The Five Ways to Drink Whiskey and When to Use Them

One of the great things about whiskey is that there’s more than one way to drink it, and each way affects the taste of the whiskey differently. Which way to drink whiskey will depend on several factors including when you’re drinking whiskey, where you’re drinking whiskey, what whiskey you’re drinking and even how you’re feeling. That’s why it’s important to know all five ways to drink whiskey and when to use them.

Five whiskey glasses being used for each of the ways to drink whiskey

1. Neat

The first (and according to many only) way to drink whiskey is neat. This means drinking whiskey as it is when it comes out the bottle and without adding anything else to it: no mixers, no additional flavorings, no ice and no water. That way you can appreciate your whiskey as it truly is.

You should drink whiskey neat when you want to smell and taste all its aromas and flavors. This is especially true if you’ve got a particularly flavorful or high-quality whiskey. You don’t want to lose out on all those aromas and flavors by adding a large amount of something else. Not to mention that it probably cost you an arm and a leg and you want to get your money’s worth.

Drinking whiskey neat is a bit more involved than just pouring, sipping and swallowing your whiskey. You need to use the right type of glass to bring out the aromas and flavors of your whiskey and take your time to detect and assess them.

The right type of glass for drinking whiskey neat is a nosing glass. These are glasses with a wide bowl and long narrow neck. The wide bowl reduces the impact of the alcohol by letting air get to the whiskey so it can breathe and some of the alcohol can evaporate. The long narrow neck concentrates the whiskey’s aromas towards the top of the glass, so they don’t dissipate.

This is important as otherwise you’d just be smelling the fumes of the alcohol and losing the aromas of the whiskey which, since flavor is smell as well as taste, would mean losing some of the whiskey’s flavor too.

You need to spend time nosing and chewing (holding it in your mouth and swirling it around) your whiskey because it takes time to discover all its aromas and flavors and assess them. It can take 20 to 30 minutes to drink a glass of good-quality whiskey neat. You can find more information about how to drink whiskey neat in the more detailed step by step guide I wrote which you can read here.

2. With Water

Water being poured into a glass of whiskey

Drinking whiskey with water is the same as drinking whiskey neat, except that you’re going to add a little bit of water.

There are two reasons why you’d want to drink whiskey with water. The first is because it reduces the impact of the alcohol. As mentioned, using a nosing glass does this too, but since whiskey can be anywhere from 40% – 68%ABV you may want to do more to reduce the impact of the alcohol further. That’s why some people add a large splash of water to their whiskey, as it dilutes it to a more reasonable 35%ABV or so.

The high ABV of whiskey keeps its flavors closed up, so the second reason for drinking whiskey with water is to open up its flavors. In fact, every drop of water you add can change the taste of your whiskey, which is why some people only add one drop at a time (they may even use a pipette for this) and assess the new aromas and flavors in between.

It also prevents you from adding too much water and diluting it to the point it starts losing its flavor.

Many people start off by drinking their whiskey neat but after a few sips add a drop or two of water. That way they can see what it tastes like both straight out the bottle and once the whiskey has opened up.

Just be careful about the type of water you add to your whiskey. If it tastes bad, then so will your whiskey. Use neutral, slightly cool water so that it won’t affect the flavor of your whiskey. If your tap water has a distinctive taste, you should filter it or use bottled water.

3. With Ice

The third way to drink whiskey is with ice.

There are three reasons to drink whiskey with ice. The first is that it’s another way to reduce the impact of the alcohol. Without getting too much into the science of it, alcohol (certainly at 40%ABV or more) increases the sensitivity of the nerve cells in your mouth that react to heat which causes them to activate at lower temperatures than usual. That’s why whiskey feels like it burns. Adding ice cubes lowers the ‘temperature’ of the whiskey and reduces the burn of the alcohol.

This doesn’t mean you should chill your whiskey as much as possible because aromas and flavors become muted at lower temperatures. You’ll need to chill your whiskey just enough that it reduces the burn of the alcohol but not so much that is prevents you from tasting it flavors.

The second reason to drink whiskey with ice is because as it melts it adds water to the whiskey which as mentioned, opens up its flavors. As this is a continuous process, drinking whiskey with ice means water is being constantly added to it and you can taste all the changes in your whiskey as the ice melts.

Finally, drinking whiskey with ice is very refreshing, especially on a hot day.

If you’re drinking whiskey with ice in order to reduce the burn of the alcohol or taste the changes in your whiskey as the ice melts, you’ll want to use large ice cubes. That’s because one or two large ice cubes have less surface area than three or four smaller ones and so will melt slower. Your whiskey won’t get too cold too quickly, the flavors will open up slowly enough for you to pick them all up and your whiskey is less likely to become too diluted before you finish it.

Using large ice cubes means you’ll need to use a tumbler. These are whiskey glasses that are short and wide with a flat, heavy bottom, straight sides and no stem or handle. That’s because they’re stronger than nosing glasses so large ice cubes shouldn’t scratch or break them, their opening is wide enough for bigger ice cubes to fit through and they have thicker walls, so the heat from your hand won’t cause the ice to melt faster.

Once again you have to be careful about the type of ice you add to whiskey. If it’s made from water with a bad or distinctive taste, then it will transfer that to your whiskey. Use ice made from clean, pure water and make sure that it isn’t contaminated by any smelly items stored nearby it in the freezer.

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

4. With A Mixer or In a Cocktail

A popular way to drink whiskey is with a mixer or in a cocktail. This is when you don’t drink whiskey by itself but as a part of a larger drink with at least one and often several more ingredients.

There are three reasons to drink whiskey with a mixer or in a cocktail. The first is if you don’t like the taste of whiskey by itself. This is, contrary to some opinions, not a crime. In fact, with whiskey being 40%ABV or more, it’s quite understandable. 

The second reason to drink whiskey with a mixer or in a cocktail is because whiskey is a very versatile drink and can interact well with other ingredients bringing out their flavors.

Finally drinking whiskey with a mixer or in a cocktail is great for when you’re in the mood for a bigger or longer drink – a whiskey neat is only 2fl oz, but some whiskey cocktails are three or four times larger. As mentioned, the way to drink whiskey can simply depend on how you feel at the time.

Of course, you wouldn’t use your best whiskey for mixed drinks or cocktails. It would be a shame to lose out on all its aromas and flavors and probably expensive too. On the other hand, you shouldn’t use a cheap, low-quality whiskey either because that wouldn’t make a good mixed drink or cocktail. You’re looking for something in between the two: a whiskey with some good flavors that may be a bit boring to drink on its own.

Some popular mixers for whiskey include:

  • Coca-Cola
  • Soda water
  • Ginger ale
  • Lemonade
  • Apple cider

They’re usually made at a ratio of 1 part whiskey to 3 parts mixer.

Some popular whiskey cocktails are:

Old FashionedWhiskey with sugar, bitters and water, garnished with an orange slice and cocktail cherry
Whiskey SourWhiskey with lemon juice and sugar
Manhattan2fl oz of whiskey, 1fl oz of sweet vermouth and 2-3 dashes of bitters
Mint JulepBourbon with sugar, water, crushed ice and fresh mint
Rusty Nail1½fl oz of Scotch with ¾fl oz of Drambuie

5. In One Shot

The last way to drink whiskey is in a shot. This means drinking 1 – 1.5fl oz of whiskey in one gulp or swallow. No using a specially designed glass that lets the whiskey breathe or taking time to discover its aromas and flavors. No adding water or ice to reduce the impact of the alcohol and open up the whiskey’s flavors. And no adding it to a larger drink for a rich interplay of flavors.

Simply pour the whiskey and drink the entire amount in one go.

There are three reasons to drink shots of whiskey. The first is because the whiskey is cheap or low-quality with few flavors that you don’t mind missing out on. Or perhaps it actually has a few unpleasant flavors that you want to miss out on.

The second reason to drink shots of whiskey is to get a decent (yet sensible, safe, responsible, appropriate, not-going-to-make-you-do-anything-too-stupid) amount of alcohol into your body quickly because you want to feel relaxed and warm inside as soon as possible. This is presumably because you’ve just found out that you don’t have anything better to drink.

Finally, whiskey shots are great for having a celebratory alcoholic drink with friends at the same time.

You’ll want to use a shot glass, as they’re made to measure, and you can keep track of how much you’re drinking. Fill up a 1 or 1.5fl oz shot glass to the top and you’re good to go.

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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