Whiskey is one of your bar’s most essential spirits. In fact, you should probably have at least three whiskeys on hand: a bourbon, a scotch, and another variety (such as Irish whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, or rye).
But what’s the best way to enjoy this quintessential spirit? To some extent, this depends on your taste, but there are four ways that people typically drink whiskey: chilled, on the rocks, neat, or with a few drops of water.
Don’t Chill Your Whiskey
With some spirits, such as vodka, it’s a good idea to chill them. Vodka benefits from subduing its native harshness and enriching its texture. But with whiskey, the primary effect of chilling is to kill the flavor and aroma. Whiskey gets much of its flavor (and its color) from the presence of aromatic compounds. The mobility of these compounds is highly dependent on temperature. When you chill the whiskey, you lock these compounds inside so you can’t smell or taste them.
This might be the best way to drink whiskey, if you don’t really like it. But if this is the only way you like whiskey, maybe you should try other spirits that might be more rewarding to your palate. The best spirit for you is out there: you just have to try something different.
Whiskey on the Rocks
Whiskey on the rocks has a nice sound. It seems like the perfect order at the bar. There are some benefits to drinking your whiskey on the rocks, but also some drawbacks. The drawbacks are those we mentioned above with respect to chilling whiskey: you demobilize the aromatic compounds. The benefits are those associated with adding water to whiskey, which mobilizes the aromatic compounds (more on this later).
With the combination of temperature changes and dilution, you may end up with a distinct flavor profile that can mellow some of the harshness while still bringing out the true flavors of the whiskey. For some people, this is the best way to enjoy whiskey, allowing them to explore more and stronger flavors of whiskey than they might otherwise be able to appreciate.
Whiskey neat is an easy order. You’ll just get a small glass of whiskey. There’s something to be said for taking whiskey in its native state.
Drinking whiskey neat is best for people who can handle the harshness and can enjoy whiskey this way. If you aren’t really trying to get the maximum flavor from your whiskey, then drinking it neat is a good choice. Especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to look like he’s making a hassle over his drink, then taking your whiskey neat is probably right for you.
Whiskey and Water: Science Approved!
Supposedly, science has recently revealed that the best way to drink whiskey is with a few drops of water. The basis for this is those aromatic compounds we told you about before. Adding water helps to mobilize these. To understand why, we have to get a little technical.
Water is what is called a polar molecule: it has one side that’s positive and another side that’s negative. It’s made up of two hydrogens and one oxygen (H2O), and the molecule makes a shape like a carat: ^. The oxygen is the point, and it’s negative. The hydrogens are at the ends, and they’re positive.
Alcohol—ethanol–is kind of a polar molecule: it has a hydroxyl group (HO) at one end, and this works enough like water that the two can mix well. But the other side is like an oil, it doesn’t like to mix with water. What this part of the molecule does like to mix with is aromatic compounds, which are also a little oily. So when you’ve got a lot of alcohol in the presence of these aromatic compounds, the alcohol forms little cells around the aromatic compounds, separating them from the water and trapping them inside.
Adding a little water causes these cells to break up, releasing the aromatic compounds. They’re freer to evaporate so they can reach your nostrils or be free to encounter your taste buds, enhancing the flavor of the whiskey.
Find Your Best Way to Drink Whiskey
In the end, the best way to drink whiskey is the way that you enjoy it most. (Even chilled whiskey is fine. We just think that if you’re drinking chilled whiskey, you might be missing out on the spirit that’s really going to please your palate.) You might even drink different whiskeys different ways. You might like your scotch on the rocks, your bourbon neat, and your rye with a little water, for example.
The important thing is to understand how the different drinking methods can affect the flavor of whiskey and how trying one or another can maximize your enjoyment of different whiskeys. If you think you don’t like whiskey, try it a different way, and you’ll be surprised at how much you might love it.