Who are we to say that the ONLY way a gentleman should enjoy the golden nectar that is whisky, is to have it neat? Sure, as a purist, I would espouse that you should enjoy a single malt just as you would if you were sitting in a cold mire in the old country. But saying that would ignore the fact that there are a LOT of different kinds of whisky, and there is no one definitive way of drinking it.
So today, we look at the many ways in which people like to enjoy their whisky, and how each style changes based on the inherent qualities, or rather personality, of the whisky itself.
But first to truly understand why you enjoy what you enjoy, you must understand the chemistry of Whisky itself. This might sound a bit nerdy, but stay with me.
Broadly speaking, whisky develops a number of soluble flavour chemicals during distillation, and while aging in barrels. Most important of these are the aroma and flavour compounds. These might be fresh and floral aromas (esters), spice and vanilla (aldehydes – mostly from barrel aging), smoke (phenols), coconut (lactones), and so on.
All these compounds exist in different proportions based on the style of whisky, the type of grain used, the process involved, and any number of other variables.
And these flavour compounds are quite volatile – so what happens when you add something like ice (or water) to your whisky?
At higher alcohol volumes (say, like neat whisky), the flavour compounds get trapped in ethanol clusters. As the percentage goes down (by diluting it, or adding water), these clusters break down, allow these compounds to disperse more freely in the drink.
This in turn makes it easier for us to pick up the flavours that might previously have been hidden, or lost in the spirit. Most seem to agree that a little bit of water is better than none at all.
Does this mean that you are obligated to water down every whisky you drink? Absolutely not. If you happen to enjoy the taste of neat whisky, “the way God intended it”, it’s really nobody else’s business to tell you how to enjoy it. What we ARE doing is offering a suggestion to try it, if you haven’t already. You never know.
And if you ARE so inclined, finding that Goldilocks balance of just the right amount becomes a game of cat and mouse that could take a while to perfect. A process that is unique to you, and will need a lot of research 😉
So let’s get down to the most popular ways to enjoy whisky.
The idea with adding water to your whisky is to get those elusive, hidden flavours out. But light and fruity whiskies are quite expressive even without needing the extra cajoling.
For heavier and smokier whiskies, a lot of their character might get caught in the ethanol clusters we mentioned earlier. So this comes down how much of the flavour you can discern against the strength of the alcohol in the whisky.
II. With a Dash of Water
You will often hear many people claim that adding a few drops will “release the spirit”. There’s honestly no better way to describe it.
This especially applies to the more peaty and smoky ones, such as single malts from Islay. These are my personal favourite style of whisky -the kind that smells like a campfire every time you open the bottle.
A standard whisky is usually bottled at 40% alcohol or above. Bringing that just a little, to the 30% ish mark will release the phenols more freely, and allows you to savor that distinct fog of peat.
III. On The Rocks
A lot of people will turn their noses up at the sight of ice and whisky. This is because, while it does reduce the “burn” associated with alcohol, it also tends to mute the more subtle flavours. And once melted, the whisky might get diluted drastically.
But if that’s how you like it, that’s just how you like it. The people who turn their noses up can feel free to turn around and walk away.
An alternate, which is coming up in popularity are literal stones. Soap stones to be precise. I got my set as a gift from my mother, and can I say are one hell of a gift. They maintain a longer chill, do not dilute the liquor, and to clear any misconception, are odorless and flavorless. Some say its gimmicky, but I say “if it works, who are we to judge?”. But for heavens sake, do not go picking up random stones and chucking them in the refrigerator, the investment is one time and worth it!
IV. Top up with Soda or Water
This is actually a pretty popular cocktail called the Highball. Personally, I still think that just soda is odd with whisky, but the popularity of the drink cannot lie. It does help refresh some of the sweeter styles of whisky out there – and it’s. perfect for hot summer days.
A decent blended Scotch is ideal here, but since soda considerably softens the flavour AND offers texture (bubbles), you probably don’t want to use your top shelf stuff for this.
The Japanese their own version of the Highball, called the “Mizuwari” – a very specific recipe calling for one part of whisky, and two parts of water. This has its own devout status as a “cult classic”, among the younger generation.
I feel it is way too much water, however there is substantial evidence that proves that you still retain most of the flavor in this state, while making the whisky more palatable.
V. With Coke
For some reason, whisky and coke just works. I myself am known for being quite particular with how I like my whisky, but I cant deny a Jack and Coke if I’m offered one. There is something about how the sweet bourbon is just balanced with the sweetness of the soda itself.
However, the same principles of soda apply to coke – there’s nothing to stop you from mixing it with your best stuff, it’s just that you’d lose a lot of flavour that you paid good money to taste.
VI. In a Cocktail
While I could share my views on the topic. I think its a better idea if you visited our article on the subject by the cocktailian extraordinaire that is Trisha Koparde. To someone who did not think whisky should be made into cocktails, I could not have been more wrong. In fact I would go as far as to say a Whisky Sour is my favorite cocktail, period. A personal preference would be either sour or bitter flavors, which brings out the sweet and smoke flavors.
But, my personal preferences aside, the best way to enjoy your drink is the way you want. That being said, if you really want my scoop on how you should enjoy your glass of whisky. You must enjoy it…