Whisky Advocate

What’s the best way to drink whisky?

June 15th, 2011

Any way you damned well please! That’s the short answer.

Now for the long answer. 

If you only drink your whisky the optimal way to appreciate its aromas and flavors (say, with a splash of water and in a nosing glass), then I think you are missing out on whisky’s versatility. (And maybe your pinky is in the air just a bit too much?)

There are times when I want to get the most out of my whisky. Still, there are also times when my whisky is not the main focus of my attention–times when it just an integral part of a pleasant experience, but not the main part.

I’ll give you three examples that I experienced just this past week or so.

A few of my friends were together with me fishing over the weekend. After being in the hot sun all day, we wanted something refreshing to drink. We had been drinking beer for a while and wanted something different. The solution? A glass of bourbon and ginger ale on the rocks. Not some fancy bourbon. It was whatever I had lying around the house, and it did the trick. Our conversation was the main focus of my attention, not the bourbon.

On another occasion, I poured myself a measure of Ardbeg Alligator. Again, it was hot out. I also think the room temperature where the Ardbeg was being stored was slightly warmer than normal. I put a small ice cube in my glass. It cooled off the drink, added some water, and tasted great!

Finally, one evening, sitting around a campfire, I pulled out a fine cigar to smoke. But what to drink with it? I already had a coupe of beers, so I opted for a good bourbon (W.L. Weller 19 yr. old, if you are curious.) I poured a measure into a small “rocks” glass–no ice this time–and enjoyed it with my cigar. It was great!

In all three instances here, I wasn’t “John Hansell the whisky reviewer.” I was just someone enjoying whisky in a way that seemed appropriate at that given time. I think that if you drink your whisky with an open mind in addition to an open mouth, you will get more pleasure from it.

44 Responses to “What’s the best way to drink whisky?”

  1. John,

    I get asked the same question at nearly every event, and your short answer is generally the same one I give. You like what you like, and while I may cringe when I see some of the concoctions people may create, at the end of the day, if they are enjoying my bourbon…then they are friends of mine.

    Great post.


    • Amit Sawhney says:


      My reply to that question is simple; with a nice cigar! An Ashton VSG Torpedo or a Gloria Cubana Serie R No 6. Maduro with your bourbon.

      All I tell people who ever ask me is that they should respect the folks that made the whisky enough to try it neat at least once. After that, you paid for it drink it any way you want, just not in my house.


  2. Matt J says:

    You’ve pretty much described how I drink it. I use a variety of glassware, ice, water, mixers, or not, depending on how the mood suits me. It all really depends on how much attention I want to pay.

    Although, I am starting to find that I prefer different glasses for different whiskeys.

  3. Wade says:

    In summertime, here in Houston, I tend to drink more whisky on ice. Sometimes bourbon with a lot of ice, which is what Booker Noe called KY Tea.

    WL Weller 19? You have been sitting on that bottle for a long time. It’s good, but IMHO a little too much wood. he current BTAC WLW Weller is great.

    • John Hansell says:

      My WLW19 is from 2000. If you have any extra you don’t want, I will be happy to take it off your hands for you. 🙂

      • JWC says:

        John, i had a bottle of wlw 19 yo 2000 back when it first came out. my palate has changed but i remember preferring the 2000 btac er and sazerac and the wlw being a bit too woody. as a matter of fact, i ended up buying 2 bottles of the er. i will admit, seeing what price the wlw 19yo is going for now, i would not have drank it – didn’t enjoy it too much. i would now just sell it and buy bottles of stuff i prefer.

  4. Regular Chumpington says:

    I find, hands down, the best way to drink it is from some sort of container (a glass, a bottle, a saucer, bowl, spoon, etc) via the mouth. I went through a long period where I ingested it via the nostrils but the burn was a bit more than I can handle (even though many people said I just needed to work up to it).

    In all seriousness… I prefer the glencairn glasses I use out of convenience (easiest access; dishwasher safe) but will turn to rocks glasses, etc. Given that it’s actually been fairly chilly in LA in the evenings, it’s been all neat for me lately. I am not averse to a little ice or a little water or a little of both. We don’t really have anything interesting on hand to mix with currently…

    … well, there’s “interesting” mixers like Rose’s Lime, a bottle of white, or an imperial stout, but I don’t think those would make a marked improvement…

  5. bj reed says:

    So, for all these years the one word I used to explain how to drink single malt whisky was “SHOOTERS”!!

    And to find I have been off base all this time 🙂

  6. Sure, the examples you’ve described are all sensible. I’m not as sure that I’d endorse the “any way you damned well please” perspective. I’ve seen ice heaped on 42yo whisky, and coke added to Royal Salute. It’s just a waste. Those guys may as well have been drinking a cheapo.

    • Ryan says:

      Bet that drink tasted substantially better than one-day-old whisky heaped on 42-year-old ice.

  7. JC Skinner says:

    Into one measure of Irish potstill blend (eg Powers), place a slice of lemon studded with cloves and a half spoon of demerara sugar. Top up with hot water = the perfect winter warmer.

  8. Gary says:

    It’s whiskey. It’s all good, in my opinion. I have to agree that however you enjoy it is how you enjoy it.

  9. David Bailey Jr says:

    Good question that is indeed asked quite often. Personally I prefer mine neat, but that also is dependent upon temperature of the liquid . Whisky TOO hot, similar to a fine glass of Lafite is not as pleasureable. A cub of ice usually does the trick. The settings you mentioned were great examples as well. Out with friends in the summer, jack and ginger work for me! I recall being at a BBQ in NY last July where it was 95 degrees outside and someone pulled out a bottle of JW Gold(to drink neat). Had to grab something cooler, but told em to enjoy! Waaaay too hot for that on the lawn! LOL.

  10. Anniie Bellis says:

    Whichever way gives you the most pleasure, yet I think some of whisky’s finer points may be lost in some ways. Just waiting for my mint to ripen so I can try a little Aberlour 10 Julep! It’s so reasonably priced it’s worth the experiment!)
    However, on the topic of the “Alligator”, I have a bottle arriving from the UK this week and wondered if you have posted any notes on it?

  11. Red_Arremer says:

    Good to highlight that being serious about appreciating whiskey is just an aspect of being serious about appreciating life. Sometimes pleasure is about the details and sometimes it’s just about the ambiance. Whiskey has something to offer on both ends.

    Having no air conditioning, when it gets hot I put down a lot of whiskey with ice and water– Nothing wrong with that.

  12. John Hansell says:

    Back in the 1990s, Gary Regan wrote a single malt scotch cocktails piece for us. One of them was called “The Bloody Macallan.” It was a Bloody Mary with Macallan instead of vodka. And no, it’s not something I regularly drink. Or even irregularly, for that matter…

  13. bgulien says:

    You paid for it, you drink it anyway you like.
    But for met it’s Scotch in a copita glass with a drop or 2 water.
    Bourbon or any other US whisky: tumbler with 1 icecube.
    Canadian in a cocktail.
    Indian or Amrut, like a scotch, same as a Nippon whisky.

  14. […] Sideblog: drinkin whisk(e)y by Dennis on Jun.15, 2011, under sideblog, Whisky John Hansell, one of the leading authorities on whisk(e)y in the United States, and publisher/editor of Malt Advocate magazine on drinking whisk(e)y […]

  15. mongo says:

    if you drink your whisky with a closed mouth you’ll spill it all over yourself. at least that has been my experience.

  16. Anniie Bellis says:

    Looking forward to the notes! I have yet to meet an Ardbeg I didn’t love, some more than others, but loved all the same..

  17. Louis says:

    Works for me too. Any bourbon 107 proof or higher goes well with an ice cube when it gets hot. I. Also noticed that the bottles are a little warm long after the central AC goes on. I don’t bother with scotch if it is hot enough to require ice. My ‘scotch on the rocks’ days are long behind me.

  18. Mats says:

    Totally agree with your sentiment: “best” depends on the situation, the reason – and of course the whisky itself. And with that goes that what one defines as the “best” whisky depends on the situation and the reason too. A wintery after dinner contemplation is one thing, a warm summer “relax with the friends” refreshment is quite another.

  19. Ryan says:

    With friends.

    Hard to beat enjoying biblically good whiskies with enthusiastic and appreciative friends.

    And I otherwise couldn’t care less; including someone hypothetically pouring the most esoteric and ethereal vintage Brora or Port Ellen selections into a Styrofoam cup filled with store-bought ice and Tab.

    • Anniie Bellis says:

      Though I must admit to drinking my whisky neat, it is indeed about the enjoyment in whatever fashion you wish, but the thought of a celestial Port Ellen with Tab…Yikes! I had a little palpitation there!

  20. I think about whiskey drinking very similarly. I tell people who ask that I’m a pluralist about whiskey — I am completely happy drinking a bourbon and ginger at a wedding reception one day and then having a neat Lagavulin 16 yr the next day when I want to reflect on what I’m drinking.

  21. Greg Adams says:

    I feel that people should enjoy whisk(e)y any way they like. I like to have my bourbon neat,on the rocks,or with a mixer. Like today it was 103 where I live. After doing yard work and chasing two of my younger granddaughters ages 6 and 7 around, I’m having several pours of AAA 10 y/o in a rocks glass with ginger and ice. This helps to cool me down after a hot day.

  22. Eric says:

    How about drinking your bourbon out of a porcelain decanter shaped like a hillbilly? That’s how they drank their Weller back in the summer of ’69.

    • Ryan says:

      At least that hillbilly decanter was mostly just tacky and not purely phony, beguiling, ‘pinky in the air’ brand hustle like modern decanter packaging casketed in obscenely varnished presentation cases. Ahhem… ORVW 23.

    • Mark Davis says:

      John doesn’t have the guts to say it, but this is obviously the only acceptable way to imbibe spirits.

  23. For those who have perhaps spent a considerable amount of time trying to get into whisky, daunted by its variety, flavours, traditions and – to bring the topic back to the present one – received ‘wisdom’, it can be hard enough again venturing into the even more diverse world of mixers, ice, glassware etc.
    Having hit a few cocktail bars recently, I am extremely interested in drinking brown spirits in this particular way but when at home I feel the case is most definitely: ‘I feel like a dram; I have enjoyed my drams served this way since for ever; I don’t have all the fancy extra ingredients, and I don’t want to disappoint myself by adding a wrong flavour or texture.’
    As Anniie said, it is about experimentation but as John rightly pointed out, it is also about context. For me, my one-to-one whiskies will always be neat or with a touch of water and they will always be single malts or bourbons. Another time and place? Well, I’ll see how I feel.

  24. Mark says:

    My favorite experiences related to this particular topic are those times I learn the lesson of letting go of my preconceptions on this topic.

    Specifically, when I drink whisk(e)y with a friend, relative or acquaintance who does not have preconceived notions about which glass goes with which whisk(e)y.

    At those times I’ve learned I’ve been missing the nuances of my “house bourbon,” which I normally relegate to an unadorned tumbler when my company asks for it in a Glencairn glass; or that I have been missing the pleasures of drinking my “special” single malt with abandon from a tumbler rather than treating it like a museum piece, one ounce in a Glencairn, when my company says “aw hell just poor it already!”

  25. Danny Maguire says:

    Well John, I agree with your first way if you don’t enjoy it don’t drink it. If I’m drinking a good single malt I don’t have my pinkie in the air, I wrap my whole hand round the glass. If you’re going to put ginger ale or coke or any other long mixer you may as well use the cheep own brand from the supermarket or any other, legal, outlet. When whisky is being consumed that way it’s usually in company that wouldn’t consider themselves to be connoisseurs so the whisky is just booze, a long refreshing drink with a kick. So tailor the way you drink it the circumstances and company.

  26. H.Diaz says:

    $50 and up, nearly always neat. Cask strength, a splash or two of water. I like full / maximum flavor for my hard earned dram.

  27. sam k says:

    My Dad worked for a brewery, but in the summertime, after mowing the grass or working in the garden for hours, he’d grab a water glass, fill it to the brim with ice, then fill it again, right to the top, with Echo Spring bourbon.

    We’ve all heard of lawnmower beer, but my Dad was a fan of lawnmower whiskey! I think of him often, but rarely more so than with that water glass of chilled bourbon in my hand. Thanks Dad…I miss you!

  28. PeteR says:

    Mostly with friends and no worries. Enjoy and share!

  29. Lew Bryson says:

    I started drinking whiskey with ginger and lemon. Then I got self-conscious, and drank it on the rocks. Then I drank beer exclusively for a number of years. Then you, John, taught me how to enjoy it neat…and I maybe went too far, maybe had that pinky out.
    Then at my first Kentucky Bourbon Festival, it was just hotter than hell. A friendly bartender at a Four Roses outdoor press event loaded up a tumbler with ice, and doused it with Yellow Label. I was cooled, and refreshed, and the pinky was nowhere in sight! Did it again yesterday with Russell’s Reserve Rye, too. Sure, I get twitchy when someone shows no respect to a great whiskey. But it’s borderline annoying when there’s too much respect paid sometimes. As many distillers say, they make the stuff to drink!

  30. Martin Duffy says:

    I usually drink my whiskies neat or on the rocks with an occasional Manhattan or Rusty Nail thrown in for good measure, but I must say I enjoyed one of the best Scotch cocktails ever last year at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in L.A. It was called a Penicillin and was a mixture of Johnnie Walker Black Label, the bar’s own homemade honey/ginger syrup, fresh squeezed lemon juice and a floating of Lagavulin16yr on top. I would have never thought such a concoction would be so additive. I believe the cocktail originated in NYC at the bar Milk & Honey when one of the bartenders needed a pick me up after a particularly rough evening, but my bartender did an outstanding job of recreating it.

  31. You are absolutely right – there are times for whisky snobbery, and times for simply enjoying it. Much like yourself I enjoy sitting down with a nosing glass, trying to pick up the full breadth of aromas and flavours – but I also enjoy a good Loretto Lemonade in a hot summer day, and a quick swig of Glenmorangie from my hip flash on when setting of fireworks for Hogmanay.

  32. Whiskey Lover says:

    I have no problem with having people drink whiskey anyway they like, so long as they stay away from the good stuff. IMHO if you’re going to mix anything with a fine whiskey, you might as well give me that good whiskey and I’ll give you some cheap stuff in exchange. You honestly won’t be able to tell the difference

  33. Tim McDonald says:

    Late to this thread. How I drink my whisky depends on how I feel, and on what I am drinking. I enjoy cask strength whiskies – single malts or American – and I will never ever add water to bring these down to some lesser strength (a personal preference thing – add water to scotch and you get scotch and water, which I have never liked). But I am not averse to adding the occasional ice cube to high proof whisky, then greatly enjoying how the charachter changes as the ice melts.


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