WHEN fine-tuning the flavor of dishes and drinks, I’ve always turned to the usual bench of taste and aroma boosters: salt and pepper, lemon juice, herbs and spices, this or that condiment. One ingredient that never, ever came to mind was water. Water has no flavor to give. It doesn’t boost, it dilutes.
Then a few months ago, the London bartender Tony Conigliaro told me that weak cocktails can be more aromatic than stronger drinks. That observation provoked me to play with the proportions of alcohol and water in spirits and wines. Then this month, a barista showed me that I could make tastier coffee by brewing it with less ground coffee and more water.
It’s true, as it turned out: Water is indeed a useful flavor enhancer, exactly because it dilutes other ingredients and can change their balance for the better.
Fans and judges of Scotch whiskies often sample their flavor by “nosing” them, or sniffing the aroma that gathers in the glass. Nosers have long known that diluting the spirit with roughly the same amount of water reduces the alcohol burn. And at the same time, strangely, amplifies the aromas.
How can water reduce one sensation and amplify another? Both alcohol and aroma molecules are volatile, meaning they evaporate from foods and drinks and are carried by the air to the odor receptors high up in the nasal cavity.
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.
This means that the more alcoholic a drink is, the more it cloisters its aroma molecules, and the less aroma it releases into the air. Add water and there’s less alcohol to irritate and burn, and more aroma release.
The same principle explains why stiff martinis and Manhattans can be less aromatic than lower-proof cocktails, as many bartenders know. Audrey Saunders of the Pegu Club in New York told me that realizing this led her to develop a series of what she calls “inverted drinks,” in which spirits play a supporting role to vermouth or other low-alcohol ingredients.
Her Madeira Martinez combines one part gin (40 percent alcohol) and two parts Madeira (20 percent) for a drink that starts at around 30 percent alcohol before ice dilutes it further. The Intro to Aperol, with two parts of the 11-percent aperitif wine to one of gin, comes in around 20 percent. With drinks like these, Ms. Saunders said, the goal is to highlight the flavors of the weaker ingredient.
Just to see what spirits themselves are like with no alcohol burn at all, I diluted a number of them with plain water by three to one, to cut their alcohol levels to the equivalent of a low-alcohol wine. All of them remained plenty aromatic, a couple of English gins spectacularly so. With a bit of lemon juice and sugar, they made an odd but pleasant drink: an aqua-gin.
High-alcohol wines, those that exceed about 14 percent alcohol, are often described as “hot” and unbalanced. Alcohol’s irritating effects account for the heat. And flavor chemists have found that high alcohol levels accentuate a wine’s bitterness, reduce its apparent acidity and diminish the release of most aroma molecules. Alcohol particularly holds down fruity and floral aromas, so the aroma that’s left is mainly woody, herbaceous and vegetal.
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.
There’s even a place for more water in coffee. I learned this from James Hoffmann, a 2007 winner of the World Barista Championship whose passion for flavor has led him from espresso to brewed coffee and its less concentrated but more diverse aromas.
Mr. Hoffmann is the proprietor of Square Mile Coffee, a roasting company in London, and a six-stool, espresso-less coffee bar that closes this week after a temporary residence in the Shoreditch district. At the bar, named Penny University for the term applied to the first London coffeehouses, he and his colleagues offered a revelatory short course in the possibilities of brewed coffee. They presented a menu of three contrasting kinds of beans, brewed them using any of three methods, and chatted with their customers about the fine points of the ingredients, process and flavor.
Earlier this month I enrolled in a tasting of coffees from Kenya, Ethiopia and Guatemala, all roasted lightly to avoid losing their distinctive qualities in the intense but more generic flavors of a dark roast. Each cup was less concentrated than I’m used to making for myself, yet delicious and distinctive.
Mr. Hoffmann explained that industry standards for brewed coffee strength vary a great deal, from around 1.25 percent extracted coffee solids in the United States to something approaching 2 percent in Brazil and in specialty coffeehouses. He aims for 1.5 percent, and gets it consistently with the help of a precision water boiler and a digital scale on which he does the brewing, pouring water to the gram.
“It seems silly, debating decimals,” Mr. Hoffmann said, “but it makes a big difference to the flavor.” A tablespoon of water more or less can shift the extracted solids by a perceptible amount. It also matters how the coffee solids are extracted. Mr. Hoffmann told me that concentrated brews are often made palatable by using a lot of coffee and reducing the brewing time or the temperature to extract only the easy-going portion of its flavor materials. The result is intense but one-dimensional. More fully extracting a smaller amount of gently roasted, high-quality coffee, as Mr. Hoffmann and a number of new-wave brewing advocates are doing, brings out its full range of tastes and aromas.
“When I drink coffee I’m looking for clarity, by which I mean distinguishable, characterful, interesting flavors,” Mr. Hoffmann said. The lightness of his brews did seem to highlight their very different aromas, which changed but remained enjoyable even as the remains cooled to room temperature. “No other liquid I know evolves as much as you drink it,” he said.
I brought home some of Mr. Hoffmann’s Yirgacheffe, an Ethiopian coffee that I love for its unusual blueberry aroma, and measured my brewing against his with the help of a refractometer, a device that measures dissolved solids. (Refractometers are sold online beginning at around $50). I made a cup at my standard strength, which turned out to be 2.2 percent coffee solids.
When I dropped the strength close to Mr. Hoffmann’s preferred 1.5 percent by using a third less ground coffee (about 12 grams of coffee to 180 grams, or 6 fluid ounces, of water), the fruity aroma was much more evident, and the flavor generally brighter and more lively. Clarity is a good word for the overall impression.
So I’m making my coffee with more water now, and getting many more cups from a bag of beans.
You don’t need a refractometer to explore the power of dilution, though a scale is advisable for getting close to Mr. Hoffmann’s sweet spot for coffee, since volume measures are unreliable and the decimals count. If you’re in the habit of brewing strong cups from premium beans, then give his proportions a try, weighing out both coffee and water. Or, later in the day, pour a glass of strong spirits or a big wine and try adding some water. Or make one of Ms. Saunders’s inverted cocktails. And see whether the flavor you get is not so much watered-down as opened up, and good.
Adapted from Pegu Club, Manhattan
1/2 teaspoon honey
2 ounces bual Madeira
1 ounce gin
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
1 small bay leaf, for garnish.
Measure honey and 1/2 teaspoon hot water into a shaker and stir to combine. Add Madeira, gin, bitters, pomegranate molasses and a big handful of ice. Stir until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass and float the bay leaf on the surface.
Yield: One drink.
Intro to Aperol
Adapted from Pegu Club, Manhattan
4 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons superfine sugar
2 ounces Aperol
1 ounce gin
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 strip orange peel, about 1-inch wide, for garnish.
Stir lemon juice and sugar in a shaker until dissolved. Add Aperol, gin and bitters with a large handful of ice. Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass. Hold the orange peel over the drink, rind side out, and sharply squeeze to release the oils, then drop it into the glass.
Yield: One drink.
July 28, 2010
Copyright 2010 The New York Times