Like the debate raged over James Bond's request for a martini "shaken, not stirred', whiskey drinkers find themselves with a conundrum - neat, rocks, or splash of water? What's the real difference and can budding whiskey connoisseurs determine which is "best"? The answer, like whiskey itself, is an individual taste, but let's take a quick look at the different ways you can enjoy your beverages.
Neat, Straight, Straight Up
The standard way of enjoying Scotch and Irish whiskeys, neat simply means that you're requesting the whiskey in a glass by itself. By drinking a whiskey neat you are experiencing the most direct flavor experience with the spirit. Most connoisseurs (and snobs) would say that neat is the only way to enjoy a good Scotch or whiskey. Au contraire, mon frere.
On the Rocks
When ordering whiskey on the rocks, be prepared to put up with a bit of guff from your mates in the bar or pub. Again, since most connoisseurs (or wannabes) tend to think that neat is the only way to drink it, they also tend to look down on those who like ice in their beverages. The general problem claimed is that the ice melts and upsets the balance of water and spirit in the glass, watering down the drink and diluting the flavor. This is so much the case, that the Japanese have invented an ice ball maker (shown in slideshow). Ice balls melt slower than ice cubes and should, in theory, cool your drink while not watering it down. But there's a third way (and this reviewer's personal favorite now)...
Splash of Water
Adding a splash of water to your whiskey can do much to bring out the full flavor of a spirit and adds distinctly to the nose of your whiskey. I have seen several distiller websites (Stranahan's and Redbreast's, in particular) that actually recommending enjoying their spirit with a little water. The splash does thin the spirit a little, but it also brings out the aroma a lot more. Another benefit is that it can also reduce the numbing sensation on your tongue, allowing you to experience more of the subtle flavors. When ordering at a bar you can either get the bartender to put the water in for you or you can get water on the side and do it yourself. Of course, the main complaint with this approach from others is that it waters down the whiskey and changes the experience.
There is, of course, another way to enjoy whiskey and that is mixed in a cocktail. This is the most popular form for enjoying rye whiskeys, Tennessee whiskeys (like Jack Daniels), and even bourbons (like Jim Beam and Wild Turkey).
Drinking whiskey should be an enjoyable experience, whether on the rocks, neat, with a splash of water, or even mixed in with a cocktail. If you pay for it, you should be able to decide how best to enjoy it. I strongly recommend trying all of these with your favorite spirits to see which works best for which ones. Generally when trying a new whiskey I'll try it with a splash of water to get a feel for the texture and flavor before trying it neat or on the rocks.
As always, feel free to pass along your hints and tricks for great tastings in the comments section below.
For more information about the Ice Ball Maker, please check out Japan Trends' website.