Is whisky best served neat? The short answer from many dedicated whisky aficionados would be an emphatic “Yes!”
Some may even look at you funny if you suggest that you are going to drop in a cube or two of ice, add in a splash of water or soda or create a mixed cocktail like a whisky sour.
As with most stories, though, there are two sides. Let’s examine the pros and cons.
Reasons to drink whisky neat
The main reason to drink whisky neat may be to preserve all the glorious flavours that the craftsmen from your favourite distillery worked so hard to instil into the golden amber liquid you are sipping. Easy example – let’s say you love the smoky taste of Lagavulin 16 Old, an exquisite product from the Lagavulin Distillery on the Scottish island of Islay. It’s been aged for 16+ years in Oakwood barrels to produce exactly the peaty, sweet taste that will sit on your tongue and infuse the back of your throat. Why do you want to dilute it with water or ice? Soda would absolutely murder the taste. Neither is it a mixing whisky.
Single malt whisky vs. blended – The taste factor
So herein lies the crux of the matter – people who drink better quality, distinctively flavoured and well-aged (over 12 years) Single Malt Whisky or Bourbon will typically prefer to drink it neat. They have shelled out a considerable amount of money, most quality single malt Scotches are over $60/£50 for a standard 750 ml bottle. They are probably not casually drinking at a party to get shellacked, they have definite preferences about the nuances of taste, texture and overtones. You will find such drinkers sipping – rather than slamming down – their room-temperature drinks in a relatively quiet corner. It’s almost a declaration of lifestyle.
Dedicated Scotch Whisky drinkers will tell you that even a drop of water (and yes, putting in ice cubes will not only lower the temperature of the drink, it will also release water into the mix) indelibly alters the taste and texture of the drink. Diluted whisky may still be great, but it is a different taste than the original. The flavours associated with the original whisky will change as ingredients within react with the water. However, there are others who say a few drops of water may actually enhance your experience.
Flavour in whisky is produced by certain aromatic compounds mixed in with the ethanol. One of those compounds, guaiacol, is what produces the smoky, spicy, peaty flavour of many single malt scotches. Some scientists have published research that shows when whisky is diluted, the guaiacol is freed up and floats to the surface – presumably enhancing the flavour and aroma from the drinker’s perspective.
People who prefer cheaper brands of whisky, including light in flavour single malts such as Glenfiddich 10 or 12, ryes or sour mash may like to use plenty of ice, water, soda or other mixers. Same goes for those who prefer blended scotches such as Dewars or Johnny Walker (Red Label or Black Label). Their preference may well be driven by the fact that many blended scotches are not ideal for sipping – the tastes are not nuanced and often harsh.
Drinking in Moderation
While this is not necessarily tied to whether or not you drink your whisky neat because you crave the precise nuances that the original composition of the drink allows you to savour, it is often the case that many social drinkers who prefer to have their whisky neat may be spotted with a lowball glass holding the standard two ounces of liquid. They may also be drinking slowly and end up with a more moderate amount of alcohol consumed over the course of an evening than those who are drinking rapidly, having dulled the sharpness of their whisky with soda and ice or even added in mixers such as sodas or sour mixes. This will result in both short and long-term benefits for the “sippers” – less chance of driving drunk or throwing up, and less chance of contracting serious diseases such as cirrhosis in the long term.
The optimistic interpretation above is of course totally different in the case of someone with alcohol addiction – as we discuss in the next section.
Health Benefits from whisky neat (in moderation)
Several researchers have published findings showing moderate drinkers drinking whisky neat may expect some health benefits. In particular, the European Heart Journal and European Journal of Clinical Nutrition have found that aged single-malt whisky has high levels of health-protecting antioxidants compared to wine and newly-distilled spirits – as such, they reduce the risk of heart disease in people who drink a maximum of seven small glasses of whiskey a week.
Another benefit occurs because ageing Scotch Whiskies helps them accumulate high levels of ellagic acid, an antioxidant that helps neutralise cells that cause cancer in the human body.
Finally, sipping on a couple of glasses of high-quality whisky after a long day can help reduce stress and improve your circulation, likely reducing the chances of blood clots and an ischaemic stroke.
High-quality whisky will have lesser impurities than newly distilled, cheap varieties. When you drink them neat, you are avoiding mixtures such as sodas or other sugary concoctions. That helps reduce your caloric and sugar intakes, helping to minimize the associated risks.
Drinking whisky neat may cause harm
While taste, fashion and some health benefits from drinking whisky neat are great to mull over, please be aware of multiple scenarios where drinking neat can cause severe problems.
Not drinking in moderation
A crucial thing to realize is that when you drink neat, all you’re putting into your body is undiluted alcohol. When you drink strong whisky, you must pace yourself. If you try to keep up with friends who are slamming mixed or diluted drinks, you will end up consuming significantly more alcohol by volume for the same number of drinks (or the same period of drinking). This can lead to many problems.
If you drink too much, not only will you be legally drunk, maybe nauseous and unable to drive, your body moves closer and closer to serious harm through alcohol poisoning. Diluting your drink could mean that you take much less whisky in a standard size drink, or you make a tall drink out of the same amount of whisky – either way, less alcohol is entering your body.
Driving under the influence
Chances of getting drunk enough to blow over the legal limit on a breathalyzer test is a real possibility if you have been drinking neat whisky at a rapid pace all evening. Your system takes longer to process undiluted alcohol, so when you compound the error by consuming more of it over the course of the evening – you have a recipe for disaster.
Acidity and other discomforts
Many whisky drinkers find that they cannot tolerate certain brands of even high-end single-malt whisky as they grow older. They suffer from acid reflux and other physical problems which may be alleviated when they dilute their drinks.
Enhancing other illnesses or interfering with medication
Medical conditions such as liver disease, cancer and depression can be exacerbated through drinking whisky neat on a regular basis. Plus, alcohol interferes with or produces adverse effects when used with many types of medications, including beta-blockers, anticoagulants, sleeping pills, antidepressants and diabetes medication. Sipping whisky stylishly may need to be avoided or completely shunned under advice from your doctor in such cases.
Prolonged drinking in high volumes may result from drinking whisky neat (think of the term “straight from the bottle”), which may lead to you developing an addiction that could, in turn, lead to impairments that affect all fronts in life.
Cirrhosis of liver
Drinking whisky neat in high quantities over a prolonged period of time puts immense pressure on your liver. In the long term, liver scarring – known as cirrhosis – may develop. This is an extremely serious health condition that can lead to debilitation and even death.
Drinking whisky neat could be more than a statement of style or taste, it can lead to some benefits that are tangible. However, most of those benefits only accrue if you drink in moderation. If you keep up a quick pace of replenishing your drink throughout an evening, you are much more likely to end up with a significantly larger amount of alcohol in your system than someone else who is mixing their drinks. That will not only kill the possible benefits from drinking neat whisky, but it is also liable to cause you short and long-term harm that should be avoided at all costs.
Key lesson here – know your limits!