8 Reasons Why You Only Pour a Small Amount of Whiskey

At first it seemed strange to me that whiskey drinkers would only pour small amounts of whiskey. It seemed even more absurd when I noticed that the amount of whiskey was so small it often didn’t even fill the glass they were using halfway. I soon discovered that there are several very good reasons for this, so I compiled a list of eight reasons why whiskey drinkers only pour a small amount of whiskey.

6 nosing glasses with small amounts of whiskey inside

1. It’s Between 40% – 68%ABV

The first reason why whiskey drinkers only pour a small amount of whiskey is because it has a high alcohol content level and can be anywhere from 40% – 68% ABV. (As a comparison wine is about 12%ABV and beer is about 5%ABV which as you can see, is much less than whiskey.) That means it’s unhealthy and even dangerous to drink too much whiskey.

According to Dietary Guidelines for AmericansOpens in a new tab., moderate alcohol consumption is defined as one standard drink per day for women and two standard drinks per day for men. However, the size of standard alcoholic drinks differs depending on its ABV:

ABVStandard Drink Size
Beer5%12fl oz
Wine12%5fl oz
Distilled spirits40%1.5fl oz

As you can see, the higher the concentration of alcohol, the smaller the standard drink size is which makes sense as it means the amount of alcohol in every standard alcoholic drink is the same.

Whiskey is a distilled spirit, so its standard drink size is the smallest, but whiskey drinkers will pour slightly different amounts depending on how they’re drinking it:

Amount of Whiskey
Shot1 – 1.5fl oz
Neat2fl oz
Cocktail1.5 – 2.5fl oz

As you can see, whiskey drinkers will pour only 1 – 1.5fl oz when drinking shots of whiskey because that’s good for getting a decent (yet responsible) amount of alcohol inside you as quickly as possible, so it makes sense to use the standard drink size for distilled spirits.

However, when drinking whiskey neat, where the goal is to taste all its aromas and flavors, whiskey drinkers want something substantial, so they pour a little more whiskey. And as some whiskey cocktails are large drinks (12 – 16fl oz) it’s no surprise that they may contain larger amounts of whiskey.

Either way, even when whiskey drinkers pour the larger amounts of whiskey, they’re still relatively small because otherwise they’d be drinking far too much alcohol.

2. It’s Expensive

A bottle of Macallan Double Oak 18 next to a jar of coins

The second reason why whiskey drinkers only pour a small amount of whiskey is because it’s expensive. Cheaper whiskeys typically cost between $20 – $70 and more expensive whiskeys typically cost between $100 – $500.

With about 12½ neat drinks and 17 shots in a 750ml bottle of whiskey we can work out how much a glass of each cost for whiskeys of different prices:

Price of BottlePrice of Neat DrinkPrice of Shot

As you can see, a glass of whiskey from a $20 bottle is not too expensive but once you get to $50 bottles a glass of whiskey is not exactly cheap. And if your bottle of whiskey cost over $100, you’re alarmingly close to $10 for just 2fl oz of whiskey!

3. It Reduces the Impact of The Alcohol

Whiskey drinkers only pour a small amount of whiskey because it helps reduce the impact of the (as mentioned very high level of) alcohol. It’s also why the amount of whiskey is so small that it doesn’t even fill the glass halfway.

When a whiskey glass is three or four times the size of the amount of whiskey that’s poured, then there will be plenty of room inside the glass for air to get to the whiskey so it can breathe and some of the alcohol can evaporate. With the amount of alcohol in the whiskey reduced, it will obviously have less impact.

A whiskey glass that’s much larger than the amount of whiskey poured also means you have plenty of room to swirl the whiskey – that means holding your glass by its stem and moving it in a spiral pattern so that whiskey … swirls around inside. This lets even more air get to your whiskey so that even more alcohol can evaporate, and its impact can be reduced further.

Of course, this doesn’t happen when drinking whiskey shots. Shot glasses are the same size as a standard drink (1 – 1.5fl oz) so they’re filled to the top. That means that less air can get to it and less alcohol can evaporate but since you’re not drinking shots in order to get the full flavor of the whiskey, you don’t need to reduce the impact of the alcohol anyway.

In fact, if you’re drinking shots, you probably don’t want to reduce the impact of the alcohol at all.

4. It Helps You Taste the Flavors

A man tasting his whiskey

Similarly, a small amount of whiskey in a much bigger glass helps you taste all its flavors. That’s because there’s room in the glass for the whiskey aromas to accumulate so you can smell them instead of losing them. This is important because flavor is smell as well as taste, so if you want to taste all the flavors of your whiskey, you’ll need to smell all its aromas too.

This doesn’t happen when you use a shot glass filled to the top because there’s nowhere for the whiskey’s aromas to accumulate. They will dissipate into the air and be lost.

That’s why whiskey drinkers use specially shaped nosing glasses. Their wide bowl allows air to get to the whiskey (see previous reason) and the whiskey’s aromas can accumulate in their long narrow neck which concentrates them towards the rim of the glass where the drinker can easily smell them.

When you use a tumbler there’s also a place for the whiskey’s aromas to accumulate, but with a wider opening than nosing glasses, they won’t concentrate at the rim, and many will easily dissipate.

5. It Gives You Room to Add Ice

Another reason why whiskey drinkers pour only a small amount of whiskey into a much larger glass is because they want enough room to add large or even giant ice cubes – something that’s obviously difficult to do if the glass is too small or its opening is too narrow.

And no, they can’t just use smaller ice cubes.

The advantages of drinking whiskey with ice are that it lowers its temperature which reduces the burn of the alcohol and the added water from the melting ice opens up the whiskey’s flavors. However, you don’t want the whiskey to become too cold as that will mute its aromas and flavors and you don’t want the ice to melt too fast as you’ll miss all the changes in the taste of your whiskey and risk it becoming too diluted before you finish it.

That’s why whiskey drinkers use large or even giant ice cubes. One or two large ice cubes have less surface area than many smaller ice cubes put together and will therefore melt slower. Your whiskey won’t get too cold, the flavors will open up slowly enough for you to pick them all up and your whiskey will be less likely to become diluted before you finish it.

Since whiskey drinkers need to use large ice cubes, they also need to use large glasses, even though they’re only pouring a small amount of whiskey.

A glass of whiskey with large ice sphere and a glass of whiskey with a large ice cube

6. It’s Enough to Assess the Aromas and Flavors

If you’re drinking whiskey neat where the purpose is to discover, assess and savor its aromas and flavors, then a small amount of whiskey will be enough. That’s because, unlike other drinks that are more simplistic, whiskey is complex and multi-layered. There’s actually quite a lot going on in a small amount of whiskey.

This means you don’t need more than a small amount of whiskey, instead you need time to explore it.

That’s why whiskey drinkers can spend a long time (and I’m talking 20 – 30 minutes here) over one glass of just 2fl oz of (good quality) whiskey. With a lot of aromas and flavors in even that small amount of whiskey, it can take some time to discover them.

That’s why whiskey drinkers only pour a small amount of whiskey. Because it’s better to spend more time over one sip than less time over more whiskey.

7. It’s A Good Amount in A Larger Drink

When pouring whiskey for mixed drinks and cocktails, even large ones, only a small amount of whiskey is used. That’s because whiskey is so strong, and if too much is used it would dominate and overpower the other ingredients in the drink which you want to taste too.

That’s why only 1.5 – 2.5fl oz of whiskey is used for mixed drinks and cocktails. It’s too small an amount of whiskey to dominate the drink, but it is enough to bring out the flavors of the other ingredients and let the whiskey maintain its distinctive character so that you can pick it out of your drink.

8. The Person It’s Poured for Won’t Appreciate It

Whiskey drinkers only pour themselves a small amount of whiskey.

Whiskey drinkers pour others an even smaller amount of whiskey.

That’s because not everyone appreciates whiskey. Some think it’s an unpleasant tasting drink that just burns your nose, mouth and throat. Some don’t know how many aromas and flavors it actually has or how to pick them up. And even if they do, perhaps they can’t be bothered to do the whole swirling, smelling, rolling the whiskey around your mouth, and spending time trying to detect all the aromas and flavors thing.

If a whiskey drinker is not sure if the person they’re pouring for will appreciate their whiskey they may pour an even smaller amount than usual. They don’t want to risk wasting it especially if it happens to be a particularly good-quality or expensive whiskey.

So if a whiskey drinker has ever poured you a very small amount of whiskey, now you know why. It was probably a very good whiskey and they thought you wouldn’t appreciate it.

And if they’ve ever poured you a larger amount of whiskey, now you also know why. They were using you to finish the low-quality whiskey they didn’t appreciate.

Josh Mitchell

I'm Josh Mitchell. I love whiskey and am working on increasing my whiskey tasting abilities and my collection.

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