By Kevin McComber
Jumping into the world of whisky can be intimidating. First, you have to figure out what you like. Then you have to figure out where you can find it. Finally, you need to decide how to drink it – with water, with ice, neat, with soda, straight from the bottle, or any of a variety of other ways. When it comes down to it, it is all personal preference; however each preparation showcases whisky in a completely different light.
The following are the top four ways to consume whisky: neat, with water, with ice, and as part of a mixed drink.
The way most whisky aficionados drink their whisky, at least to start, is neat (i.e. without anything added). This ensures that you have an experience consistent with that of anyone else trying the whisky neat, so you can compare notes. It also means that the aromas and flavors you’re getting are from the whisky, so you can be sure what you taste is just the whisky itself.
Adding water to whisky is sometimes seen by novices as potentially screwing up an otherwise pristine drink, but the truth is that most professional tasters actually add water when they want to really understand a whisky. A small amount of water in whisky reduces the alcohol concentration without diluting the flavors – this allows the whisky’s various flavor elements to shine through, without potentially being masked by the alcohol. Be sure to use a method that allows you to precisely control the amount of water you add, though. (Holding your glass under the office’s Poland Springs dispenser is not preferred.)
Solid water has a much worse rap than liquid water, however; ice is commonly seen as something that should not be added to whisky, unless you really like ice and don’t like whisky as much. Ice has three detrimental qualities: first, it cools the whisky, which numbs your palate and causes your taste buds to be incapable of picking out the intricacies of the whisky. (Ever seen those beer commercials that say you want to have their beer when it’s ice cold? Guess why? They don’t really want you to taste it.) The second reason not to add ice is that ice can be “dirty” – it can contain other flavor elements, depending on the cleanliness of the way in which it was made, and this can taint your whisky. And, finally, as ice melts it dilutes your whisky, so you’re having a different drink with every sip.
The fourth typical way to drink whisky is as part of a mixed drink. Whisky can make a great mixer in a number of cocktails, ranging from simple (whisky and soda) to complex (old fashioned), though putting it in a cocktail usually means you’re not going to experience all aspects of the spirit. Adding a $100 shot of whisky to a $1 glass of soda pretty much just gives you a $101 glass of soda.
In the end, please drink whisky as you want to. Whisky appreciation is a personal experience and everyone has a right to consume whisky as they see fit. As long as you enjoy it, you’re drinking it the right way.
Kevin McComber recently completed a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering at MIT and like any great mind, his true passion could be found in a glass. Back in 2006, Kevin began dabbling in whisky, but became much more engrossed in it in 2009 after meeting a few “whisky mentors” whose collections, knowledge, and generosity allowed him to see much more of the whisky world. Kevin began leading whisky tasting events around Boston in 2010, primarily for students and alumni of MIT and other universities, as well as posting his musings about whisky experiences on his blog MyWhiskipedia.