Friday, April 2, 2010

The Truth About Water and Ice.

The other day, I wrote about two of the most persistent controversies in the world of whiskey: the whiskey/whisky spelling issue and the "Jack Daniel's isn't bourbon, or is it?" issue. They are similar in that there is much less to both than many people think, and they are both information usually obtained very early in a whiskey drinker's education.

Here's another one. Whiskey is only to be drunk neat; no ice, no water, no soda. Whiskey in a glass, period. Room temperature water is tolerated, but just barely; a drop or two to open up the spirit.

The reality is a little different. If you prefer your whiskey neat then by all means drink it that way. I prefer my whiskey neat. If I am enjoying an alcoholic beverage, at least nine times out of ten it will be whiskey in a glass, period.

But that's not everybody.

The reason ice and cold water are frowned upon is that the lower temperature of the beverage makes your taste and smell receptors less receptive. You can still taste the whiskey, of course, but you can taste less of it, fewer of the subtleties. You don't always have to be tasting, sometimes you can just be drinking, but tasting is more rewarding if the drink is at room temperature.

It is not disrespectful of the whiskey, it is not blasphemy, it is not a waste of good whiskey, it is one thing and one thing only. If your purpose is to taste everything that's in your glass, cold is counter to that purpose. That's what you need to know.

So if you're tasting, stay at room temperature. If you're drinking, do whatever you like. If someone looks askance at it, remember they are the ignorant ones.

As for diluting the whiskey by more than a drop or two, that's okay too, even for serious tasting. Some people find alcohol overpowering, even at forty percent. If you want to, you can cut the spirit by as much as 1:1 and still taste it thoroughly.

Don't go directly to 1:1. Start with a little and add a little more. A good technique is to begin with equal measures of water and whiskey. That way you can't add too much.

The water should be as neutral as possible, though distilled water is unnecessary, and at room temperature, of course.

Again, if you're tasting, keep the water at room temperature. If you're drinking, do whatever you like. Whiskey diluted even four or five parts to one with cold water can be a refreshing drink with meals or in hot weather.

The idea that fine whiskey should never be used in cocktails is absurd as well. Again, that's not the way to study the whiskey's complexity, but every chef will tell you that great dishes require great ingredients. There is, however, a common sense dimension to this. Top shelf whiskey should only be used in drinks where the whiskey is the star, where it is allowed to shine. That's true of all fine spirits, not just whiskey. If the base spirit isn't going to be the star in the drink, use vodka. That's what it's for.

Whiskey exists to be enjoyed. Careful tasting is one way to enjoy it, in a cocktail at a party when other matters have most of your attention is another way. People who tell you that's wrong are themselves wrong and you can tell them I said so.

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