How to Drink Whiskey: The 5 Ways & When to Use Them


Whiskey is not like other drinks. Other drinks taste pretty much the same whatever you do to them – pour your Coca Cola into a nosing glass and see if it tastes any different. On the other hand, it’s possible to make every drink you pour from the same bottle of whiskey taste different. This is because the way you drink whiskey (and there are five different ways to be used for different purposes) has a profound effect on its taste. Now you may like all the ways, or you may only like some of them, but to get the taste you want, you’re going to need to know how to drink whiskey.

Also, since some ways of drinking whiskey bring out the flavors more than others, if you don’t know how to drink whiskey you may be downgrading a great drink into mediocre one. The last thing you want to do is to throw back a 30-year-old bottle of single Malt Whiskey like a beer, when savouring the aromas and flavors would have made it taste infinitely better.

Ok, I’m over-exaggerating. It’s not the last thing you want to do. There are worse things, I agree. Imagine if it had been a 50-year-old bottle of Single Malt Whiskey.

And it doesn’t end there. Knowing how to drink whiskey is not simply about choosing a preferred taste. Nor is it just about choosing a preferred taste for given times, situations or purposes. Since the effect of the way of drinking is different for each whiskey, it’s about choosing a preferred taste for given times, situations or purposes for each of your favorite whiskeys.

Yes. You’re going to need to buy a notebook.

Whiskey being poured into a glass

The Five Ways to Drink Whiskey

There are in fact five ways to drink whiskey:

  1. In one shot
  2. Sipped Neat
  3. With Ice
  4. In a cocktail
  5. With all the aromas and flavors

Let’s take a more detailed look at how to drink whiskey in each of the five ways, the affects each way has on the whiskey and when you would use them.

How to Drink Whiskey in One Shot

Pour your whiskey straight from the bottle into a 1-2fl oz shot glass and fill it to the top. Don’t add water, or ice – if you do, you’ll displace most of the whiskey and you’ll be drinking ice with a whiskey flavor – or any other ingredients.

Drink the whiskey quickly in one swallow or gulp.

The problem with drinking whiskey like this is that having filled the tiny glass to the brim (any less would invalidate the whole exercise), no air can get the whiskey so it can breathe and the ethanol can evaporate, and there is nowhere for the whiskey aromas to accumulate. This means that when you drink your whiskey, you’ll smell the fumes of the alcohol which won’t have evaporated and none of the whiskey aromas which, with nowhere to accumulate, will have dissipated.

Since flavor is the combination of smell as well as taste, with no whiskey aromas and the ethanol ruining your nosing and tasting equipment so you couldn’t detect them even if there were, you won’t taste the flavors of the whiskey but you will get the burn of the alcohol.

Now I can hear you asking: Surely this is a way not to drink whiskey? This is a way to ruin that 50-year-old bottle of Single Malt Whiskey someone was moaning about earlier.

And you have a point. This way of drinking whiskey is for cheap or low-quality whiskeys where there’s little to appreciate and savour flavor wise. It’s a way of getting alcohol into your body quickly if you want to feel relaxed and warm inside as soon as possible. Or perhaps you’ve just seen someone you’d like to talk to enter the room and for some reason want to feel a bit more confident.

Disclaimer: I’m not a dating expert and make no guarantees about the final result.

How to Sip Whiskey Neat

Whiskey neat is whiskey served without any mixer, additional flavor or dilution. It’s poured from the bottle straight into the glass with as little interruption as possible.

Pour 1-2fl oz into a whiskey tumbler – the short and wide cool looking whiskey glasses with a flat, heavy bottom, straight sides and no stem or handle. You can of course use any kind of similar drinking utensil, from tin cup to coffee mug.

Since you’re only filling the glass with a (relatively) small amount of whiskey, there’s room for air to get to the whiskey so it can breathe and the ethanol can evaporate. However, since tumblers are wide brimmed there’s still nowhere for the whiskey aromas to accumulate.

This means you’ll smell less of the ethanol fumes than when drinking a shot, and although most of the whiskey aromas will dissipate you will get some (the more ethereal ones) which will increase the flavor, so don’t drink quickly rather sip and savour that which you can.

You can add water which does two things. First, it dilutes the alcohol content. Most whiskeys are 40% ABV or more which (unless they’re very smooth) can be too much and as mentioned may dull your nose and palate ruining your ability to pick up the aromas and flavors. If you dilute a whiskey to 35% ABV it will soften the punch of the alcohol and let the whiskey flavors come through.

Secondly, adding water also opens up new and more subtle flavors

The truth is that even one drop of water can make a difference to the taste of your whiskey, so it may be best to just add one drop of water at a time (you’ll need to use a water dropper) until you reach the drop too much – which will then ruin the flavor entirely. It’s a dangerous game but one well worth playing.

Use neutral, slightly cool water so it won’t affect the whiskey’s flavors. Be careful if your tap water is hard or contains fluoride. You may want to filter your water or buy spring water specially for your whiskey drinking. It’s not obsessive, it’s appreciative of the deliciousness of whiskey. My psychologist agrees with you though.

There are several reasons why a person might want to drink their whiskey like this, without using a proper glass to help them detect all the aromas and flavors.

The most obvious being that the person in question doesn’t know any better.

Although there are actually some whiskeys that taste good when drunk this way.

Or perhaps you can’t be bothered for the whole swirling, smelling, rolling the whiskey around your mouth, and spending time trying to detect all the aromas and flavors palaver that makes up the detailed and somewhat complex fifth and, as many argue, only way to drink whiskey. Perhaps you’re happy with the minimal effort and medium level results that make up this way of drinking whiskey.

How to Drink Whiskey With Ice

This is the same as the previous way of drinking whiskey, only with ice.

Adding ice cubes makes the whiskey a bit more palatable, as it tempers the intensity of the whiskey and calms the burn of the alcohol. Whereas water achieves this by dilution, ice cubes do this by chilling.

Or maybe you just feel like a cool and refreshing whiskey.

Make sure that the water you use to make ice cubes with is also neutral and because ice can take on the flavors and smells of the things it’s stored with and transfer them to your whiskey, that it’s stored away from the weird stuff in your freezer.

The ice in your whiskey will melt which is great because, as mentioned, each drop of water added to whiskey opens up new and subtle flavors, so you’ll be able to taste all the changes in your drink as the ice cubes melt.

There only problem is that melting ice cubes also opens up the whiskey to the risk of becoming too diluted so it’s best to use large or even giant ice cubes because with less surface area than many smaller ice cubes put together, they’ll melt slower. This way you’ll easily be able to juggle reducing the heat of the whiskey, opening up the more subtle flavors and ensuring your drink doesn’t become too diluted.

If that solution doesn’t appeal to you then you can use whiskey stones – pieces of stone or metal that are frozen and then used as an ice-alternative for chilling your whiskey. Without being able to melt they cannot dilute your whiskey. You’ll have to add any water you want separately, but at least you’ll be in complete control of the amount that’s added to your drink.

Drinking Whiskey in a Cocktail

There are a lot of whiskey cocktails. Whiskey Sour, Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Scotch and Soda to name … four.

Each of course is made differently and will have their own ingredients and instructions for making.

Drinking whiskey mixed with other ingredients will again mean you won’t detect every aroma and flavor, but because whiskey is a very versatile drink you will bring out other flavors depending on the ingredients. This does mean I wouldn’t use the highest quality whiskey for a whiskey cocktail as that would be a bit of a waste, but on the other hand, since we are looking for taste, you can’t use a low quality whiskey. You need to use a whiskey that’s decent enough for you to enjoy on its own.

Often the sweeter bourbons or stronger and spicy rye whiskeys are better for whiskey cocktails, but it depends on personal preference. It’s all about experimentation and finding the flavors – yes plural – you like.

Taste is not the only reason for wanting to drink a whiskey cocktail. Sometimes you may just want a longer drink – whiskey cocktails are often a full tumbler or highball (think tumbler just higher).

Also, some may not like the taste of whiskey by itself. 40% ABV is very strong and not everyone’s cup of tea. Although as it’s whiskey, it’s not anyone’s cup of tea. In fact, for those who are pedantic, any drink that’s not tea isn’t anyone cup of tea.

How to Drink Whiskey With All the Aromas and Flavors

Pour 1-2fl oz of whiskey into a nosing glass. These are tall-ish glasses with a wide bowl, long narrow neck, thin stem and broad pedestal.

Glencairn Whisky Glass



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Once again, since the amount poured is only a fraction of the glass, there’s room in the bowl for air to get to the whiskey so it can breathe and the ethanol can evaporate. However, this time the bowl shape of the nosing glass concentrates the whiskeys aromas towards the narrow rim and allows them to accumulate.

This means you can properly nose your whiskey before drinking it and detect aromas you would have otherwise missed. Now you can savour and appreciate the full flavor of your whiskey which is especially important when drinking whiskey of a high quality.

That’s the simple version of how to drink whiskey with all the aromas and flavors. Since there’s a little more to it, let’s go into it in more detail.

Step 1 – Before Drinking

Before drinking make sure you haven’t consumed any food or drink with a strong taste (for example coffee or mint) as it will affect your ability to taste the whiskey. Drink some neutral room temperature water before starting.

Step 2 – Holding the Glass

After pouring your drink into a proper nosing glass, hold it by the stem so that your hands don’t warm the whiskey, and so that they and their smells (even pleasant ones) are kept away from your nose.

Step 3 – Swirl Your Whiskey

This lets even more air get to the whiskey and coats the glass.

Step 4 – Wait a Minute

Wait for a minute to allow the aromas to rise and concentrate in the glass. This is important because your whiskey has been trapped in a cask or bottle for its entire life (perhaps even hundreds of years). It now needs a little time to stretch its legs and express itself.

Step 5 – Detecting the Aromas

Put your nose into the glass and breathe in deeply but gently. Your olfactory system is delicate so don’t breathe in over aggressively as you might get singed by the alcohol. No no, don’t hold the glass to your nose or near to your nose, get your nose right inside the glass.

Open your mouth slightly as you inhale to let the alcohol fumes escape and the whiskey aromas to circulate round so you can better discern them. You’ll probably get an overpowering sense of alcohol the first time, but the second, third and fourth sniff will reveal more of your whiskey as your nostrils get used to the strength of the alcohol. Take your nose out of the glass and swirl before each one.

Sniff using one nostril then the other. Generally, one nostril is responsible for 80% of an inhalation while the other is obstructed. You won’t know which one is which because it alternates every two to three hours. So each nostril will perceive the aromas differently.

Vary your rate of inhalation because some aromas are easier to detect when the flow of air is rapid while others are easier to detect when the flow of air is slower.

Examine every part of the glass because different aromas concentrate at different points. At the bottom you’ll find the heavier compounds with earthy, smoky, woody, aromas and higher up you’ll detect the spicy, malty and winey aromas. Towards the rim will be the lighter fruity and floral aromas.

The aromas come from different parts of the whiskey making process. Grain aromas depend on the grain used and malt aromas come from the malting process. The fermentation and distillation stage produces yeasty, metallic and milky aromas. And aging will give you all sorts of aromas, for example vanilla, spicy, winey, or woody. The smoky aroma can come from the malting process or the heavily toasted casks used in the aging process.

You can use an Aroma Wheel – which are words commonly used to describe aromas, grouped together in families with aromatic similarities – to help you identify some of the more common scents. It’s useful as you will instantly have words to describe what you are smelling. You can also use it to define aromas by a process of elimination. Although an Aroma Wheel is helpful it’s not the sum total of all descriptors. There are always more.

Not everyone will describe the same smell in the same way. This is because the perception of smell is a personal thing. What smells like one thing to one person may smell like something else to another. It’s also because smells are linked to memories, so depending on your psyche, personal descriptors may be quite unusual.

You can try and predict how your whiskey will taste from its aromas.

Step 6 – Tasting

Drink a little sip first because just like the nose needs to get used to the alcohol so does the mouth. It will taste overwhelmingly of alcohol but with the second sip the whiskey will reveal its true characteristics.

Take another small sip but this time don’t swallow it yet. You need to chew your drink. This means, holding it in your mouth and swirling it around, making sure it spreads throughout your mouth and covers all the surfaces of your tongue – the middle, the sides, the tip and the back – because different parts of your tongue respond to different flavors.

Asses how your whiskey feels in your mouth (termed unsurprisingly the mouthfeel). Does it feel oily, creamy, thin or rich? Is it soft and rolling or hot and immediate? Is it drying or refreshing and lively? Think about the texture. Is it silky or more powerful?

Swallow.

Take a deep breath and exhale deeply through your nose so that the aromatic molecules in your mouth go to the back of your throat and rise up into your sinuses. Do not take another sip yet. Wait a moment so that the taste can come back up.

Asses the taste of your whiskey. Again, you can use a Flavor Wheel but also try and relate the flavors and sensations to things you have tasted in the past. Is it hot, sweet, spicy or acidic?

Can you taste some of the aromas you detected earlier or are there only new flavors who’s aromas you did not detect? Do the aromas, flavors and structure work together and is the whiskey well-balanced (meaning nothing is too prominent and everything is well integrated).

How’s the finish (what you’re left with after swallowing the whiskey)? Is it short, medium or long? Is it dry or smooth? Since the finish changes over time as the flavor decays in the mouth, are there new flavors or are things quietening down a bit?

Step 7 – Repeating All the Steps … Repeatedly

Over time the whiskey will take in more and more air which will make its aromas change. You’ll need to keep sniffing to see how it evolves.

Add a drop of water which, as mentioned, opens up the flavors and repeat the whole process again.

Add another drop of water and then another.

Until you can’t taste any more flavors.

Then start again with a different whiskey.

And repeat.

Step 8 – Making Comparisons

A good way to drink whiskey is comparatively so you can heighten any differences. You can compare different whiskeys and the same whiskey with a different nosing glass, different amounts of added water and different environments – the aromas you pick up when on the beach will be different to the ones you pick up when in a city bar.

You have a lot of work to do.

Step 9 – Practice Until You Become an Expert

It goes without saying that you may not pick up all the aromas and flavors the first time you drink whiskey this way. Don’t be disheartened. You probably weren’t a concert pianist the first time you decided to play the piano either. You may need years of regular and consistent practice before you become adept enough to truly appreciate all the complex flavors and aromas of a whiskey.

But don’t worry. It’s well worth the effort and the journey’s very pleasant too. I mean look at it this way. The journey to becoming an expert antiques Appraiser is nowhere near as delicious.

Conclusion

There are five ways to drink whiskey each having a different effect on the taste of the whiskey and to be used under different circumstances. You may want a quick shot to relax immediately, the lack of complications of drinking it neat, ice to reduce the burn of the whiskey, a long drink, or to be able to pick up all the aromas and flavors.

The beauty of whiskey is that you can enjoy each way of drinking it at different times. The key to all this is to experiment and discover what you like. Because the real answer to the question of how to drink whiskey is – any way you want!

Useful Whiskey Links

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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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