There’s an age-old debate that rages on in the world of whiskey: how should a great dram best be enjoyed? Do you savor it neat? On ice? With a drop of water? In a cocktail? Warm? Cold? The answer is, “yes.” The best way to enjoy your drink is always, “however you damn well please.” Full stop. After all, you’re the person who paid for it.
Now, having said that, it’s not always obvious—particularly to whiskey newcomers—what their exact preference is for enjoyment. There’s no right or wrong way to experience the liquid, but each way is most certainly different. As with anything worth seeking out in life, it’s important to educate yourself a little beforehand. So, let’s take a look at different preparations of whiskey to understand what we can expect from each one.
Neat — The whiskey purists out there will almost certainly be members of this camp. To sip a whiskey neat, all you need is an empty glass…Because you’re not going to be adding a single thing aside from the liquid in the bottle. This is the most straightforward way to get a sense of what the distiller and/or blender intended. But if you’re drinking something at cask strength, that means you could also end up with something ‘hot’, or high in proof, with an associated assertiveness that some might taste as an unpleasant burn. This sensation will only increase with an increase in temperature. So, at the very least, try not to sip your whiskey at anything above cellar temperature (12-14 degrees celsius). If you still find it to be a little too rough for your palate, don’t worry because you can always…
Add Water — This approach can involve many different methodologies. The seasoned aficionado might opt to use a pipette to precisely add no more than a literal drop or two of room temperature water into the dram. Even at such a small dosage, this addition will open up some of the congeners and fusel alcohols responsible for flavor. Meaning that a little bit can go a long way in altering flavor in the glass. You might as well take it slow here: you can always add more water if you want, but you won’t be able to take it out. Further, you might want to invest in deionized or reverse osmosis water so that you’re not introducing outside minerals which can further impact or even overpower flavors from the whiskey.
On The Rocks — Casual drinkers will often clamor for a whiskey that tastes “smooth.” This term has been criticized by the cognoscenti for not being descriptive enough. But we’re not snobs here. It’s quite clear what is meant by the phrase: you’re looking for a liquid that goes down easily. It doesn’t fight you in the back of the throat. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to avoid that. A great way to get there—even with a whiskey that’s fairly high in ABV (alcohol by volume)—is to serve it on the rocks. The colder a spirit is served, the less it’ll fight you as you swallow. This can be a double-edged sword, however. Yes, it will go down easier…But the finish of the whiskey will also be severely truncated. If you’re drinking a complex spirit that lingers on the back palate and reveals much of its character after you’ve taken the sip, serving it on ice will significantly reduce this particular experience. And for some drinkers, with some expressions of whiskey, that can be the very best part. Drinker beware.
Cocktails — This one is bound to make the whiskey geeks go mental. But again, if they don’t want to mix their favourite spirit with any modifiers, nobody is forcing them to! If you keep an open mind you just might find that the addition of something as simple as soda water—which, in a collins glass results in a classic highball—is every bit as rewarding, and far more refreshing than just the spirit on its own. There are brand ambassadors for high end single malt scotches that advocate combining their beloved product with cola. Sure, why not. Add some bitters and a sugar cube for a riff on an Old Fashioned. Throw in a touch of vermouth and stir it up for a Manhattan. Take a smoky whiskey and insert in some apple juice and brown sugar. You’ll be left with a delicious classic called a Light My Fire. Some arrangements are sweet, some bitter. Some are “spirit-forward”—meaning you taste the whiskey at its base—others camouflage it more completely. All cocktails, however, endeavour to find some balance between spirit, dilution, sweet and sour. If you’re okay with that, experiment away. Bob’s your uncle. The only way you’ll know is if you try. So get out there and mix it up in the name of science.