budget-conscious drinkers might opt for a standard set of dropper bottles. They may not be as sleek or stylish as the Glencairn glass pipette, but they definitely do the job.


How do you use a whiskey dropper?

Using a whiskey dropper is very straightforward. First, have your whiskey poured into a glass for tasting. Then use your dropper to add two to three drops of clean water to the whiskey. Gently swirl the glass to integrate the water into the whiskey and then taste. Feel free to add more water after that if necessary.

What kind of water should I drop into my whiskey?

Water that is high in mineral content or has other impurities might change the taste of the whiskey in unexpected and possibly unpleasant ways. To ensure that the integrity of the whiskey remains the same, use heavily filtered or distilled water.

Why We’re the Experts

Dylan Ettinger is a contributor with more than a decade of experience working in the specialty coffee industry. He also specializes in writing about cocktails and the spirit industry.Dylan has written our reviews on whiskey glasses, Boston shakers, and more.

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