- Neat (just the whiskey in a class)
- On the rocks (over ice)
- With water (Neat, with just a splash of water – sometimes served with an eyedropper)
The basic answer is that there is no right answer. Try them all and find the way that suits you. Since variety is the spice of life, I suggest you to try the approach of a combination of these methods, especially when trying a new whiskey for the first time.
As a guide to determine your approach, many enthusiasts suggest you first take a look at the ABV (alcohol by volume) or Proof of the new whiskey. This is also known as the cask strength or barrel proof. Whiskies with higher ABV or Proof (over 50% ABV or 100 Proof) will often benefit from a little addition of water. Sometimes the higher alcohol content may numb your tongue and muddle the subtle flavors. By adding the water, you lessen the burn or numbing effect of the alcohol. This can also be accomplished by adding an ice cube or two and allowing the whiskey to melt the ice a little. You will notice that the aromas and flavors change with the addition of water.
I suggest you become familiar with a new whiskey by trying each of these methods in succession. Start with neat. Breathe in the aromas, taste the whiskey. Add a little water then repeat. Let the flavors play over your tongue. Perhaps have your second on the rocks.
You may find that whiskies with lower cask strength (less than 40% ABV or 80 Proof) don’t need the water. Still, try it out. Play with trial and error, especially with new whiskies. A little water can sometimes make dramatic changes in the aromas and flavors. Some people report that a little water can allow the drinker to enjoy subtle nuances. In some whiskies you may find that the water makes the spirit taste watery. Play around and find out what works for you. Professional tasters/reviewers often add substantial amounts of water to allow them to detect every flavor.
When I am at a bar and drinking something like Jack Daniels, I prefer to drink it neat. But I will order a water bag (water on the side) so I have the option of adding water or just drinking the water to cleanse my palate. OK, let’s be honest, often I substitute beer for the water to “cleanse my palate.”
So let me repeat the rule: order your whiskey the way you like it. Enjoy it. But I encourage you to be courageous and try new things, new whiskies, and new methods of drinking your whiskies. This exploration can only result in a better, more fulfilling relationship with this wonderful spirit.
Experimentation is the key! I’ll say it again and again, quoting my son Tim at age four, “not everyone likes the same things.” Discover the varieties of flavors and aromas, identify the differences and similarities, and educate yourself on what is out there in the wonderful world of whiskey.