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Should You Drink Scotch Whisky With Water or Ice / On The Rocks?

Updated on May 6, 2014
Be careful not to add to much water.
Be careful not to add to much water.

Basic rules of whisky drinking

One of the most hotly debated questions in the world of whisky is "Should you drink your whisky with water or ice?". Ultimately, the most important thing to remember when drinking whisky is to enjoy it whichever way you like. Mix it with milk if it really does it for you, just don’t invite me along! There are however some fundamental rules that most whisky lovers generally agree on.

Firstly, if you’re going to mix your whisky with coke, lemonade, milk or anything else really, please don’t waste your good whisky doing it. There is room for a whisky and coke every now and then or even in some cocktails, but by the time you’ve added a mixer you will have lost all the subtle, delicious flavours of a good single malt. So when you’re wife says she’d like to try a whisky and coke hand her the bells or famous grouse as she won’t be able to tell the difference anyway. You’re much better off using a blend and saving your money and single malts for another day.

Your other basic rule is not to add ice to your whisky. The coldness of the ice will numb your taste buds and reduce the sensations and delicious flavours that you will get from the whisky. Why would you spend $80 on a bottle of good Scotch whisky only to dull the flavours that you’re paying for? Again cheap blends are a much better option if you like to add ice to your drink. Try Bells or a cheap Irish whiskey like Jameson’s with ice, but keep your single malts either straight or with a dash of water.

Looks nice, but you won't taste a thing...
Looks nice, but you won't taste a thing...

Whisky with Water?

Which brings us to the real issue here; do you add water to your whisky? This issue divides nations and people from across Scotland and the globe. The general consensus is, in theory anyway, that a dash of water opens up the flavours by breaking up amino acids in the whisky and creating a chemical reaction that literally releases new compounds called esters which have flowery, fruity tastes and smells.

But how much should you add? I took a whisky tour and tasting at the Glengoyne distillery in Aberfoyle, Scotland and was informed that the master blenders generally dilute their whisky to about 75% water; this is so remove the taste of the alcohol so they are just getting the taste of the whisky. This is probably way too much for most of us and I personally hate nothing more than finding that you’ve added too much water to the whisky and are left with an overly diluted insipid drink. Your only option then is to add more whisky...

As part of the Glengoyne whisky tasting I tried a 21 year old cask strength whisky that was 60% alcohol; for whiskies this strong you generally need to add some water or you’ll burn the hairs of your chest! However, the guide added the water for me and added way too much, I couldn’t believe it. It ruined the drink for me, but that’s probably how he likes it.

How Do I Like My Whisky?

When I do drink my whisky with water i add just 3 drops. I think this is the perfect amount as it lets the flavours breathe but not dilute the taste. I have a pipette i use to add the water to ensure I can control how much I add. I find using a jug or glass to pour it in is just too unreliable and you can easily over pour and end up with the dreaded watery drink. Also it is important for the water to be room temperature, if it’s too cold it will dull the flavours like adding ice.

My general rule is to always try a whisky neat first and if I feel a little water will add to it, I’ll put a few drops in. Rarely more than 3 though. My personal preference is to drink it neat usually and use water for the really smoky, peaty whiskies like Laphroaig and Lagavulin as these have the most flavour to develop. Others might tell you to add water to the milder whiskies as it brings out the subtleties, but that’s just preference. I will usually add water to a cask strength whisky; I have a Laphroaig Quarter Cask which really benefits from a drop of water, but my Glengoyne 12 year old I actually prefer neat, that tastes great straight from the bottle though.

My advice is to experiment; I would try a whisky neat first, then add a few drops, then on your next dram add a few more and see what your level is. Always get your nose into the glass before tasting to enjoy the smell and whatever happens always enjoy your whisky and have fun doing it.

As always i'd be really interested to hear whether you drink your whisky with water so please leave a comment.

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