Whiskey: Neat, With Water, Or On the Rocks?

//Whiskey: Neat, With Water, Or On the Rocks?

One of the many things we enjoy doing at Lifted Spirits is making alcohol more approachable.

Instead of insisting on “right” ways to do things, we would rather engage with you so that you can go on to find what you enjoy.  Today we’re doing that by dealing with one of the great debates in whiskey: do you take it neat or with ice? There are a few controversial topics among whiskey “connoisseurs,” and this is certainly one of them. Let’s dig into the arguments for each, as well as our recommendations…

The Case for Drinking Whiskey Neat

Your distiller is making something special when he is crafting a whiskey.  All throughout the process he has a flavor and aroma in his mind and heart that he’s trying to realize in your nose and mouth.  When you drink whiskey neat, you are tasting flavors and smelling aromas that the distiller wanted you to.

There’s a Scottish proverb that goes something like “There are two things a Highlander likes naked, and one of them is malt whisky.” Some purists will argue that the distiller carefully chose the amount of water, the filtration, the pH, and the mineral content of the water in his whiskey, and tampering with that balance is sacrilege.

What Does Water Do to Whiskey?

Some advocate for adding just a few drops of cold water to your whiskey.

When alcohol and water are mixed, a chemical reaction occurs and energy is released, causing the temperature to go up slightly.  So, when you add those few drops of water to your whiskey, you are fundamentally changing both the alcoholic content and the taste.

Proponents of adding water to whiskey will argue that it “activates” or “opens up” the spirit. Michael, our distiller, weighs in on the science behind this:

Adding water to whiskey changes the surface tension, forcing aromatic compounds to escape. Hence more aroma. It also increases molecular attraction in the solution, causing heat to be released and the molecules to move less. This heat aides new aromas and tastes to become evident. Some oily compounds that aren’t detectable at a higher proof are also released. This can be of great benefit or detriment as some oily compounds are better left in the shadows. Either way, adding water is revealing of the depth of the spirit.

Case in point, when we test a spirit “for fault” (tasting something, trying to find off flavors), we add water until it’s about 30% alcohol (whiskey is normally 40-50% ABV). This allows us to identify different notes that might otherwise be overlooked at a higher proof.

Fun Fact: Some distilleries take their water extremely seriously. For instance, Aberfeldy, a distillery in the Scottish highlands, actually sells bottled water from their whisky’s water source. That way, if you’re going to add water to their whisky, it’s not going to mess with the mineral content. Overkill? Marketing ploy? Purity of the craft? You decide.

The Case for Ice In Whiskey

#TeamNeat does rightfully argue that whiskey served neat is what the distiller had in mind.  But as with poetry, once whiskey is made sold, it’s not the property of the distiller anymore.  It has to go out into the world and make its own way. This means you have the opportunities to taste different flavors by changing the temperature and dilution of your whiskey.

Ice does change the aroma and impact the flavor, but you’ll get a different perspective.  Think of the ice itself.  It’s simply a different form of water – and when it melts it will look different.  You know that cold water tastes different from room temperature water.  Neither is “better” than the other – but you can very clearly sense different elements, even in water, because of the temperature at which it is served.

What kind of ice?

You aren’t really wanting to have your ice melt quickly. If you come to our tasting room, you’ll notice that our ice machine makes giant ice cylinders.  At home, go for a single large block or sphere so that the reduced surface area results in slower melt time.

Unique ice products for your whiskey:

This is what we use at home.

Have we mentioned we’re giant nerds?

More ice, even less surface area.

At $6.50 apiece, this is utterly outrageous.

Final Thoughts

You’ll notice an ongoing theme on this blog about tasting, flavors, and experimentation – for today’s article our main focus is to have you focus on how small changes can impact the smell and taste.

Here’s what Michael and Kyle recommend when tasting a new spirit:

  1. Pour a glass of it neat. Swirl it in the glass and run your nose over the top of the glass to get the aroma. Take a sip while breathing in through your nose – smell is a huge component of what you taste. (Try this with different glasses too)
  2. Add a few drops of cool water. Repeat step 1. How do the smell and taste change? Add a little more water if you’re not detecting much change.
  3. Add a single large cube of ice and swirl the glass a few times. The dilution, agitation, and temperature change can have a significant impact on the experience of a spirit.

All science-speak aside, adding things to whiskey is all about experiencing it in a new way. Some whiskeys really benefit from a bit of water. Some people prefer to dilute their spirits a bit. Adding filtered water vs. tap water will bring out different characteristics of even your favorite whiskey. Whiskey is, above all else, meant to be enjoyed. So if someone likes the aroma and palate that comes from adding water, then go for it. Experimentation is the only way to really find out what the difference is in whiskey neat, with water, with ice, or in a cocktail. So go explore!

What About Lifted Spirits Whiskey?

We’re working on it! We’ve been fine-tuning our whiskey recipe and the production process to ensure it meets our standards. Expect our first release in early to mid 2018.

Join our email list and follow us on Facebook to make sure you get one of our first bottles!

Want to Fill Your Own Private Barrel?

Liquor stores, restaurants, companies, or collectors: want a really unique experience? Contact us about coming in for a day to distill a batch with Michael. You’ll get to fill a barrel, we’ll mark it as yours, and you’ll get to sample it as it ages. When it’s ready, you can come in and help us fill bottles specially marked for your private release!

Reach out for more info about a private barrel.


About Lifted Spirits

Distillery, craft cocktails, and events in Kansas City’s East Crossroads. Spirits worthy of the people they bring together.

Contact Us

1734 Cherry St, Kansas City, MO 64108

Phone: 816-866-1734