Whisky Advocate

The proper way to drink fine whiskey: an anorak reality check

August 31st, 2012

It’s Friday, 5 pm. I’m about to enjoy a coveted Old Rip Van Winkle 15 yr. old 107 proof bourbon, which I purchased in the 1990s. Not a bad way to start the holiday weekend, is it?

Naturally, I’m going to savor  this rare treat it in a snifter (or nosing glass like Glencairn), at room temperature, with the careful addition of quality water, right?

Wrong! I just poured it into a plain small rocks glass and added ice to it, which you see pictured.

What? The Publisher & Editor of Whisky Advocate, a magazine devoted to enjoying fine whiskey and educating the consumer, drinking his treasured bourbon on the rocks? In a rocks glass??

Yes! If you’re one of those people who think that the only way to drink good whiskey is neat (or with a little water), in a nosing glass, then it’s time for you to take that extended pinky of your drinking hand and tuck it back in with the rest of your fingers.

There’s a time and place for everything, and there’s more than one way to drink fine whiskey. Sure, when I am reviewing whiskey for the magazine, I’m nosing and tasting in a proper nosing glass, at room temperature, adding water and repeating the process. But, there are other ways to enjoy the good stuff, and I’ll give you some examples.

Whiskey on the rocks is okay sometimes

When I’m drinking whiskey at the beach, like this weekend, I will be adding ice to my whiskey. Why? We like leaving the windows open to let the sea breeze in, and the room temperature of the house is warmer than my house back in Pennsylvania. I add an ice cube to bring the temperature back down to where I like to drink it.

Knowing this, what I typically do is bring barrel proof (or higher-proof) whiskeys with me when I go there. Adding an ice cube kills two birds with one stone:  it lowers both the temperature of the whiskey and the proof at the same time. Yes, in this instance, adding ice enhances my whiskey enjoyment and the whiskey tastes better than if I didn’t add any ice.

Good whiskey makes for better cocktails

I learned this first from my fiddling around with tequila and gin cocktails. The better the spirit–and ingredients–the better the cocktail. For example, I use 100% blue agave blanco tequila (preferably with fresh lime juice and Gran Marnier liqueur) when making my margaritas, and it kicks ass. The same goes for whiskey cocktails. You want an unforgettable Manhattan? Make it with good bourbon, good vermouth, and quality bitters!

Different moods, different glasses

I keep a variety of glassware on hand. Which one I use depends on my mood and situation. There is no one perfect whisky glass (contrary to what glassware producers will lead you to believe). If I’m evaluating a whiskey, then I will use a formal nosing glass. But if my whiskey is just part of an enjoyable experience, not the entire experience, and my attention is focused on other things–the company I’m with, the view in front of me, what I might also be eating at the time, or whether I’m smoking a cigar–then I might be more inclined to not be so damned picky about it.

In fact, one of my most memorable whiskey-drinking experiences didn’t involve a glass at all! It was just the three off us, alone on a frozen lake in Onterio in February, ice fishing, passing around a bottle of good whiskey and telling stories while we drowned our bait and entertained ourselves, because the fish weren’t biting.

It’s okay to have a fine whiskey with a quality cigar

Hey, if you don’t like cigars, fine. And if you don’t want me to smoke a cigar anywhere near you, fair enough. I won’t. But, don’t tell me that enjoying a cigar with a fine whiskey is a waste of good whiskey. It’s not.

True, I won’t be able to detect all the subtle nuances on the nose and palate of a whiskey like I would if I weren’t smoking a cigar. But that loss is made up by the contribution of new aromas and flavors a cigar brings to the table, along with the fun and enjoyment of marrying the flavors between the two. Kicking back with a fine cigar and quality whiskey (say a bourbon or sherried single malt scotch) can be a very rewarding experience.

The point I’m trying to make here is this: one thing that makes whiskey so treasured is its versatility. Try to keep an open mind when it comes to enjoying it. Only then, Grasshopper, will you become a true anorak.



No Responses to “The proper way to drink fine whiskey: an anorak reality check”

  1. Lew Bryson says:

    HA! That was a pretty great afternoon on the lake! I remember that after we came back off the ice there was a bottle of OFBB, and I looked at it and thought, good thing we didn’t have that in the ice hut, it’d be TOUGH necking off of that bottle!

    Yes. Whiskey is subordinate to our desires. If what we want is whiskey on the rocks, and it’s hot, and all that…we’ll drink whiskey on the rocks. Good whiskey makes good cocktails, better whiskey makes better cocktails. I drink my table bourbons in a tall glass, with a handful of ice and a good ginger ale when I’m tending a hot grill. Actually…that sounds like something I might just do tonight. Cheers!

  2. Peter says:

    Regarding whisk(e)y and cigars, my argument in favour of it is that it’s a wonderfully relaxing way to spend a few hours–preferably with friends–and let a cornucopia of flavours and aromas wash over your senses.

    My argument against it is that generally the whisk(e)y is a much stronger stimulus to the palate than the cigar, and you’ll miss out on a great cigar’s subtleties. If I’m going to drink any kind of alcohol with a premium cigar it will be one of relatively little complexity. House wine, a decent bourbon/rye, a good blended Scotch or lower-priced single malt. More often than not, I’ll pair a cigar with –gasp!!– Ice water or Coke Zero.

    Conversely, if I’m enjoying a very good whisky (my premium stuff doesn’t have the extra “e” in its name) and want a cigar, I’ll go with an uncomplicated mild cigar.

    Now, with all that said, my *perfect* combination is a Montecristo #2, a glass of 18YO Macallan and a couple of squares of 60 or 65% dark chocolate. Pure heaven!

  3. Jim Clarke says:

    A good rule of thumb is: how YOU like it is how you LIKE it.
    Some Japanese guys want to buy a 10,000 dollar bottle of scotch and add cola? I wouldn’t do it, but it’s their ten thousand bucks, and I hope they enjoyed themselves.
    There shouldn’t be rules about having fun. If people want ice or mixers, so be it. Similarly, if I want to get out a Glencairn, nose it carefully, drop water in with a pipette, chew it in my mouth and then take notes afterwards, that should be okay too.

  4. mark davis says:

    what vermouths do you think are good for cocktails?

    • John Hansell says:

      That’s a personal preference. Tinker around and fine one you like. They aren’t expensive, relative to whiskey.

    • H.Diaz says:

      Mark — Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth from Italy is great with bourbon. A little goes a long way. Think Manhattan, and great on the rocks too. For $35 per liter it stands above the usual $7 – $15 per bottle suspects.

  5. Tom D says:

    I just finished some Powers John Lane out of a nosing glass with a few friends. I never had it before so I wanted to use the nosing glass. Last night, I stepped out to my local, and it was about 95 degrees out. I wound up drinking rye and ginger in a pint glass packed with ice. And I loved it….right until the wife woke me up this morning.

    As for cigars, I typically prefer wine, espresso or a cocktail over scotch while I am smoking. But if you like scotch with your cigar, I sure as hell wouldn’t have anything to say to you. It’s up to you.

    If everyone would stop being so self conscious about image and the “right way” to enjoy a uniquely individual experience like whiskey, we could all get back to having a good time and being ourselves.

    Happy Labor Day!

  6. David D says:

    John – You “fixed” the cover of the blog a while back when you switched that picture of you nosing the glass to a picture of you smiling and holding the glass. I was very proud when you did that. You’re now the only person who’s NOT concentrating deeply, stonefaced, pondering the aromas with a giant stick up their ass, while having a profile shot taken for their blog, website, advertisement, or book cover. Bravo.

  7. Mika says:

    Spot on! Enjoying whisky is rarely only about the whisky itself. It is the moment, whole atmosphere, mood, company, etc. What ever makes you to feel good and savor the moment.

  8. Wendy says:

    I don’t like smoking cigars myself, but I do enjoy the scent of a good cigar. I wish whiskey was as easy for me to enjoy. 😀

  9. Karl says:

    Hey John,

    I may be a considerably young whisky drinker at 25 years old, however looking over the provided link at the beginning of the article and had some moral obligations to consider…

    – Insulting the Canadians.
    – Accusing particular glasses for spirit types, at least for drinking situations and not shooting situations.
    – Not sure about you, but all cover and catelogue photos are usually full bottles, makes me thirst for the taste much more than a bottle that is almost empty.
    – Ice….

    Ice has served me very well as water will in the future, hearing the ice bubbles pop over time and cooling the drink to a nice level.
    Two cubes of ice are very welcome in barrel proof bourbon and whisky, lower percentage spirits including malts are better enjoyed with a splash of room temperature water, just enough to clean the drink from it’s sharpness.

    The link provided shows a journalist which clearly lives by the rules and seems to think they are better than others – we are all sharing an interest seriously and we should cherish our common interests instead of insulting arrogance amongst our peers.

    Ultimately, how can such a person live with themselves publishing such garbage?

  10. sam k says:

    The biggest hit of the summer around here has been Knob Creek Single Barrel on ice. At 120 proof it starts strong and ends up no less than about 90 proof fifteen or so minutes later. The perfect whiskey (next to Van Winkle 15 year) with which to surround an ice cube!

  11. Mr Manhattan says:

    One of my “forbidden pleasures” is to make a Blood and Sand with a 12 yo single malt instead of the usual blended scotch (and fresh OJ is a must, regardless). Heresy, some folks say, to which I reply: “You ought to try it first!”

  12. Ben McNeil says:

    I second Sam’s comment about van Winkle 15 with an ice cube. After having it with and without, I’m convinced that the barrels were picked with an eye to having it with ice. The van Winkles themselves are quite outspoken about how great it is with ice. No reason at all not to trust them!

  13. Josh says:

    In regards to the bourbon that you chose to enjoy while writing this entry, a 1990’s bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 15 Year 107 Proof, roughly bottled 15+ years ago? It appears that it is not your first pour out of the bottle based on the picture. Do you think the juice inside has changed any in that 15 year span. The reason why I ask is that I have several bottles of PVW 15 and 20 year from the 2008 bottling and I would like to hold on to them for a while before enjoying. Do you see any cons to sitting on them for another 10+ years in regards to the flavors changing over time?

  14. Randy Perrelet says:

    I would imagine that the blogger referenced above got more hits in the last few days than he has in the last few months. I guess everybody does indeed get their 15 minutes of fame. Seeing the potshots against all things Canadian, I’m sure the McKenzie brothers would refer to “Jim from Columbus” as a hoser.

  15. Jim says:

    The bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle I enjoyed the most was drunk with good friends from an Evian water bottle at a music festival that wouldn’t allow us to bring in glass, at probably about 85 degrees. The proper way to drink whiskey is the way that best fits the situation. I hope you enjoyed your ORVW on the rocks, John, as much as I enjoyed your latest issue full of bourbon articles. Cheers!

  16. Gregg says:

    Glad to hear I am not the only one. I even usr the time of day or the items on the menu to help me pick a glass, or whether to use ice. I find that in the summer, by the pool, a snifter, with ice, and even a fruitier dram is often nice, especially earlier in the day. A heavier Islay, or a good bourbon towards the evening with a steak. That’s what makes it fun. I look at my selection and try to fit the situation. I love the variety. I guess I’m not a drink the same dram, from the same glass, the same way everytime kind of guy.

  17. Daniel Landress says:

    I enjoy my drinks. A beer drinker naturally, I found myself with a bottle of Maker’s Mark and no clue how to drink it properly. This would be my first experience with whiskey. I loved it! …now I find myself wanting to try a better bottle of whiskey. Are there any recommendations? I would probably spend up to $60/ bottle this first go ’round.

  18. Edward Willey says:

    Myf friends and I have been on the quest for the ideal scotch glass. We’ve found one that is CLOSE, but it doesn’t maximize ALL whiskies. The glass I’m talking about is the Eisch “Jeunesse”. It’ has a way of stripping the alcohol from the nose and concentrating the dark fruits and sweetness. It shows more of the complexity from a fine Islay. We love them. Now all of us have some of these glasses.

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