First, let me start off by saying that nobody should ever tell you how to drink your whisky. If you like mixing The Macallan 18 with Gatorade and drinking it from a mason jar, you go right ahead and do it (just don’t make me watch!). There are, however, a few words of wisdom spoken in whisk(e)y circles about the “right” way to do things. Here’s a brief guide for my fellow Noobs out there:
1. No Ice.
Ok, I just told you you can drink whisky however you like… but I can guarantee that if you add ice to your whisky, especially single-malt or anything costing more than $30 a bottle, you will be dulling the flavors that you paid so much to get. If you like the taste of whisky on ice, get some decent (cheap) blends like Johnnie Walker, Famous Grouse, etc, or some inexpensive Irish whiskey (Jameson or Powers, or Bourbon (Malt Advocate likes these two). Take my advice: learn to savor good single-malt scotch neat (“straight up”: no ice).
2. No Mixers.
Again, if you want to get the best out of your expensive bottles of whisky, drink them without mixers like soda water, cola, or fruit juice. There are plenty of fantastic cocktails (even some inventive ones using young peated malts to imbue smokiness in the drink) out there, but you’re better off using blends or inexpensive malts for this as well. The quality improvement in the cocktail from using expensive whisky is just not going to offset the massive increase in price. You won’t be able to taste the fine nuances of a single-malt, and so you’ll end up “wasting” the money you spent on that nice bottle.
Ok here’s the big controversy: Water in your scotch, or not? Nowadays just about everyone agrees that a little (emphasis on ‘little’) water helps a whisky (especially subtle or floral single malts) ‘open up’ in the glass. A chemical reaction occurs between the water and the tightly-wound chains of amino acids in the whisky. They literally unravel, releasing new flavor compounds and esters (volatile compounds that smell like flowers and fruits). How much water? I generally use a straw to pick up some water (you remember playing with fast-food straws as a kid, right?) and drop 4 or 5 drops into my glass. If you try to pour the water from a glass, you will put TOO MUCH in and simply dilute the whisky. It’s instructive to note that many bars in Scotland itself provide small pitchers of local water on the bar counters for patrons to use with their whisky. According to whisky lore, the best water to use is the same natural, pure spring water used in the production of the whisky itself (every distillery has its own natural water source). Unless you live near the distillery (or buy ridiculously-priced local spring waters sold by some distilleries), this is impractical. Your best bet is to use bottled natural spring water, or a mild bottled mineral water (taste it first, it should taste clean and clear and not like chemicals). If your tap water is drinkable and not especially hard or soft, or if you use a filtration pitcher, you can use this water in a pinch too. Lastly, this water should be ROOM TEMPERATURE or just slightly cool. Cold water will do the same injustice to the whisky that ice does, and dull its flavors.
How do I drink my whisky? It depends. If I’m tasting a whisky and writing notes, I always have it neat in a Glencairn glass, nose and taste it that way, and then add 3 or 4 drops of room-temperature water (using a straw) and re-nose and re-taste. If I’m just drinking a single-malt to enjoy it, I’ll add the water only if my first tasting revealed an improvement with water. If I’m drinking a blend or something mild and uncomplicated, I will generally use a rocks glass (tumbler), neat. This is also the way I prefer whisk(e)y in a bar.
I never use ice, and never more than 3 or 4 drops of water. I always cringe when I see Ralfy dunk several teaspoons of water into (some) drams, but to each his own! (And Ralfy certainly knows better than I do…)
My best advice is to experiment: try different glasses, different amounts of water, taste and smell before and after the addition of water. Figure out what method best allows YOU to enjoy your whisky. Whether it’s a cut-crystal Glencairn glass and a carefully-arranged ritual, or a brown paper bag and a bunch of friends, drinking whisky should be about fun and enjoyment. Do whatever maximizes both.