How to drink whisky - The complete guide

June 15, 2022

Whisky is one of those things in life that is infinitely varied and complex, but only if you start to look for the complexity. From the outside, it may all look like a collection of bottles full of brown liquid, but when you delve a little deeper, there's a world between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky, let alone the difference between a single malt scotch and an American rye whiskey.

Whiskey in a glass

In this article, we're going to break down everything you need to know about whisky, from how to drink whisky to how to understand what it is that you're drinking. Be warned - this might get a little pretentious!

Whisky, whiskey, or bourbon?

Before we get into the deep dives into assorted different things to pay attention to with whisky, we want to clear up a few confusing things.

Whisky

When whisky is spelled without an 'e', it is Scotch whisky - distilled, blended, and produced entirely within Scotland and surrounding islands. Canadian whisky and Japanese whisky are generally considered to be a sub-form of Scotch since they tend to attempt to emulate the peaty, smoky flavours of a good Scotch. A purist may refer to a Scotch whisky and a Canadian Whiskey, though - there can be an awful lot of confusion.

Whiskey being poured

Whiskey

When whiskey is spelled with an 'e', it is Irish whiskey - produced within Ireland completely. It can also be an American whiskey. The reason for this is that a number of Irish people emigrated to America during the early days of the country, and they took their whiskey-making traditions with them.

Bourbon

Aside from those separations, there are several different types of subsections and categories. An example of this is the concept of 'Bourbon'. Bourbon is a type of whiskey, and must specifically be made in the US, from 51% corn grains (Scotch is typically made with barley, for comparison) and must be aged in brand new barrels made from charred oak.

What we're trying to say with all these different, confusing terms is that there are a whole host of different words that can mean similar things to one another. We wouldn't want to insist that any one term is correct or incorrect, but, for the purposes of this article, we'll be using the terms 'whisky' and 'whiskey' as described above.

What is the correct way to drink whisky?

The important thing to always think and know about whisky is that there is no one correct way to drink it - there are as many correct ways to drink whisky as there are whisky drinkers in the world!

There is a whisky out there that is perfectly suited to your palate and budget, you just need to track it down. It may seem like something that's a little nebulous and complex, but the only important thing about whisky is enjoying it as much as you can.

In recent years, whisky has really shed the idea of being a posh, fancy drink that needs to be had in certain ways. Instead, people are beginning to agree that while there are traditions that may enhance things, there's no right or wrong way to do things.

Whiskey in a glass by a fire

In this article, we've got a few tips to drink whiskey the best way for you, but bear in mind that whatever way you're drinking whisky at the moment is probably a great option for you.

Temperature

Knowing the temperature of a whisky is a confusing world of maximizing certain flavors and minimizing others. This may sound like it means little and, in a way, it doesn't mean that much.

Generally, people recommend that you drink whisky at roughly room temperature. The reason that they suggest this is because cold and flavor are worst enemies - pouring a fancy whiskey on the rocks is a great way to kill the aromatics and fine flavors of it.

Other examples

This can be seen in other drinks, too. For example, a hot cup of coffee typically has more flavor notes than an iced coffee. While we wouldn't recommend serving whisky hot, serving it at room temperature will allow you more flavor than serving it with whisky stones.

Whiskey

Glass

There is some argument around how much of an impact on the flavor the glass that you're drinking from will have. There are whiskey aficionados who claim that the only way to have a drop or two of scotch is to drink it from a Glencairn - a very specific type of glass, originating in Scotland, which resembles the glass case around an old gas lamp.

The Glencairn

The idea of those Glencairn glasses is that whisky ought to be poured to the widest part of the glass, and swished around. This will release the maximum number of aromatics, while also preventing evaporation due to the opening at the top of the glass being slightly skinnier than the rest of it.

Tumblers

Other whisky drinkers, with Ron Swanson springing to mind, would recommend a crystal-cut tumbler with a heavy base. These glasses have been fairly traditional for whiskey for a long time, though whether you have one or not is up to you.

While there's a little bit of science to the shape and size of a Glencairn, the glass that tantalizes your taste buds is really whatever glass you might prefer the look and feel of. While whisky glasses might be shaped to best hold a small volume of liquid, anything can be used to hold neat whisky - there's really not much to it.

We would suggest using a Glencairn if you've got one available to you, especially for Scotch, but the choice is truly yours. If you don't like the way that a Glencairn feels, then far be it from us to tell you how to drink whisky with one.

Whiskey stones

Pairings

A great way to start tasting some interesting notes in your whisky is to consider pairing the whisky that you're drinking with some kind of snack or a different addition. Snacks are an interesting addition to opt for as they can bring something new and interesting to the table - texture, mixed with smooth whisky.

A complementary pairing for a glass of whisky could be something acidic or spicy - that heat and sharpness could amplify a different type of heat in the whisky that you're drinking: the burn from the alcohol.

Conversely, you could find a contrasting pairing in something that's smooth and sweet compared to the harsh notes that you get when drinking whiskey. At the end of the day, there's a reason why sugar is added to the old-fashioned - one of the most popular whiskey cocktails in the world.

Adding water or ice

When drinking whiskey, there is a certain level of dilution that you might want to take into account. Pure, neat whiskey is something that has a very harsh and sharp flavor. While that's something that many people adore, you may find that you have to build your way up to it.

Whiskey drinkers may add a few drops of water to their whisky. The reason for this is that a number of the more harsh notes can be mellowed by being diluted just a little. It's important to consider, though, that room-temperature water is typically used for this, as iced or otherwise cold water would likely kill the flavor to some extent. That is, of course, not something that you want.

whiskey

People do, sometimes, add ice to their whisky in order to dilute the spirit over time. This is certainly a way that people enjoy their whiskey, but a large ice cube will certainly chill the spirit itself. This is likely to kill the aromatic compounds in the drink, leading to a more muted and less enjoyable flavor.

Look

The look of whisky is something that might sound a little odd, but placing a few drops of your chosen spirit into a glass and holding it against a white background can give you some interesting information.

The whiskey will likely be brown, of course, but will it be deep golden color, or a lighter color, similar to white wine. The darker the color, in general, the longer the whisky has been aged. If a whisky doesn't fit this concept, with the spirit being especially dark and young, it's quite likely that some artificial colors have been used.

Smell

Smelling the whisky in your glass is a wonderful way to ensure that you absorb as much as possible of the overall tasting notes before even putting the whisky in your mouth.

Whisky, neat, has a strong scent. The specific notes of that scent may be different depending upon the whiskey. Younger whiskies will likely have a more alcoholic scent, while different varieties may smell more like grass, or perhaps like peat.

Whiskey tasting

Our best advice is to suggest you don't have the glass too close to your nose or breathe too deeply. At that point, you're likely to inhale some pure alcohol, which will just be bad for your nose, and your tastebuds.

Taste

When you drink whiskey, the best way to make sure that you taste all of the tasting notes that are up for grabs is to hold the liquid in your mouth for a few moments, swirling it around a little, before swallowing.

Because the spirit has such a high ABV, our taste buds can be a little overwhelmed by that burning sensation at first. Allowing that to pass will let you get the more delicate flavors of a glass of whisky.

You'll generally pick up on flavor notes after swallowing. You might notice very specific notes like 'grass', or more general notes, like 'charcoal, burning'.

Whiskey

After your first sip, add a few drops of water - literally one or two droplets - to your whisky. Have another try, and see if the flavor has changed at all. It may seem a little odd, but the dilution can truly help. Make sure to use room temperature water, though, as cold will likely damage the flavors of the whisky itself.

Finish

As the air hits your tongue, you'll start to notice the final taste that's left on your palate. That's the 'finish' of a whisky and is considered to be a place where interesting flavors can develop.

A more complex whisky will likely have some interesting and complex notes on the finish. It will likely also have a long finish, too, with the final notes of the whisky being in your mouth quite a while after you actually sip the spirit.

 

If you're really interested in comparing and contrasting different forms of whiskey, then you could drink whiskey and note down the different flavors that you experience at the beginning, middle, and end of your sampling. This might seem like an odd thing to do, but learning a little something and sampling some tasty whiskey on the rocks, or off, can't be a bad thing.

How do beginners drink whisky?

There's no one way for a beginner to drink whisky, but generally, people consider whisky a hard drink to get into. With that said, there are a few different ways that people can start to drink whiskey and prevent it from getting too intense for them too quickly.

We have the perfect whisky hampers for the beginner to test their taste buds!

Whiskey

Water

A basic way to temper the harsh flavors of Irish whiskey, rye whiskey or any kind of whiskey, is to add a small amount of water to your drink. Make sure not to add too much water at once, or you'll be at risk of drowning the flavors in your glass.

Also, make sure to use water that's at the same temperature as the whisky - a cold splash of water is likely to damage the aromatics of the whisky, rather than allowing it to be as delicate as it could be.

Cocktail

Another way beginners might start off with whisky is to try a few cocktails. The whiskey sour is a perennial favorite, and there are several other options.

Some modern cocktails make use of American whiskeys, particularly rye whiskey or bourbon, to make use of a chilled coupe glass to lower the temperature of the drink without outright ruining the flavor.

Whiskey sours are a great example of the complementary flavor pairing that we spoke about in our 'pairings' section. The addition of lemon juice to whisky makes for a whisky sour, along with other things, and the combination of harsh citrus and harsh whisky makes for a surprisingly smooth and interesting cocktail.

Small sips

Whiskey

The classic way to drink whisky neat as a beginner is to, quite simply, take baby steps. In the same way that you might edge into a very cold pool, you might decide to slowly edge your way into drinking larger volumes of whisky.

Starting off with small sips is a great way to get yourself used to the harshness of the flavor of whisky - easing yourself in gently to the world of bold and uncompromising flavors.

What do you mix with whisky?

Generally, the things that people have traditionally mixed with whisky have been additions that enhance the spirit itself. They've managed to do this by being sharp, warm, or otherwise bold in a different way to the whisky they're being served with.

Whiskey

Ginger is a great example of something that has long been added to whisky drinks - the warming nature of the root means that when combined with whisky, it makes for a really interesting drink. Sometimes, ginger might be brewed into a syrup, and that will bring a new dimension of sweetness to the whisky.

The thing to bear in mind when making your ideal whisky drink is that it's your ideal whisky drink. Don't feel you have to spend a lot of time ensuring that you're drinking it correctly or doing the perfect style of mixing. Instead, simply make a drink that you like, and know that you're happy with what you're drinking - that's the goal!



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