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How to Drink Bourbon: Neat vs On the Rocks

How to Drink Bourbon: Neat vs On the Rocks

Whether you’ve been enjoying two fingers of bourbon occasionally for the past several years, or if you have just recently acquired a taste for this delicious distilled spirit, please read on to learn some interesting facts and get some good tips about bourbon and how get the most out of your drinking experience.

Whiskey is one of your bar’s most popular spirits. In fact, you should probably have at least three whiskeys on hand: a bourbon whiskey, a scotch whisky, and another variety (such as Irish whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, or rye).

There’s No Wrong Way to Enjoy Bourbon

To truly enjoy the flavor of bourbon and really appreciate its most subtle qualities, you need some basic information about how to order and drink this hugely popular alcoholic beverage.

Because of the large number of bourbon brands on liquor store shelves and in bars today, it can be a daunting task to choose a bourbon to try for your first time. Don’t be intimidated! Today, you’re going to learn some tips on how to pick your poison and how to drink it.

But what’s the best way to enjoy this quintessential spirit? To some extent, this depends on your personal preference, but there are four ways that people typically drink whiskey: chilled, on the rocks, neat, or with a few drops of water.

Different Ways to Drink Whiskey

  • Neat: Neat means serving room temperature whiskey in a rocks glass (also know as a lowball glass) or glencairn glass with no ice or anything else added. Avoid choosing shot glass here as we are not taking a shot of whiskey. This is also know as drinking whiskey ‘straight up’. (A neat drink happens to be my personal preference.)
  • With Water: Simply add cold or room temperature water to the whiskey. Many experts say that adding a few drops of water to a distilled spirit will reveal and enhance its flavors.
  • On the rocks: Ice cubes are added to the whiskey (not too much as this will dilute the liquor and alter its taste)
  • In a cocktail: Bourbon cocktails are varied and you can experiment with many ingredients such as including ginger ale, lemon juice, club soda, other distilled spirits, and even juices or sour mix (for a whiskey sour or mint for a mint julep, perhaps).

Don’t Chill Your Whiskey

With some spirits, such as vodka, it’s a good idea to chill them. Vodka benefits from subduing its native harshness and enriching its texture, which is why chilled vodka is so popular. But with whiskey, the primary effect of chilling is to kill the flavor and aroma.

Whiskey gets much of its different flavors (and its color) from the presence of aromatic compounds. The mobility of these compounds is highly dependent on temperature. When you chill the whiskey, you lock these compounds inside so you can’t smell or taste them.

This might be the best way to drink whiskey, if you don’t really like it. But if this is the only way you like whiskey, maybe you should try other spirits that might be more rewarding to your palate. The best spirit for you is out there: you just have to try something different.

Whiskey on the Rocks

Whiskey on the rocks has a nice sound. It seems like the perfect order at the bar. There are some benefits to drinking your whiskey on the rocks, but also some drawbacks. The drawbacks are those we mentioned above with respect to chilling whiskey: you demobilize the aromatic flavors.

The benefits are those associated with adding water to whiskey, which mobilizes the subtle intricacies of the aromas (more on this later).

With the combination of temperature changes and dilution, you may end up with a distinct flavor profile that can mellow some of the harshness while still bringing out the true flavors of the whiskey.

For some people, this is the best way to enjoy whiskey, allowing them to explore more and stronger flavors of whiskey than they might otherwise be able to appreciate.

Neat Whiskey

Whiskey neat is an easy order. You’ll just get a small glass of whiskey. There’s something to be said for taking whiskey in its native state. Drinking straight bourbon is best for people who can handle the harshness and can enjoy whiskey this way.

If you aren’t really trying to get the maximum flavor profiles from your whiskey, then drinking it neat is a great way to enjoy it. Especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to look like he’s making a hassle over his drink, then taking your whiskey neat is probably right for you.

Whiskey and Water: Science Approved!

Supposedly, science has recently revealed that the best way to drink whiskey is with a few drops of water. The basis for this is those aromatic compounds we told you about before. Adding a splash of water helps to mobilize these. To understand why, we have to get a little technical.

Water is what is called a polar molecule: it has one side that’s positive and another side that’s negative. It’s made up of two hydrogens and one oxygen (H2O), and the molecule makes a shape like a carat: ^. The oxygen is the point, and it’s negative. The hydrogens are at the ends, and they’re positive.

Alcohol—ethanol–is kind of a polar molecule: it has a hydroxyl group (HO) at one end, and this works enough like water that the two can mix well. But the other side is like an oil, it doesn’t like to mix with water.

What this part of the molecule does like to mix with is aromatic compounds, which are also a little oily. So when you’ve got a lot of alcohol in the presence of these aromatic compounds, the alcohol forms little cells around the aromatic compounds, separating them from the water and trapping them inside.

Adding a little water causes these cells to break up, releasing the aromatic compounds. They’re freer to evaporate so they can reach your nostrils or be free to encounter your taste buds, enhancing the flavor of the whiskey.

Find Your Best Way to Drink Whiskey

In the end, the best way to drink whiskey is the way that you enjoy it most. (Even chilled whiskey is fine. We just think that if you’re drinking chilled whiskey, you might be missing out on the spirit that’s really going to please your palate.) You might even drink different whiskeys different ways.

You might like your scotch on the rocks with a single large ice cube, your bourbon neat, and your rye whiskey with a little water, for example.

If you cannot decide how to order your first bourbon, consider this: Bourbon lovers insist that the only way to truly enjoy bourbon is to drink it neat. When water is added to bourbon, it dilutes the recipe that was so carefully crafted for the distillation process, but here’s something else to consider.

What Happens When You Drink Whiskey Neat

When you drink a whiskey neat, you will feel your taste buds reacting as the bourbon hits your tongue, and what is happening is that the alcohol in the bourbon is anesthetizing your taste buds. If you continue to drink the whiskey neat, you’ll eventually lose the ability to truly taste it because your tongue will be numb. 

On the other hand, because ice is made from water, and most tap water contains large amounts of chlorine, the taste of your drink will be altered as the ice melts. A true whiskey connoisseur will insist that this spirit must be consumed with no ice, water, or other ingredients added. The debate rages on!

Final Thoughts

Why not try bourbon all four ways and see which one you enjoy the most? That’s the best (and in my opinion the most fun) way of truly finding out what you like, Also, don’t ever hesitate to ask your experienced mixologist or bartender for bourbon-drinking suggestions. There may be a creative drink on the menu, or he/she may be able to make some recommendations based what your preferred taste is.

By explaining what flavor you’re looking for, your bartender will be able to offer up some suggestions of what brand of bourbon to try and how to drink it (neat, on the rocks, with water, or in a mixed drink.

The important thing is to understand how the different drinking methods can affect the flavor of whiskey and how trying one or another can maximize your enjoyment of different whiskeys. If you think you don’t like whiskey, try it a different way, and you’ll be surprised at how much you might love it.

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A. Patterson

Monday 8th of January 2024

Thanks for the info, I just found this article on my co/favorite spirit to enjoy while I'm not exactly a connoisseur of Any sort of distilled spirit. I do have a little bit of a preference for a good quality bourbon and brandy of course not mixed but I like them both.

John Shivers

Friday 31st of March 2023

I used to keep a bottle of Whiskey in my freezer. But , I started to notice the flavors change as it warmed up to room temperature. So, now it's neat, or, with a few drops of water.