Whisky Advocate

To ice, or not to ice?

May 21st, 2009

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article raising the issue of adding ice to whisky.

I’ll be honest with you and let you know that I don’t at ice at all to any whisky (or whiskey), unless it is in a cocktail, such as a Manhattan. I feel that the cold temperature dumbs down the flavors.

However, I will tell you that when I’m out drinking with whisky company reps or even distillery employees, drinking whisky on the rocks is a regular occurrence. Especially before dinner, and it’s usually a blended whisky. They save their “sipping neat” whiskies for after dinner.

What’s your take on it?

46 Responses to “To ice, or not to ice?”

  1. Armin says:

    Until I went to a masterclass with Laphroaig’s Robert Hicks last year I was kind of following and advocating the “purist rule”: Only thing ever may be a drop or two of water.

    Then I heard him saying (can’t remember the exact words, but it was something along those lines), drink it whichever way you like, neat, with water, with ice, even mix it with coke. It’s _your_ drink, drink it whichever way _you_ like it.

    I think he’s got a point there. That doesn’t mean I’ve changed the way I’m drinking it, but if anyone asks me it’s what I’m passing on as well. It’s their preference, they can experiment if they want to. If that means they put ice in it, so be it.

  2. Hi John, I always urge restraint and flexibility. I agree that a good blend will hold up to a small ice cube or two, but I’m not averse to putting the same amount in a worthy single malt or vatted blend, including an Islay. Ideally, it would be spring or bottled water and not from the tap as the chlorine and varied mineral content can adversely affect the experience. I carry a little straw as a pipette to do the work.
    Unfortunately, Americans get caught up in a lot of the “myth” of whisky: “dark, old and neat” and it detracts from the fact that those congeners come alive with a touch of water and beautiful aromas are released as a result. If someone’s “knocking back” a cask strength Talisker for the buzz and not stopping for a while to appreciate the nose, palette and finish, it might as well be vodka from a crystal skull mixed with Coke.

  3. Tim F says:

    I agree that it is entirely down to people’s individual preference. If someone has paid their own coin for a bottle of whisky they can mix it with red wine if that’s how they like it. Whether anyone else approves or not shouldn’t matter. No-one should be made to feel bad about how they enjoy their whisky (or music or anything else IMHO).

    For serious whisky, personally I would only ever add a drop or two of water and only where I think necessary, not as a matter of course. For everyday whisky I think we shouldn’t get too precious about this sort of thing – that sort of attitude frightens people away from the category. There are enough rules in the world already, let’s not intimidate people who might really enjoy whisky once they get to know it.

    On a hot day, a mizuwari (whisky with a load of water and ice) is amazing. I enjoy them so much that I’ve been guilty of using better malts than I should for mizuwaris, but I find the style really lends itself to heavily-sherried or peaty whiskies. Naysayers should try this out once for themselves day before they come back here and crucify me :)

  4. Matthew says:

    I didn’t truly get into drinking whiskey straight until I stopped putting ice in it. You lose a lot of the flavor and distinctiveness of the drink, especially at most bars where they stuff the whole glass full of tiny ice cubes. That’s why I generally tell people to drink it neat, as they usually try it only because I am so into whiskey and they want to give it a shot. I don’t want to give myself (or my whiskey) a bad name! That said, if someone likes drinking whiskey on the rocks, more power to them, though I often feel like the only reason people do it is because they don’t actually like whiskey, much like people cover up vodka or rum with tons of sweeteners and juices. I’d be interested to hear from someone who genuinely loved whiskey and put ice in it every time.

  5. Josh says:

    I add a few ice cubes to blends and even fine single malts when I am drinking purely for pleasure or when I don’t have the time/luxury to taste and nose the whisky in great detail.

    I agree with the blogger above who said, “its your drink, take it how you like.” I don’t feel there’s any problem adding ice to your fermented grain beverages but too much certainly does numb palate and mask the more significant components.

  6. John Hansell says:

    Yes, I want to make one thing clear. If it is your drink, then you are entitled to drink it however you want. That’s how I feel about that.

  7. Lee says:

    I like to mix it up. Depends on my mood. Last night I had some VW “lot b” with ice and completely love that combo on a warm night.
    One of my friends goes off on a rant regarding this topic and how he does not want a dynamic drink. He explains how he doesn’t want it to change as the ice melts.
    Have you ever tried those soapstone cubes? It sounds unappetizing and not something I’d spring for but would try at least once.

  8. Finnegan says:

    Have to disagree with the ‘drink it however you want to’ line. What is the point of drinking Laphroaig with coke?
    If you want to drink whisky with coke, fine, but why not drink a cheap blend rather than completely obscure the flavour of a fine malt?

  9. As a barman, I was once asked by a lady if I would serve her a Scapa 14 yo on the rocks. “No, but I’ll pour a wee dram of the Scapa and give you a rocks glass full of ice.” She took the wee dram neat. Must have been to her liking; she came back for a second. Was she testing me in the beginning?

    I provide pitchers of water–well water that’s as pure as the bottled stuff–and an eye dropper. I tried straws but found they don’t offer as much control for folks who want to experiment with two drops, taste, two more drops, taste, etc. I typically don’t add water, and never ice, to my whisky (single malt or blended), but I encourage tasters to try a few drops to experience the change on the nose and the palate.

  10. Armin says:

    Finnegan,

    I don’t think that we have right (or a duty) to mandate how people drink _their_ whisky, something they spent _their_ money on.

    Some people spend tens of thousands of pounds on a fantastic sports car, only to park it in a garage/museum or slowly drive it around on a sunny day. Simply because that’s what they like and what to do with it. Others think the only right thing to do with it would be to race it on a road. What a waste to park such a high performing car and not drive it fast, experiencing the thrill of the speed!

    Who’s right?

  11. The key, Armin, is “nobody’s wrong.”

  12. Kevin says:

    I pretty much enjoy whiskey every which way… when I’m doing tastings with my friends or having an after dinner drink it’s either straight or with a few drops of water. But on a hot summer day, there is nothing like filling up a rocks glass with ice and pouring Buffalo Trace until the glass is full then sitting back and sipping. It does take a way some of the flavor, but at the same time it allows me to enjoy whiskey in 100 degree weather… which is pretty hard for me to do otherwise.

  13. Chris says:

    If *you* paid for the whisky, go ahead and put ice, water, coke, or whatever else you wish into your single malt.

    If *I* paid for the whisky and you try to put anything in the booze other than more whisky I will slap your face. :D

  14. Thomas Widter says:

    I think it really depends on the whisky. Today I had some Armore Trad. Cask (no water, but I made sure I had enough saliva in my mouth to get all the aromas). I did put an ice cube into my 4cl of Arbeg 10 (L7) and waited until it had melted. When this Ardbeg turns hazy, you know it is there, perfect for drinking. So it depends. The White & Mackay blend and the Black Bottle (no age) I enjoyed this afternoon, I preferred neat. I find blends to loose a lot when consumed with water or ice.

    That said, I think putting coke into your poor dram is close to a deadly sin.

  15. Whisky Party says:

    I agree with Tim F and other commenters that:

    1. People should be allowed to drink their whisky as they like and in peace.
    2. Serving blends on the rocks is not a big deal – and shouldn’t be even for purists – especially if it helps ease new whisky drinkers into the world of scotch. We should always be looking to expand the audience – eventually some of them will move into single malts and realize the pleasure of a dram served neat.

    All that said, the “solutions” proposed by Macallan and Bruichladdich seem unnecessary and excessive. Have you all seen the Macallan ice ball? It looks ridiculous, takes forever to work and will likely only be purchased as a novelty item by serious whisky bars. That’s not expanding the audience or enhancing the experience of non-purists.

    Bruichladdich’s solution is somewhat less ridiculous. It’s an interesting idea to produce a scotch specifically designed to withstand the effects of ice. But again, there are so many different expressions of Bruichladdich – which itself is an uncommon dram to find in a bar – that I don’t see how this is more than another novelty for those who are already serious scotch drinkers.

    We blogged this earlier this week and had a good discussion over at my blog. More there:

    http://whiskyparty.net/?p=205

  16. MrTH says:

    Agree that it’s your whisky, and you can drink it as you please. Personally, I think cold watery whisky is just awful. Can it be refreshing on a hot day? I suppose, but it strikes me as being like the dog who walks on two feet–it’s not that he does it well, but that he does it at all. If I want something cool and refreshing, a thousand other things spring to mind first.

  17. Sam S. says:

    I typically do what you posted.
    If I want a whisky before dinner, I’ll usually take a young one with a cube or two, but after dinner, it’s older and neat.

  18. Red_Arremer says:

    When I see someone pouring good scotch into a situation where it won’t be fully appreciated, such as a rocks glass full of ice, or a cup of coke, I just want to freeze time, walk up to the person, pry the bottle of scotch out of their hand and replace it with a bottle of something cheaper and less special. Luckily for all you ice-using folks I haven’t yet figured how to do that…

  19. Thomas Widter says:

    Hey Red_Arremer, don’t you think that coke is way worse than (even a full glass of) ice? I can’t even imagine drinking that, much less enjoy it.

  20. bgulien says:

    On a hot day in summer I have been known to put some ice in my whisky.
    Usually it is a Bourbon a Jim Beam or similar, but a Black Bottle is also perfect.
    I won’t put my precious bottles to the ice, so yes I will use ice as a refresher, but not on the serious whiskies.

  21. Joe M says:

    Whether to ice or not doesn’t seem like it should be a fraught issue. Why would it arrouse so much interest? Based on the all the responses, it’s clear that it matters to whisky drinkers a great deal.

    I think the reason this is an issue at all boils down to the peddling of authority in the area of Scotch Whisky knowledge. It creates environment where people feel a very strong desire to not looks foolish or stupid.

    Whisky IS complex requires some knowledge to fully appreciate. To an outsider, and to some insiders, expensive whisky represents sophistication and class. These external aspects of whisky create a strong desire in those who wish to enter the “whisky club” to do it “right” or risk looking jejune. When you want to do something right, naturally you look for an authortative figure to tell you what’s what. Unfortunately there are no shortage “authorities” like Richard Paterson or Kevin Erskine who will gladly tell you what “real” whisky drinkers do. Thankfully there are those, like John, who refuse to play that game. John will tell you what he likes, but will never tell you what you ought, or ought not, do with your whisky. And John, thank you for pointing out that many in the industry like their scotch on the rocks. Now that’s refreshing!

    To those who say you shouldn’t put great whisky in Coke, I’d like to point out that this same reasoning would argue against using really good quality meat in a soup because it’s all covered in broth and vegetables. Better ingredients make a better dish. This is as true for cocktails as it is for food.

  22. Neil Fusillo says:

    I don’t personally put ice in whisk(e)y. This isn’t to say if someone handed me a glass of fine whisky with ice in it, I would sneer at them and refuse to drink it. It’s just not my preference.

    I will add water to some malts, but never to a blend (why? I’ve no idea. Just seems weird to me).

    The Aberlour A’bunadh, for instance, needs water. Without it, all you get is hot alcohol. With water, it opens up to a world of spicy flavours that are amazing. I take a similar stance with most cask-strengths. My cask-strength Rosebank 13 does wonders with water added. It goes from leathery to floral.

    That said, I just never add ice. I like the feel of the whisky at room temperature. There’s no numbing from cold, and no taste-deadening from heat. There’s just pure flavour in liquid form.

  23. Louis says:

    When it comes to scotch, the only reaon to add ice is to make a mediocre blend palatable. Try Chivas Regal or Dewars 12 year olds straight up, and ideally in a proper glass, and it’s amazing what they have to offer.

    Boutrbon is a different story. If you ask bourbon people, it is only crazy people like us who don’t use ice. When my wife and I visited Kentucky in 2007, the tour guides at Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, and Buffalo Trace were unanimously in agreement that their product could only be properly enjoyed with ice.

    But they have a point. When I am eating out or at a catered affair, I am not interested in washing down a big meal with an ounce or so on scoth or bourbon. On the rocks, many bourbons that we all enjoy straight work just fine with food. I would include Buffalo Trace, Bakers, Bookers, Wild Turkey 101 & Russel’s Reserve, and even Eagle Rare 10, Blanton’s, and Elijah Craig 12 in this group.

    Slante.

    Louis

  24. Davin says:

    Great subject John. I was introduced to ‘Phroaig Soda in Tokyo just this year. It must be popular as the bartender knew exactly what my friend was asking for. It’s 1 part Laphroaig 10yo and 4 parts club soda. Meant to be refreshing and man, it was tasty too. I’ve also seen Coca Cola in a Johnny Walker Red can – 5% JWR added to 95% Coke. In the right climate, on the right beach, it’s pretty good too. I’m starting to let my palate do the thinking and not my preconceived notions and I find I’m enjoying whisky even more than before (if that’s possible!) Now a tall glass of ice cubes, filled to the top with Johnny Walker Black is perfect for B.S.ing on the deck. Get me into my malts though and I want my own glass (perfect dram) and a lot of concentrating time.

  25. Davin says:

    Yikes! I’m not suggesting others have preconceived notions, only that I now enjoy things I used to look down my nose at.

  26. John Hansell says:

    Thanks everyone for taking the time to contribute. Good discussion.

    There’s also the right time and place for everything. Will I ever drink a single malt on the rocks? I don’t plan on it, but it might happen. And I might even enjoy it.

    I will use my experience today as an example. I blogged about this subject before going out on a boat fishing off the New Jersey coast. It was spontaneouos. A new friend invited me. I didn’t even plan on drinking anything. But it was hot, and the day was long. I was really parched and craving a beer.

    The only beer on the boat was a cooler full of Corona–a very uninspiring beer at best. But, they were ice cold and my only alternative was bottled water. (Okay, so I had a bottle of water first. That didn’t do it for me.) I drank a Corona. It worked. Did I have another one? No.

  27. Chris says:

    I think it’s a shame that most people’s first experience with scotch is “on the rocks”. The first few sips are fine, but after that it turns watery and awful. Sadly, the vast majority of people do their best to not taste whiskey at all. They shoot it, chill it, mix it, anything to avoid the taste. And this, in turn, drives down the quality of whiskey on the market. Why produce something that tastes great if nobody is tasting it? So all you “on the rocks” moderates out there who say “drink it how you like” are in fact helping to drive down the quality of whiskey. So please, no ice. And tell your friends to do the same.

    Question: Is being strongly against ice right or left-wing?

  28. Tim D says:

    Never had it, never will.

    OK, I shouldn’t say never… but it’s not the way I was taught to enjoy a dram of whisky. Seems the warmer it gets, the more flavors/nuances I can pull out of it – when it’s cold, I just feel it “dulls” the whole experience.

    That said, I’m prone to more than a “sprinkle” of water in cask-strength offerings, because I just don’t enjoy the “burn” that much… Call me a sissy, but I’m more into the flavor than the “kick”

  29. Maltakias says:

    Blends?
    Do whatever you like.

    But how can you put ice on a nice smoky islay malt for example?

    I mean….can you sleep later at night after doing such a crime?

    Hahaha,i’m only joking of course,but that’s my personal preference in general.If i want to put ice in something,it’s either blended whisky or just not whisky.(Rum and Tequila lovers,you can hit me freely)

  30. Red_Arremer says:

    Thomas Widter, I really don’t care for coke so I guess I’m biased from the get-go. My father drinks it though so sometimes I have a cup with him.

    Joe M., very nice comment. Right on point. Pressure from unaccountable, celebrity whisky authorities exerts a massive influence on scotch drinkers. People who haven’t yet developed a strong relationship with scotch need something else to motivate them to pony up the cash. The idea that their being initiated into a world of serious class, luxury, and connoisseurship, replete with codes of conduct, authoritative voices, and specialized skills is just the thing.

    However, I’ve been drinking scotch for years and I have to say that many other things, which happen to cost way less, work much better over ice and in mixed drinks. A G&T with Plymouth Gin or a margaritta with Heradura Reposado and my own homemade mix both beat the heck out of iced whisky or whisky and coke IMHO.

  31. B.J. Reed says:

    Ice = Blends
    Single Malt = Neat

    At the Dundee Dell if someone asks for a single malt scotch on the rocks they politely say they will not do that but will provide a glass with the single malt – Neat without ice but will give them a glass of ice on the side – If they choose to use ice then its up to them but they ask that the customer try it without ice or with water before they use the ice.

  32. B.J. Reed says:

    One other comment – Bill Lumsden did say at Whiskfest that certain Glenmorangies are good with ice – Of course a gasp went up from the crowd :)

  33. Matt G. says:

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is the matter of “room temperature.” The folks in the UK usually suggest drinking their whisk(e)y and beer at room temperature. Here in the US, people scoff at drinking “warm” beer or whisky. Let’s remember that room temperature on Jura is a bit cooler than in Kentucky. Dropping the temperature a little on your dram shouldn’t be laughed at, especially in the heat of a Southern summer. Personally, I sometimes stir my whisky with an ice cube and then toss the ice cube out. This lowers the temp on a warm day and keeps the whisky from getting too much water. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to drink whisky that is 98 degrees fahrenheit.

  34. sam k says:

    To each his own. You like single malts on ice? Go for it. You like bourbon with soda AND ice? Enjoy! You like yours neat, at room temp? Be my guest.

    Nobody’s wrong here…everybody’s right! You all get a gold star!

    Enjoy your whiskey over the holiday weekend any way you like.

  35. Red_Arremer says:

    Right on sam k! I agree, BUT all drinkers of good single malts who plan to ice or mix should please disregard sam k’s comment. Instead mail your bottles of scotch to me ASAP via overnight ups and I will mail you a bottle of Old Forester in return.

  36. Josh_Bacarolle says:

    I think it goes without saying that people can enjoy whiskey however they see fit. But imagine if everyone in the whiskey world decided that they could only drink whiskeys on the rocks–it would be a lot more difficult to make meaningful distinctions and describe the amazing range of flavors that exists in the WOW (World Of Whiskey)

  37. Aye Willie says:

    With all this bogging when do you guys get the time to enjoy a wee dram.
    Remember whisky is for YOUR enjoyment.
    Jura 10yr is nice with ice, on warm hot days in Scotland. We should be so lucky

  38. sam k says:

    Bless you, Willie! And Red, when you get those bottles sent to you, give me a shout and Ill be happy to join you in drinking them neat! 100% agreement with you both.

    None of us would expect to drink a truly exceptional whisk(e)y on ice or in a cocktail, but for the average (or even above-average) dram, what the heck?

    I’m not a Jack Daniel’s fan, but whenever I hear someone order a Jack and Coke, it amazes me. The house bourbon at the bar would work equally as well when drenched in flavored sugar water, and would cost less, but I’m not going to argue with someone else’s personal preferences.

    Fine whiskey and freedom of choice…no wonder Al Quaeda hates us!

  39. I’m a little surprised that nobody has mentioned chilling whisky without ice. Several folks have told me they treat their single malts like a German Gasthaus serves a perfect Himbeergeist: they put them in the freezer!

    I prefer room temp, but I know, too, that the flavor changes when I hold a glass in my hand for an extended time to raise the whisky’s temp. Maybe the same type of change happens in the freezer. Never tried it, don’t plan to, but it’s a way to get that summer cooler without diluting your dram.

  40. […] at John Hansell’s Malt Advocate blog, discussion continues about the acceptability of serving scotch on the rocks. Lots of good […]

  41. Jon W says:

    My father always drank Glenlivet 12 on the rocks. So that’s how I drank it until after college when I worked in an office with some guys from England and Scotland. They would very politely drop hints that ice wasn’t the way to go. I eventually came around. Now I typically drink it neat, only occasionally adding some water. (even more occasionally, really only on extremely hot days, I’ll drop an ice cube in my glass for certain malts)

    But in the end I’m with the majority here that one should drink whisky the way they enjoy it. (although I also agree with the sentiment that if I pour someone a glass of one of my better whiskies, there will be no ice)

    Regarding whisky and Coke: I agree that using quality ingredients is necessary for a quality product. And I am sure there are items (sodas, juices, etc.) that one could mix with a fine whisky and have amazing results. I just don’t think Coke is one of them. If you make a soup with top of the line prime meat but use low quality, processed vegetables and spices, etc., I don’t think the soup will be very good.

    Chilling isn’t something I do regularly, but I’ve experimented a little and I think it works well with sweeter scotches. Glenlivet 18 and Balvenie Doublewood are two that come to mind. It definitely has an effect on the flavor and mouthfeel. It’s interesting to work your way through a glass as it warms to room temperature. I have been told at tasting that Johnny Walker recommends their Gold Label be served chilled.

  42. Todd says:

    I very rarely drink whisky on ice but several summers ago on a very hot day, I tossed a couple of big cubes of freshly made ice in a tumbler and added a generous pour of Ardbeg 1977 OB. I sat down to watch the sun set and the drink was exquisite. The ice brought out different flavors in the Ardbeg that I had never experienced. Not something I’d do everyday, but I have no regrets about this thoroughly enjoyable drink.

  43. Monique at the Dell says:

    Great comments so far, this is something that we go back and forth about all the time. I agree with the fact that when you buy your own bottle, or dram, you should be able to enjoy it however you like. Maybe just not a single malt on the rocks (in front of me!).

    Most have never even tried a single malt the way it was essentially intended– neat. The chill of the ice and the addition of a random amount of water serve to dumb down the flavor. You wouldn’t go to a five star restaurant the cover your entree in salt and pepper? Or would you?

    Keep trying them until you find one that you like, maybe with still water to dilute the alcohol. Maybe add the ice when I turn my back.

  44. Gary says:

    When I first started drinking whiskey I always put ice in the glass. Then as I came to really enjoy the flavor of different whisk(e)y’s I started drinking it neat or with a splash of room temp water. I find I prefer it that way and don’t think I will be going back to the cold.

  45. Greg says:

    I drink my whiskey neat….always have. Higher proof may call for a little water but that’s it. I’m thinking I may have to expand my horizons and try a cube or two.

  46. Bill says:

    I drink single malt both ways, depending on the malt & my mood. I always nose and taste a new bottle neat or with chilled water in a Glencairn glass. Likewise, I always try it with a few ice cubes, even an expensive malt. I agree that, for the most part, ice deadens ones sense of taste but in certain malts it adds something that water does not. For instance, when I add ice to Glenfarclas 105 the sweet butterscotch gives way to a lovely cereal maltiness that I enjoy. I should add that when I drink on the rocks I do so in a curved, rather than a straight walled tumbler, from a Glenmorangie gift set. I am a big believer in the importance of vessel shape.

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