How to Drink Whiskey

June 23, 2021

Anyone beginning to dabble with an appreciation for whiskey comes to an inevitable crossroads. A mixture of panic and curiosity sets in. Wait — you may find yourself wondering — how am I actually supposed to drink whiskey? Is there a right way to do this? A wrong way? How can I best enjoy myself? We’re here to help, friends.

I always say there’s a time and a place for everything. The whiskey I drink, and how I drink it, is quite different if I’m looking for a nightcap or looking to get the night started; if I’m poolside during a warm day or fireside warming up after a cold one.

Choose Your Adventure

There are options to consider, of course. You can drink your whiskey:

-Neat, or straight up.
-With a splash of water.
-On the rocks.
-In an “and” mixed drink, such as a 7&7 or Jack & Coke.
-In a cocktail, such as a Manhattan, Old Fashioned or Boulevardier.
-Any combination therein, go wild!

This isn’t a trick question. There are not any incorrect answers here. This is a choose-your-own-adventure quest where every answer is valid. Think about it like ranked-choice voting: choose your favorite, and then your runner-up and so forth. You do you.

Tasting for a Full Sensory Experience

When you’re really aiming to appreciate the finer points of a whiskey, you can follow a straightforward exploratory process. It starts with your glass selection. Choosing a vessel with a narrowed mouth helps to focus the aromas for you. Ditch the rocks glass for now, then. Opt for something such as a Glencairn, which has become an industry staple, or any other tapered piece of glassware.

drink whiskey: glencairnA Glencairn

Raise the glass to a position just under your nose. Don’t slam your schnoz right in there; the alcohol will blow out any of the aromas you’re trying to pick up. As the bulk of flavor is truly aroma, you’ll want to take your time considering the spirit’s nose and what it has to offer.

Take a sniff, and then remove the glass. Think about your initial impressions and ponder life’s great philosophical mysteries. Perhaps raise your whiskey towards a light to gander at its color in the glass, and give it a quick swirl. The aeration will help open up the aromas, and you’ll get bonus points for looking fancy. You can also look for the trails, or legs, the spirit leaves on the side of the glass, a sign of its viscosity and potential mouthfeel.

Go ahead and take another sniff, this time helping yourself to a small sip as well. Hold the whiskey in your mouth for a moment, ensuring it passes over your tongue and comes into contact with the roof of your mouth and your cheeks. Evaluate the flavors you’re encountering right then and there, as well as the lingering flavors which remain after you’ve swallowed your taste. The finish of a spirit refers to these post-sip tastes, as well as how long they remain, and whether or not there was any harshness or heat.

Other considerations

After a couple of sips, you may want to add a few drops of water into the spirit. Lowering the proof of the whiskey will help bring its aromas to the forefront. This might be particularly important for cask strength whiskey, for instance.

drink whiskey: sipping whiskeySipping whiskey

If you’re trying to come up with descriptive tasting notes, and find yourself at a loss, ask yourself a few questions. Say you’re drinking a bourbon. Is it made with a wheated or rye mash bill? Are you getting the sweetness of the former or the spiciness of the latter? Then, when you find a flavor you know is in there, really hone in on it. It was fruity, sure, but were there berries or orchard fruits or tropical ones? If the latter, was that coconut you smelled in there?

By naturally going through such a progression you’ll begin to more readily call out specific notes. More importantly, you’ll recognize what you really enjoy about a specific whiskey, helping you to find more bottles you know you’ll love as well.

Just Have Fun

The above steps are for the times you want to evaluate a spirit. Maybe you’re keeping a tasting journal at home, or perhaps you’re trying to decide if you want to make a purchase. There’s no need to always be so serious or formal, though.

Remember, whiskey is about enjoyment. Drink it neat, drink it on the rocks or with a splash of water, make a cocktail. Do as you please. It’s about you, not about anybody else. Anyone who’s trying to box you into a corner by saying there’s only *one* way to drink whiskey, or that you *have* to do so in a certain matter, should mind their own business.

I drink whiskey professionally, judging at international competitions, and reviewing right here on Distiller. Guess what? When I’m at home relaxing, I’ll often pour myself an everyday sipper on the rocks. I’m not immune to the allures of the Jack & Coke at a bar, either.

So how are you supposed to drink your whiskey? However you dram well please.


Now that you’ve learned how to drink whiskey, it’s time to find some whiskey to drink!

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