How to drink whisky
Learn how to drink whisky and different ways to enjoy this complex spirit. Try traditional serves or cool whisky cocktails and read our advice on buying the best bottles.
There are as many different whisky styles as there are drinkers – there is a whisky to suit every palate and budget. It might seem like an intimidating drink with plenty of history and rigmarole, but fundamentally, it's about enjoying your dram to its fullest.
Whisky has shed its' fusty image of dust-covered bottles and intimidating descriptions, along with that goes the 'correct' way to drink it. There are no set rules, however if you want to get more from your glass, try our tasting tips below.
Read our review of the 9 best whiskies to buy as gifts for the best bottles on the market.
How should you drink whisky?
There is no set way to drink whisky, it should be enjoyed however you like it best. Purists will say that it should always be drunk neat, without ice or mixers. However, adding a couple of drops of water can make it smoother and easier to drink, and enhances the flavour of some bottles. Sample the whisky on its own, try it with a splash of water and see what you discover.
There's no need for a smoking jacket and an extensive collection of bottles, just your favourite bottle and a glass. Drinking whisky isn't a competition to see who can name the most obscure flavours they detect, it's for you to enjoy.
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Some whiskies are better suited to cocktail mixing and some drams are bold enough to be enjoyed on their own, read the description for hints and tips on how best to enjoy your drink.
Should you add water or ice to whisky?
Try both with and without water. Adding a few drops of water to a whisky will bring out different flavours, especially with higher ABV spirits.
Ice tempers the intensity of the whisky and will gradually dilute it, so if you're at the beginning of your whisky adventure, this is a nice way to start. As the ice melts the flavour of the whisky will change as well.
If you want to chill your drink without diluting the flavour, try using whisky stones. The more whiskies you taste, the most your vocabulary will expand and with it your ability to describe every delicious aspect of your drink.
For an in-depth examination of geographical influences of the spirit, check out our guide whisky or whiskey: what's the difference? Ready to get to the tasting? Grab your whisky glass and pour yourself a measure of marvellous malt.
How to taste whisky
Start with the basics, what does it look like in the glass? If you can, look at the whisky with a plain white background as this will reveal the colours clearly.
Is it a deep golden colour or as light as a white wine? This could potentially give you an indication of the age of it, generally older whiskies will have a deeper colour absorbed from the barrels they were aged in. This might also indicate if any artificial colours have been used, e.g. if a whisky is 3 years old but has a dark russet colour, some additives might have been used.
Give your whisky a sniff before tasting. Our top tasting tip? Keep your mouth slightly open when you breathe in, you might feel a bit daft but you'll get a better idea of the aroma by opening up your palate. Don't breathe in too deeply too close to the glass, all you'll get is alcohol burn and a sore nose. Younger whiskies tend to have a punchier alcohol smell, and watch out before you take a lungful of higher ABVs and cask-strength whiskies.
You might have a bottle with tasting notes, these can be useful, but give your own description a go first before reading. If you're not getting notes of burned rubber and rice pudding as described on the bottle, don't worry. You might get a general profile, e.g. if it's a peaty whisky you'll pick up hints of smoke. Using a flavour wheel can be really helpful in helping you identify the different aromas.
Take a small sip, swirl it around your mouth before swallowing and consider what your tastebuds can pick up. It might be as broad as a whiff of floral notes, or as specific as chocolate digestive biscuits or a sherbet lemon sweet. It might take a couple of sips for your palate to adjust and detect different nuances. Some whiskies taste completely different to the way they smell, they might surprise you!
You might have heard the term 'mouthfeel' before, this refers, surprisingly, to the feel of the spirit in your mouth, separate from the taste. You might notice an oily, viscous consistency, it might be refreshing and light, or hot and drying. Everyone has different tastebuds and something strikingly obvious to you might not be to the person drinking next to you.
After your first taste, you might want to try adding a few drops of water to your whisky to further open up the flavours. Be sure to add the water slowly, drop by drop, to avoid drowning your drink. How much you add is entirely down to personal preference.
The lingering taste left on the palate once you've swallowed your mouthful of whisky is called the finish. You might notice the flavours changing or pick up tastes that weren't as obvious at first sip. The longer the flavours remain, the longer the finish. Generally speaking, the longer the finish, the more complex the whisky.
Every whisky has a beginning, middle and end, and each stage brings different flavours to the fore. Most important of all when tasting whisky is to take your time. It's a spirit to be sipped and savoured.
Whisky cocktails to try
Traditional whisky cocktails will use ingredients that bring out the characteristics of the whisky, e.g. ginger, orange and citrus flavours generally work well with this malty spirit. Let the spirit shine with a simple old fashioned cocktail, add a few dashes of herbal Angostura bitters, soda water and a slice of orange. Mix up a silky smooth whiskey sour with fresh lemon juice and the key ingredient, egg white. Experiment with a peppery rye whisky and try our sweet manhattan cocktail, simply stir and serve.
Check out our whisky cocktail recipes for more inventive serves, from twists on a classic whisky highball to a sensational sazerac.
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