I distinctly remember having a discussion with the tour guide at a distillery tour in Scotland about drinking your whiskey with or without ice. The guide was firmly against it, but did not explain why. I needed to know so did more research. This is what I found.
Should you add ice to your whiskey when you drink it? Adding ice is a way you could choose to drink your whiskey, called “on the rocks”. It cools your whiskey, softening the taste. It also dilutes the whiskey, which allows the taste to open up. Always use clean water for the ice so it does not pollute your whiskey.
It is important to know the consequences of adding ice to your whiskey. It most definitely is not mandatory to drink whiskey with or without ice, and I will tell you why in the rest of the article.
Why purists drink their whiskey neat
There are many people out there that argue that you should not add anything to your whiskey under any circumstances. The main reason for this is that you get the whiskey experience as it comes out of the bottle, with nothing else.
For cheap blended whiskeys there is nothing wrong with adding with a mixer as this is what they are made of. This changes when you are drinking more expensive single malt whiskeys, because you are buying these for their own unique taste. You are looking for all the nuances in the whiskey.
While they have a point, drinking whiskey is all about you. You need to drink the whiskey the way you like it best. And what if I told you that adding ice to your whiskey can be a good thing too!
Drinking whiskey with ice can be a good thing
There are many people who add a bit of water to their whiskey before they drink it. Just a little bit of water can open up different flavors in a whiskey in ways I could not explain here to you. This is something you need to try for yourself, as I was impressed how much a couple of drops could change your whiskey. Well… ice is doing the same thing!
When the ice melts the water slightly dilutes your whiskey for you. While diluted whiskey sounds cheap and a waste, it is not! It could change your whiskey experience for the better.
You could compare it to the distillery adding spring water to their whiskey just before bottling it to bring down the alcohol concentration to the desired level. Most whiskeys are between 40% and 50% ABV (alcohol by volume). Have you heard of cask-strength whiskeys? Those whiskeys are not diluted but rather bottled straight from the cask. The alcohol percentage usually is way higher that their “regular” whiskey.
There is something else the ice does, it cools the whiskey down. I know right, who guessed it. Whiskey in my opinion tastes best at room temperature, but there are many people who find the whiskey less intimidating and easier to drink when cooled. Ice can make the whiskey a more refreshing drink and dampen the burn of the alcohol, but it might also affect the taste and make it taste a bit more dull.
What ice could you use?
Whenever you add ice to your whiskey, you want it to mostly cool your whiskey and slowly dilute it. Therefore, big chunks is preferred over smaller ice cubes.
Use good water like spring water of tab water if drinkable. Tap water can have a strong chlorine taste, which makes it less favorable. It should be water you are comfortable with drinking.
Some people prefer a lot of ice (filled to the edge) while others add just one cube to the glass. This can also differ per whiskey you are drinking. Find your preference by testing and experimenting a little.
Do you add ice when drinking whiskey for the first time?
If you are about to go to a whiskey tasting, drink whiskey with a friend for the first time or just received whiskey as a gift, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when first trying the whiskey.
There are no rules, just choices
There is not a set way to drink your whiskey properly. Of course it is not recommended to add a mixer to delicate and pricey whiskeys, but you do you. There are many people out there who will tell you how to drink your whiskey “properly” or “like a true gentleman”. Well, ignore them!
What you can do to find out how you like your whiskey best is to first try the whiskey neat. Pour it in a whiskey glass, smell it first and take a sip.
After tasting the whiskey neat, you can try and dilute it with some water. Make sure to use water you are comfortable with adding to your whiskey. If this is spring water, go ahead. It is also fine if you want to add tap water. Make sure to not add too much, the purpose is to take the edges of the whiskey taste and open the taste up a little. You will notice what I mean when you try it.
If you know those tastes, feel free to add some ice and see what you think. You can drink different whiskeys in different ways. I drink some whiskeys neat, others with ice and some with just a little bit of water.
Adding ice in restaurants and pubs can be risky
As you noticed I have stressed multiple times that the water of which the ice is made is important. If your local tap water tastes like chlorine, you probably do not want that in your whiskey.
In restaurants you do not know what water they use for their ice. It could be spring water, but it could also be tap water. Therefore I would advice against ordering your whiskey on the rocks in restaurants. Instead, ask for a neat whiskey with a glass of water. If you want to slightly dilute your whiskey you can, but you can taste the water first.
If you order whiskey and receive it with ice without being asked, know that you are free to decline the glass and ask for a neat whiskey.
Alternative to using ice in whiskey
Whiskey on the rocks earned its name because people used to add really cold rocks to their whiskey. This had an advantage, as the rocks did not dilute the whiskey, they would just cool it.
Well there are products on the market that do just that. They are called whiskey stones, and you can cool them in your freezer. They are super useful, and you should really get some if you like your whiskey cold. Check the current price of some really popular whiskey stones on Amazon here.
Of course you can not always take your whiskey stones with you, but increasingly more restaurants and pubs do have stones like these available. You can always ask if they have them.
What about adding a mixer to your whiskey?
If you buy a bottle or glass of whiskey, you get to drink it the way you want. However, I think it is a waste of money to add a mixer to more expensive whiskey. You buy these whiskeys for their unique taste, which quickly gets lost when you add a mixer drink.
Instead, you can add a mixer to cheaper whiskeys like blended whiskeys. These blended whiskeys are often made to be mixed or used in cocktails. There is nothing wrong with adding some soda to these whiskeys. My recommendation would be to just not add a mixer to more expensive whiskeys.