Whiskey comes in many different forms. Some have a higher proof, others have a lower one. Many popular brands are produced in Kentucky, others in Canada or Tennessee. Some whiskeys are even made with rye. With such varying possibilities, it is crucial to understand how best to enjoy whiskey for whiskey’s sake.
Instructor at Oregon Culinary Institute, Lance Mayhew, makes the argument that higher proof (ranging anywhere from the 100 proof mark or above) can “usually benefit from the addition of a splash of cool water or an ice cube or two.” The small amount of water added to the whiskey helps unlock a lot of the flavors that the high alcohol percentage tends to masks. Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey is a good example of such a whiskey. Without a touch of water, drinkers may miss some of the noticeable caramel, vanilla, and orange notes that reside within it’s taste. When using ice, however, Mayhew advices to let the whiskey melt the ice a little first because the coldness of the ice “tightens” up the whiskey before any individual flavors can become noticeable.
Anything ranging from 90 proof (45% ABV) and up can or cannot benefit from the addition of water or ice. This is left up to preference. Willet Single Barrel “Estate Reserve” is another Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey that can shine with a bit of water, or may not depending on the drinker’s preference. Since it is of lesser proof, water may not be needed to hide the alcohol burn and unveil flavors such as tangerine, toasted coconut, and brown sugar. The white oak which the whiskey ages in also gives off a nuance of vanilla. Let the palate be the judge.
All is fair and game for whiskeys with a proof of 80. The distillery has already cut a lot of that alcohol bite from the whiskey, so drinkers can have it straight or “neat” without worry about losing the it’s complex flavors. One popular 80 proof whiskey is Basil Hayden’s 8 Year Old Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey which demonstrates “aromas of spice, tea, and peppermint, while on the palate, spicy and peppery notes lead into a honeyed sweetness.”
It should be said that while mixers can be detrimental to the specific flavors of certain whiskeys, one can certainly use them to make a mean cocktail. Rye whiskey is needed specifically to make an authentic Manhattan. Sazerac 6 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey is a popular choice for such a cocktail due to its wonderful balance between spiciness and sweetness. However, being 90 proof, it can also be enjoyed neat or with a tinge of water to help exhibit the robust character of the rye.
Again, taste belongs to the palate of the taster. The golden rule is that the lower the proof and quality, the less likely anything will be lost from combining with mixers or using for shots. Some may get a kick out of a whiskey and ginger ale, others prefer it straight. Regardless of preference, muddling quality whiskeys with anything besides a little water or ice will in fact take away from the complex tastes and aromas emanating from a glass of whiskey.
How Do You Enjoy Your Whiskey?