How Do You Take Your Whisky?

by Mike Phillips

Everyone has a different way to enjoy drinking whisky, and preferences often change depending on the type of whisky they are drinking.

We’ll review the different ways one can drink whisky, as well as which ways are best to drink when tasting.

Neat

When ordering your favorite brand of whisky “neat”, you are asking the waiter or bartender for nothing in your glass except whisky—you don’t want it diluted with water, ice, soda or anything else.

When drinking recreationally, order your whisky however you would normally take it, but when trying to pick out the different tasting notes, it is best to order your whisky neat.

Taste difference

The taste difference for whisky when ordered neat may seem obvious—the flavor isn’t diluted with anything, so you’re getting a pure, unadulterated taste of the whisky. You’ll find whisky served neat will taste the strongest among all other options, and you’ll usually find that the different tasting notes are more pronounced and easier to pick out when drinking neat.

Why it taste different

Since the whisky isn’t diluted down with anything, you are tasting the bottled strength and flavor of the whisky at its purest.

Tips to drink it best

“Nosing”, or smelling the whisky before sipping is an important part of the tasting process, since so much of your sense of taste is determined by what you are smelling. Therefore, when drinking whisky neat, especially for tasting purposes, you want to make sure you are drinking from the right type of glass that is optimized for nosing. (Include diagrams and captions for which glass type is the right and wrong type to drink from).

Another important pointer when drinking whisky neat is to ensure you’re drinking it at room temperature. Drinking whisky cold can both numb your tongue, making it difficult to detect the different tasting notes, but also, a cold temperature can damage some of the flavors and remove them from the whisky. Therefore, if you’re drinking for tasting purposes, never chill your whisky.

With Water

Many whisky drinkers will order whisky with water—where the whisky is served in a glass and diluted with water.

As long as the tips below are followed, drinking whisky with water is also an acceptable way to drink whisky when tasting, and is sometimes even preferred.

Taste difference

The difference here, as one would expect, is a less strong and more diluted flavor of the whisky. Some drinkers may not like the “watered down” taste, while others prefer it since the taste may be too strong when served neat.

Why it tastes different

Since drinking whisky neat causes a stronger and more condensed taste, it may be worthwhile to drink it with water when tasting—the strong alcohol flavor when drinking neat may mask some of the more subtle notes, so diluting with some water can weaken the alcohol taste and thus make the more subtle notes a bit easier to pick out.

Tips to drink it best

When drinking whisky with water, it is best to ensure water is at room temperature before mixing it. The cold temperature can damage the flavoring, so avoid chilling it in any way before tasting.

Additionally, and same as drinking whisky neat, use the appropriate glass as indicated above. Whether with water or not, a glass optimized for nosing will always be best when whisky tasting.

Of course, if you are drinking whisky recreationally (and not tasting), feel free to mix with cold water if you wish, just keep in mind that the cold temperature will change the flavoring.

On the Rocks

When ordering whisky on the rocks, you’re asking for your whisky to be served with ice. It is pretty common to order this way for the less-expensive whiskies, especially blended whiskies or younger-aged drinks (ie: 12yr or below, depending on the brand).

When whisky tasting, drinking on the rocks is highly discouraged for multiple reasons, as detailed below.

Taste difference

Whisky on the rocks will have a similar watered-down taste as whisky served with water, especially as the ice melts. Before the ice melts, it will generally be harder to pick out the different flavors in the whisky. You’ll likely still be able to pick out some of the more pronounced flavors, but you’ll miss the more subtle tasting notes.

Why it tastes different

There are three main reasons why whisky served on the rocks will taste different:

  1. As the ice in the whisky melts, it will dilute the flavor, having a similar effect to drinking whisky with water.
  2. The coldness of the ice will numb your tongue a bit, thus making it more difficult to pick out the more subtle flavors of the whisky.
  3. The colder temperature will also destroy some of the flavors of the whisky, therefore removing those flavors from the drink altogether, even after the drink has warmed up to room temperature.

Tips to drink it best

If you must drink with ice, it is recommended that you order a less expensive whisky, since you wouldn’t be able to enjoy all the note subtleties of a more expensive whisky. That’s not to say that a less-expensive glass on ice isn’t enjoyable, you’re just likely going to be drinking the different types of whiskies for different reasons (ie: cheaper to enjoy the effects of alcohol, more expensive for tasting purposes).

An alternative to ordering whisky on ice is purchasing whisky stones. Whisky stones are actual stones that are placed in the freezer, then once sufficiently cold, are placed in your glass prior to pouring. The benefit here is that you get the same chilled temperature as you would with whisky on the rocks, but won’t have to worry about anything melting and thus watering down the flavor. You’ll still obviously be numbing your tongue with the colder temperature, and removing some of the flavorings, but if you’d prefer a colder glass without it getting watered down, this is definitely an option.

How do you prefer to drink your whisky? Have any comments about the taste of each style or have a favorite whisky-based mixed drink? Let us know in the comments below.

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