September 2021

What’s the best way to drink scotch?

By Kirk Peterson and Marisa Finetti

Kirk: It’s a question that warrants an answer longer than you might imagine. Even if you’re not a big drinker, you’ve heard about single malts, single grains, blended grains, blended malts, blended whiskies. Each of these variations spend varying amounts of time in various types of barrels, the knowledge of which may help with purchasing decisions when faced with overwhelming choices. However, no matter which bottle(s) you buy, it’s much more difficult to find someone to offer you a little guidance as to how to best enjoy the scotch itself. 

Marisa: Right, so what is best?

Kirk: The “best” is extracting the maximum amount of pleasure for the least amount of effort.

Marisa: Like many things in life.

Kirk: So, let’s explore our options and devise a strategy. 

Marisa: So, we have neat, on the rocks, with water, in a cocktail … there are countless ways to drink whisky. Winston Churchill took his morning dram as a wee dash of scotch with ample water, opting for a stiff scotch and soda only on the more stressful days. Through the 1960s and 70s whisky was central to drinking culture in Japan, particularly among businessmen with disposable incomes, my own father amongst them. He and his ad agency colleagues would start with scotch and a touch of water. As the night went on in the Roppongi district bars the water was swapped for soda, a thirst-quenching Whisky Highball being just the thing to take them into the early mornings.

Kirk: But let’s begin at the beginning: just drink it neat. It’s the best place to start.

Marisa: It’s as pure as it gets.

Kirk: Going the purity route presents an opportunity to properly consider your scotch glass.

Marisa: Those tulip-shaped whisky-tasting glasses are wonderful and they feel so good in the hand.

Kirk: And they accentuate the more delicate and high-toned aromatics and can really make the fruity and floral aspects jump out of your whisky. A heavy-bottomed tumbler, weighty enough to be used as a weapon, feels right as well. It’s best with a little whisky and a lot of glass to give the scotch some room to open and capture the aromas. 

Regardless of glassware there’s no need to swirl vigorously. Doing so will make the alcohol aroma more prevalent than it should be. As you tilt the tumbler towards your face, explore the top of the glass versus the bottom – smell around the glass, you’ll notice a difference as to where certain aromas are more prominent. And most important: take a proper sip, roll it around in your mouth, hold it… then swallow. Tastes aren’t really tastes, they are smells, and you smell best with your mouth through a phenomenon called retronasal olfaction where the aromas in your mouth curl around your sinuses via the back of your throat. It’s awesome. Take advantage of it.

Marisa: How about on the rocks?  

Kirk: A little ice, a lot of ice, geometric slow-melting ice, cold things that aren’t ice… you have options.

Marisa: The important question is whether scotch is more enjoyable the colder it is?

Kirk: It isn’t.  Scotch is meant to be drunk at what is misleadingly called “room temperature” (around 55 degrees Fahrenheit) but there’s a good chance you’re drinking whisky in a warmer environment than that. The problem with ethyl alcohol being the most chemically volatile component in scotch is that volatility increases with temperature. Long story short: drink warm scotch in a warm place and it’s going to come across as hot, sharp, and boozy. With ice being cold it seems like a no-brainer… but scotch also sucks when it’s too cold. 

Marisa: But at least it reduces the searing “burn” of ethyl alcohol.

Kirk: However, adding ice is a shotgun solution that takes the good with the bad. Just like a whisky can “open up” it can also tighten up/shut down, meaning you lose more detail than it’s worth. You may as well just plug your nose and chug it.

Marisa: And not all ice is created equal. 

Kirk: Indeed, regular ice tends to melt too fast and water your scotch down while big, perfect spheres or cubes dilute slower but chill it down just as much.

Marisa: They’re very sexy, too.

Kirk: Whisky stones and other non-melting temperature-reduction solutions are gimmicks. If you need to chill down your scotch a bit, just throw your glasses in the refrigerator. Besides, temperature is only one side of the equation; the other is dilution. 

It may seem counter-intuitive at first but a bit of dilution with water tends to work wonders opening up whisky and making it all the more eloquent and detailed. The best way to drink scotch is in a proper glass, at a proper temperature, with water on the side. Since we don’t know what scotch you’re drinking, start slow and start with your scotch neat.  

Marisa: And if that doesn’t knock my socks off?  

Kirk: Then give that scotch a few drops of water, but only a few drops of water, at least at first. The woodier the scotch, the older the scotch, especially the higher ABV the scotch, the greater likelihood an undetermined amount of water will work wonders when it comes to spreading the whisky’s legs -  

Marisa: Umm, racy!

Kirk: - and bringing everything into focus making it exponentially more expressive. Whether you use a pipette, a straw, dribble it in with your (hopefully clean) fingers… just ensure that the water is cool and clean. You can only add and not take away, so treat it like salt to your food: taste first, then add. 

Now that you have the answer to the question I think it’s best to leave it behind.

Consider that humble blended scotch, when thrown into a decidedly common and un-proper glass, and subjugated to the indignities of ice and club soda, ends up being completely amazing. It’s the greatest drink ever, being resurrected like a Phoenix from the ashes from its pure essence! And quite inconveniently it breaks all the rules heretofore set forth. 

The truth is that the best way to drink scotch is the way you best enjoy it. 

Marisa: I’ll drink to that!

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