In case you ever care to buy me a drink—I dig a 16yo Laphroig (neat) with a shot of water on the side.
But please don’t judge me for what I would do straight after both glasses are placed in front of me, because I will immediately pour the water into my whiskey (I have my reasons!).
My preferred method of whiskey drinking comes as a shock to a lot of people, and immediately incites a raging debate around the proper way to drink this historic spirit. Neat? On the rocks? With cola or ginger?
The truth is (spoiler alert) it doesn’t matter. BUT, there are pros and cons to each method, and whichever one you choose is down to personal taste. This is a judgement free zone right here!
Most upmarket whiskey bars, like Vaults of Soho in London automatically serve your selected scotch with a small decanter of distilled water, and pipettes. This is so you can carefully, lovingly, drip tiny drops of water into your whiskey to dilute it.
Side note, would you just look at that whiskey selection? I say “goddamn.”
Why do people do this? I’m glad you asked.
Whiskey is strong at around 40% ABV, so you’re going to get a great deal of “tongue burn”. The volume of the alcohol is so high that your tongue feels like it’s literally on fire. ScienceLine has a great article that explains this sensation in great detail… because, science!!
Most of us can’t taste much thanks to this phenomenon. The other factor at play is that ethanol (the form of alcohol we drink) is highly volatile—so all those scrumptious aromas from the ingredients used and the aging methods, evaporate pretty quickly. If it’s diluted, the flavours and aromas stay in the water, which means we can taste and smell it better (without feeling like we’re shredding the top layer of our tongue in the process). The complexities of whiskey are deep, and to be savoured.
The downside to diluting whiskey by any measure is a reduction in mouthfeel. As you can pretty much guess, it loses all viscosity with water and gets, well, watery. My personal taste (and love for an intact tongue) means that I deal happily with this drawback—but it’s not for everyone…
Here are my favourite selections (and spot the cat), with some excellent beer on Christmas Eve, à chez Lolly!
ON THE ROCKS
Splashing your malt over blocks of ice is the most popular way to drink whiskey. Scots will argue it’s common because that’s how the commoners drink it—but that’s beside-the-by.
The benefits to having your tipple served over glistening cubes of ice (aside from looking sexy as hell) is mainly to provide a quick reduction of our arch nemesis: tongue burn. The ice quells the dragon’s breath just enough to take tiny sips at a time. Not to mention the tactile enjoyment of ice hitting your lips as the drink of the victorious slides down your throat. It really is quite magnificent.
The other super handy thing that ice does is cool the precious liquid, so all those volatile aromas stay trapped in the glass.
Alas, there are always downsides: you’ll smell and taste a lot less from cold whiskey. The ice also numbs your mouth a bit, and the reason many drinks are served cold is simply to prevent the drinker from tasting how sweet/sour the drink is. Also, as the ice melts, it dilutes the whiskey.
In my experience, rocks drinkers often either guzzle their dram, or just deal with the inevitable dilution.
One of the fanciest things about drinking yours on the rocks is of course, the serve. Will your barman give you a mini iceberg, or something specially carved? Who knows?
For the brave, the stupid, or the strong. Neat whiskey drinkers either drink past the burn, or have an exceptionally high tolerance for the power of the ABV. Both of the aforementioned types have my utmost respect… and fear.
Fun fact: Brian Kinsman, the Malt Master at Glenfiddich “tastes” his whiskey without even putting it to his lips. The parts of the malt he comes in contact with usually come straight from the still—at an eye watering 60% ABV! Clearly this would destroy his priceless taste buds in no time, but after 8 years of apprenticing with the previous Malt Master, he’s honed his olfactory skills to the point where he’ll rival a bloodhound! All of his tasting is done by smell alone… Legend.
Credit where credit’s due: if you like your whiskey neat, and you’re not shooting it, you’re definitely not someone I want to upset on a night out. Of course, for those who have reached this highest peak of drinking, you’ll get the most enjoyment from it. You’ll have earned that sweet toffee flavour from an old Speyside scotch; the smoky ashes from a Chinese Beiju; the sweet peat from an Islay whiskey; or the smooth creaminess from a Japanese blend.
Sipping a slick viscose malt with no ice, no water, nothing—except the glass between you and the love of your life, is definitely one of life’s simplest pleasures.
My father introduced me to cognac by sitting it on a weird contraption designed to warm the drink ever so gently. He never explained why—just told me not to question his methods. I felt fancy. I hated cognac, but you don’t tell your dad that, so I sipped a bit and left it for him.
This eaux-de-vie (“water of life”) was traditionally served at palm temperature. The spritely little aromas in the spirit release delicate notes when warmed, that us mortals might not be able to detect if it were cooler. The downside: about 20% of the ABV is also lost depending how long you heat it. This site has a handy table:
Anyway, what has this got to do with whiskey? Well, some people like their whiskey warm.
Drinking it neat certainly means that it’s served in a snifter glass, in a more upmarket establishment. So you can cup the entire bulb with your hand, and warm it up, to enjoy the fruits of the master maltman’s labours.
Then of course there’s the hot toddy, the Irish coffee, and more. WineMag has a great selection of warm whiskey serves and to be honest, I want to try them all! Sure, you lose some potency, but it’s more about enjoyment than anything else!
P.S. If anyone thinks the ABV content in whiskey is enough to cure your cold, I have news for you: for alcohol to kill viruses, it needs to be a minimum of 80% ABV. Furthermore, the lethal blood alcohol level is 0.4%, which may kill both the virus and you!
Still, it may numb the affects of your malady, so by all means: enjoy this tasty placebo!
cocktail / mixer
Many people (strangely this includes people who don’t care for whiskey), will look at you like you’re about to destroy the world if you’re caught mixing a single malt with anything except ice or water.
“What do you mean you’re going to put cola in your 21yo Glenfiddich single malt?! Do you also intend to sacrifice some goats on a hilltop at dusk as well?!”
I mean… probably.
Truth be told, it can be seen as a big waste of a whiskey that’s been cared for, matured, and gushed over. You can mask the splendours of the aroma and taste by adding it to cocktails and mixers, but again, it’s your drink—so who cares?
I can taste the difference between a Jack and Coke, and a Jameson and Coke (the latter I would not touch with a barge pole). So, if you like your aged, single malt with a mixer, fill your boots my whiskey drinking brethren!
Personally, I’m quite literally the biggest fan of a good Whiskey Sour that I’ve ever met, and the better-the-malt, the better-the-sour. I wish every day was sour day!
Your whiskey, your rules—and don’t let no one tell you any different!