This is a fairly common question that I hear people ask and many times I hear the wrong answer being told. “Single Malt Scotch should only be served neat” is one comment that I hear a lot and it disappoints me. It’s not that this is wrong, its just that in my mind it is not the complete answer.
I’ve read a few posts from other sites that talk about this subject (this one in particular I really enjoyed and liked his comments ) and the overall answer is: the best way to drink your whiskey is the way you like it, not the way that someone told you that you should drink it. With that said, I’m sure that this still does not help a lot of people who are asking why you should drink one whiskey neat and another one with ice or some other type of mixer. I will try my best to explain what my approach is to this question.
It’s all About the Body
“I like my whisky like I like my women – full bodied and spicy!” is the answer I got from a man at a hotel bar just south of Glasgow, Scotland when I asked him what whiskey he preferred. Overall, the body of the whiskey out of the bottle does help me determine if I’m going to drink it neat or if I will be adding water or ice to it. The body of the whiskey is usually a result of the combination of alcohol content (proof) and age (How long it stayed in the barrel/barrels prior to bottling).
If the whiskey has a full body, the flavor of the whiskey will be more prominent then the taste of alcohol and I would be more prone to drink it neat. If the opposite is true (I can taste the alcohol content more than the flavor of the whiskey) then I will start to add either water or ice till the alcohol taste has been diluted, enabling the true taste of the whiskey to come out. The key here is to not dilute the whiskey so much that the body has now been lost.
From the time that most whiskies leave the barrel and are bottled (whether it is Scotch, Bourbon or other), water is actually added to the finished product to achieve a consistent level of alcohol content (usually in the rage of 80-100 proof). The exception to this rule would be the “Cask Strength” bottles where little or no water is added prior to bottling (it’s also about 110 – 120 proof!). So adding either water or ice to your whiskey is not tarnishing it’s natural state.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
It’s always a good idea to try whiskeys with different treatments. If I’m tasting a whiskey for the first time (usually at a restaurant), I will ask for it neat with a side of water or ice. I take a few sips to see how it tastes, then I will add either a few drops of water or a single ice cube, let it fully dilute and take a few more sips. I will repeat this process till I feel like I have achieved the perfect “alcohol-body” balance.
Some higher-aged whiskeys should be served and enjoyed neat (no water or ice added) since the full-body flavor outweighs the taste of the alcohol. In this case I might still ask for an extra glass so I can pour a little bit into the 2nd glass and then add a few drops of water to see if it improves the balance. If it does, I can then duplicate this in the larger glass. If it doesn’t, then I haven’t ruined my main glass by diluting it unnecessarily.
I hope the way I approach the subject has helped a few of you with yours.