In this era of explosive growth in the interest in whiskey there are countless new people entering into the enthusiast space. They are very diverse crossing all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, and they have helped the whiskey industry in the United States boom. Their emergence has created an explosion of whiskey clubs all across the country. Along with this growth and socialization of drinkers of all experience levels the age old question gets brought up every day: What is the right way to drink your whiskey?
The short answer is: You should drink your whiskey the way you enjoy it. But that is not the whole story because whiskey enthusiasts are being exposed to other people’s opinions in our social media age, and some whiskey people have such strong opinions about how other people should enjoy their spirits that they will start an argument with a stranger trying to sway them over to their way of thinking. This in my opinion is bad for the growth of the hobby and could be the starting off point for the American whiskey boom to come to an end.
What are the ways you can drink your whiskey:
There is the neat or straight pour
This is usually done in a tulip shaped glass originally designed for Scotch whiskey over the pond. This glass is generally referred to as a Glencairn. This is similar to calling a tissue a Klenex because Glencairn is just a brand name, but it has become so popular that people often refer to any tulip shaped glass as a Glen or Glencairn.
Some people drink out of a small glass usually referred to as a rocks glass. This is what you would expect to get your drink in if you ordered it on ice, but many people use them to drink their whiskey straight.
Some people drink their whiskey straight but do so in record time by shooting it back as a shot. Whiskey by law in the US has to be at least 80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume. Many of the harder to find whiskeys are 100 proof or above. There is no human who can maintain a reasonable level of sobriety drinking shots of a spirit this strong. No one should drink shots of whiskey.
There is delusion
This is where you add water to your whiskey. This has the effect of proofing the whiskey down by lowering the percentage of alcohol of the drink.
You can dilute your whiskey with various sources of water
Many whiskey enthusiast order limestone filtered water from KY to put drops of water in their whiskey. This not only changes the proof of the spirit, but it also adds compounds in the whiskey that can chemically react with the whiskey in the glass and change it’s flavor.
Many people use a purified water. This has the effect of proofing the whiskey down, but does not add any compounds that could chemically react with the whiskey.
Many people add water from whatever source they have around like tap, bottled, filtered, etc. This will certainly change the proof, but may add other compounds into the whiskey that could alter it’s flavor in a way that was not intended.
The most common way that whiskey is diluted is to pour it over ice. We will discuss this more in a bit
There is changing the whiskey’s temperature
Whiskey actually will taste very different at different temperatures. Generally speaking the hotter the whiskey the more volatile the ethanol vapors and the more likely the drinker will notice the alcohol. Warm whiskey can be so alcohol forward that the drinker almost can not taste anything else…like drinking vodka. This phenomenon has caused chilling your whiskey to be a very common practice.
The most common way to chill your whiskey is to pour it over ice. This also causes delusion so it is a combination of two ways to alter your spirit.
Not all ice is the same. Ice can be made with water that has impurities in it. Ice can absorb smells from the freezer it was stored in and those flavors can be passed into the whiskey as the ice melts
Not only will the water quality affect the flavor of the whiskey, but the freezing method can affect the flavor and aesthetics of whiskey. Almost all ice is made in a freezer that is cold on all sides except the door. This means the water is freezing from the outside in. Since water expands when it gets cold the chilled water at the center of the ice formation expands and cracks the ice around it and even forms air pockets. This air can have smells trapped in them that you do not want in your whiskey. The best ice for whiskey is made with a directional freezing technique where the cooling is from one side and there is a jet agitating the water as it freezes. This produces crystal clear ice with no air pockets. When done with quality water this eliminates contaminates from getting into your whiskey and it is very aesthetically appealing as well.
A less common way to chill your whiskey is to pour it over cold stones or stainless steel cubes. This has the effect of chilling your whiskey without delusion. The chilled whiskey will have some of the ethanol burn removed from the drinking experience.
There are also many people who keep their whiskey bottle in a freezer or refrigerator. This method chills the whiskey without delusion but can also be used to slow down the rate of delusion in a situation where you want to pour your whiskey over ice.
There is mixing the whiskey with something else that has flavor
This is generally referred to as a cocktail. More common whiskey cocktails are the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and the Mint Julep. Cocktail culture has been one of the largest (if not the largest) driving force behind the resurgence of American whiskey. Mixologists across the country have found ways to introduce whiskey to drinkers in a way that makes the brown water more approachable. Many people who are just now getting into whiskey are doing so because they had a surprisingly positive experience with a cocktail that opened up their mind to whiskey when previously they thought they would not like it’s bold flavor. Generally speaking most whiskey enthusiasts progress from cocktail, on the rocks, a little water, and then neat. This is where the controversy begins.
There has kind of become a hierarchy of coolness in the whiskey enthusiast world where people who drink their whiskey neat look at people who drink their whiskey mixed as inexperienced and go so far as to try to stifle their opinion, because why would you take advice from someone so inexperienced that they like to adulterate the flavor of whiskey by mixing it.
I generally take exception to the superiority whiskey enthusiasts try to display towards newer drinker’s preferences. The truth is the American whiskey industry has made BIG financial investments into production increases to meet the projected demand. If new drinkers stop entering the market in the next 5-10 years we are going to see a collapse of the whiskey market and many beloved brands are going to go away.
So I will say this…The right way to drink your whiskey is however you enjoy it the most. That said if you want to be well received in the whiskey community there are some rules of decorum that should be followed.
There are many whiskeys that were once easily obtainable that have gone on allocation. This means that for some bottles of whiskey there are literally 10s of thousands of people who want to buy that bottle…but they can’t because there are not enough. As a result retailers have taken to selling many of these rare bottles to bars and restaurants which gives more people a chance to try them since they are sold by the pour as opposed to one person have a bottle with 13-17 pours in it.
The harder to get a whiskey the easier it is to offend one of the thousands of people who wish they could drink that whiskey…if you drink it differently than they would.
There is a concept in whiskey that rare bottles should be “respected” by the drinker. I believe that the producers of the rare and allocated bourbons put more passion and effort into creating that unique expression. After all all whiskey brands have a lower value brand made by the same producer that they could have blended that special whiskey into…but they didn’t because they wanted the drinker to taste that it was special. So while I do not mean to personify whiskey like it has the feeling of a person. I believe there is a responsibility to show appropriate respect to each whiskey IF you want to be well received among other enthusiasts.
Things to avoid:
It is recommended that you try the most sought after spirits neat before you do something that alters its flavor.
If a whiskey is not enjoyable for you neat it is recommended that you alter it the minimum amount necessary to get it to a place that it is enjoyable for you.
There is a premium level of whiskey that if used in a cocktail it is going to offend a lot of people. With that said Julian VanWinkle, the owner of the most sought after brand of bourbon in the world, has been seen drinking an Old Fashioned made with his ultra premium whiskey Pappy VanWinkle 15 year. His comment was “the better the ingredients the better the cocktail”. I think this statement is true, but you would have to admit that the more flavor you add into the glass the less you can identify and appreciate the flavors of the whiskey. For this reason I would recommend that you either use an easier to find whiskey when you are making cocktails, or if you are going to use a premium whiskey at least make the rest of the cocktail equally as premium. In short, don’t mix Pappy VanWinkle with soda.
There are an alarming number of Tolls in the whiskey world. These are individuals (usually men) who get a rise out of upsetting other people. They do it through a variety of methods:
Chug whiskey directly from a bottle. Not only are you unable to enjoy the nuance of flavors but due to the strength of whiskey this is simply not responsible drinking
Pour whiskey down the drain. Some people will actually open up a bottle of whiskey, declare that it is so bad that it is undrinkable, and post a video of them pouring it down the drain. This gets the troll a lot of attention when it is a highly sought after bottle.
Mix highly sought after whiskey with something that will totally over power the nuance of flavor. This is usually a person who mixes Pappy VanWinkle with soda.
Sadly the whiskey tolls of the world will ignore this message because for them it isn’t about the whiskey or the whiskey community…it is about them and the attention they need. For anyone out there that is actually paying attention…just don’t be an asshole.
So follow these guidelines and you will not only have a greater possiblility of having a truly enjoyable experience drinking your whiskey, but you will be more likely to be accepted by the whiskey enthusiast community which results in new friends and countless opportunities to experience new things.
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