Neat, on the rocks and other whiskey dilemmas

whiskey glass

I blame John Wayne for America’s desire to waste good whiskey by slamming it down the gullet from a tiny glass or even straight from the bottle as proof of manliness. How many great cowboy movies or World War II flicks offer up images of heroic men hitting the hard stuff before running off to face a hail of bullets? Or maybe those old-timey bartenders should be held responsible. I mean, was there ever a scene when the Duke sauntered up the bar and ordered a whiskey only to be asked, “How do you want that?  Neat, rocks or a splash of water?”  Then again, I don’t recall the iconic tough guy ever taking a quiet moment to admire the floral notes wafting off of a glass of anything, either.

So if you’re one of those take-it-in-the-jaw tough guys, content to mix it up in biker bars, with zero inclination of actually enjoying the flavors of a fine aged whiskey then move along.  Nothing to see here.  If, however, you have secretly suspected that sipping surpasses slamming, allow me to bolster your confidence and remind you that real men aren’t afraid of tasting their whiskey.

Let’s say you’ve mistakenly entered a classy establishment (defined as one where prison tattoos are covered up, fights rarely break out and both men and women have groomed their facial hair).  At first, you might feel paranoid and out of place because everyone is staring at your rugged manliness, but have no fear.  It’s just like any other bar.  Well, it might be a little cleaner, but all the same rules apply.  Walk up the bar and order a whiskey.  Don’t order that bottom shelf crap either.  It’s for mixed drinks.

The bartender will ask you how you want it.  Don’t panic.  Keep it simple.  There are three options.  The first is “neat.”  If you must stay true to your leather-clad roots, you can say “straight.”  It’s the same thing.  Just remember to sip slowly and swallow slowly.  Too much like doing a shot, minus the usual convulsions?  Well, then wave over your friendly bartender and ask for a splash of bottled water.  Yes, the bottled part is important.  Avoid that six-in-one hose if you can and definitely don’t hit the tap behind the bar.  Have some respect for yourself.  Use the cleanest water available unless you absolutely love the taste of chlorine and various heavy metals.

Your first thought might be that we’ve just watered down a damn fine drink, and you’d be right.  We water it down to make it a damn finer drink.  There’s chemistry going on here – important chemistry.  In liquors with a high alcohol content, the ethanol tends to trap these little chemical chains called “esters” which are the compounds that give fruits and flowers their smells.  By adding water, the ethanol loses its grip and the esters escape into the air, sharing their wonderful aromas with our nose.  Think about honey and vanilla as well as those floral scents when you when take that slow sip.  Side note: experiment with the amount of water, from an eyedropper to a 50/50 water/whiskey mix.

The third option is “rocks.”  These are not the same rocks your friend Jimmy sells behind the biker bar.  And stop hanging around with Jimmy.  He’s trouble.  Anyway, whiskey on the rocks is kind of like adding a splash of water, but now we’re mixing thermodynamics into our chemistry.  The slow infusion of ice melting into water will still release those fabulous esters, but the changing temperature will hide other flavors produced by the phenols in the alcohol, such as wood and smokiness from the barrel or the peat moss in Scotch.  But taste is king so experiment here as well.  Some people like those earthy, smoky flavors.

Anyway, my point is that whiskey (or whisky if you’re partial to Scotland) is not drain-cleaner grade alcohol designed to disinfect your tongue and scorch the hairs of your nose.  Its lovingly designed recipes have been crafted and perfected over hundreds of years so why waste your favorite whiskey by throwing it to the back of your throat?  Man up a little.  Take a moment to enjoy the flavors in your glass – even if your biker buddies are watching.

Canadian Club Sherry Cask Whiskey (retails around $25) – matured in sherry casks from Spain, strong vanilla, honey and toffee flavors with subtle floral aromas.  Don’t waste it on mixed drinks.  Enjoy it for what it is.  4 out of 5 stars.

Usher’s Green Stripe Scotch (retails around $20) – blended whisky with a big barrel flavor, not much on sweetness but a fair bit of smoky peat and hint of saltiness.  Good for sipping with a game of video golf.  2 ½  out of 5 stars.



  1. Thanks for the information! Do the same rules apply to bourbon, or will that be a completely different discussion (coming soon)?

  2. Hey! What’s wrong with biker bars?? 🙂 Great writing, Scott. Want to see more.

  3. Good job! No wonder you were questioning me the other night about the Scotch. More? Hope so.

  4. Welcome to the party, Scott! Nice to see a liquor geek contributing to Taylor’s site. And starting out with whiskey no less. Very nice. I look forward to your future contributions.

    I do disagree with the implication that mixed drinks (well, REAL cocktails!) deserve lesser whiskey though. The Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Mint Julep, Sazerac, etc. all deserve the good stuff.

    Maria – Yes, same thoughts apply to bourbon, which is an American Whiskey made with at least 51% corn.

    Some good rye whiskeys are starting to make mainstream appearances as well.

  5. hey everyone, thanks for the good reviews of my first spirits column. i’ll definitely write more. 🙂 slight correction, i originally meant for the column to be about refer to all types of whiskey (bourbons, canadian, irish, etc…), but that was lost in translation when taylor put the headline on.

    also, no slight was intended on using choice whiskey in a mixed drink. my rule: the better the ingredients, the better the drink!

    see you all soon!

  6. I bet John Wayne sipped it too when the camera wasn’t rolling! Good info, great column!

  7. He can write! To be able to expand an article on whiskey to nine paragraphs is pretty impressive. He paints pictures you see immediately. How about some mixed-drink recipes with that “bottom shelf crap?”

  8. Thanks Scott, enjoyed your writing and hope it continues to be a regular part of the newsletter.

    I consider myself to be savvy and experienced in my passions for wine, spirits, beer and food.

    I recently discovered a wonderful, inexpensive Scotch Whisky and thought I would share the information with you.

    Long ago I turned away from blended Scotch in favor of single malts. For many years now I have tended to avoid blends, even expensive ones (unless they were offered as the only choice at someone’s home).

    Recently my local wine and spirits merchant offered my a taste on a new, very low priced, blend and I was shocked at both the delicious flavors and the price ($14 for a 750ml and $28 for a l.75L.  It is called McIvor.

    Since all the prices on my regular single malts has been escalating over the past year I have adopted McIvor for my regular evening pleasure before dinner (four ounces on two rocks in a large snifter glass).

    If you have an opportunity to try it let me know your reaction.

  9. Sipping whisky or gulping whiskey, the choice is all yours…

  10. Enjoyed your Column. I never understand why people slam Whiskey because I love the flavor of it. I recently discovered Knob Creek Kentucky bourbon I find it absolutely delicious. I drink it straight


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