This contribution concerns the issue of crystal nucleation in the polymorphic and hydrate forming system inosine-water. A combination of computational and experimental tools have been used to explore the relationship between solution phase inosine species and the structural synthons as found in its crystal structures. It is evident that the initial nucleation of a metastable polymorph at temperatures above 10 °C is directed by dimeric self-association as revealed through proton NMR. At lower temperatures a dihydrate structure becomes the most stable solid phase and in this region of the phase diagram this is the only form that appears even though the solution species remain unchanged. This can only be rationalised in terms of a combination of water binding to the solution dimers and the thermodynamic stability of the hydrate crystal structure. © The Royal Society of Chemistry 2007.