How to Drink Whiskey: A Beginner’s Guide

There’s a reason that whiskey is called “the water of life.” On the best of the best of days, whiskey serves as a delicious way to celebrate whatever milestone or accomplishment you’ve just completed. On your worst days, it can provide a comfort blanket to block out the world for a little while. You can share it with friends and family, or you can make new friends over a fine pour of the stuff at your local watering hole. You can drink it neat, you can shake or stir it into a cocktail, hell, you can even make the cocktail then put it inside a ball of ice.

That being said, if you’re a first-timer to the whiskey world or you’ve been intimidated by the folks at your local whiskey bar (yes, maybe even the same ones that you may have been making friends with in the previous paragraph) that get into arguments about how the 18-year-old release of such-and-such a Scotch exhibits slightly more Sherry characteristics than the 21-year-old expression and that is what makes it a truly delicious tipple, you don’t have to worry — below, you’ll find everything you need to get started drinking whiskey.

To get the details right, we sat down with Tommy Tardie, world-renowned whiskey connoisseur and the owner of The Flatiron Room and Fine & Rare (where you can find a special $80 cocktail if you’re in the mood), to help us better understand the nuances of whiskey drinking.

What Is Whiskey?

If you’re a frequent visitor to The Manual, then you probably don’t need an introduction to whiskey. In fact, there’s a decent chance you’re nursing a tumbler at this very moment. Still, learning more about the wide world of whiskey can help boost your enjoyment. Tardie embarked on an international mission to learn everything he could about whiskey before opening The Flatiron Room. Before we get to Tardie, though, let’s break down what whiskey actually is (for those who don’t know or aren’t sure of all the specifics).

In short, whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grain.

In short, whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grain. To get to the distillation point, a distiller mashes up the grain to release natural sugars, which he or she then ferments into alcohol. That alcohol is distilled, creating a more potent spirit in the process. The grain that’s used can vary, but more often than not you’ll find whiskies made with corn, rye, wheat, and barley (both malted and not). Other grains such as millet and quinoa are used on occasion, but the four we just mentioned are the major players. Once the mash has been fermented and distilled, it usually then spends time in a barrel, which contributes flavor and color.

And voila, whiskey in a nutshell. Now, onto the man who has taken the New York City whiskey world by storm, Tommy Tardie.

whiskey old fashioned cocktail orange

“The great thing about whiskey is that it is so diverse and can appeal to a very broad range of palates,” Tardie says. “Bourbon, rye, single malts, blends — they’re all whiskey.” (If you’re curious about the different spellings of “whiskey,” here’s a quick breakdown)

If there’s a theme to this guide, it’s “exploration.” There’s no one right way to drink all whiskeys — instead, enjoying this beverage is a personal journey that could easily change from week to week, day to day, drink to drink. The protocol outlined in this guide works well with any whiskey under the golden sun. We’ll take you through the basics, but ultimately you have to follow your own palate. And if you need a bottle to start with, check out the whiskey winners of The Manual Spirit Awards 2018.

How to Drink Whiskey

Enjoying Whiskey Straight or Neat

The next time you have a glass of whiskey, resist the urge to immediately toss ice into it. You’ll find that many whiskeys are greatly enhanced by ice, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least try the whiskey neat.

“Before I got into the hospitality game, I would usually order a whiskey neat when I went out,” says Tardie, recommending neat whiskey for those who enjoy the taste of alcohol. “I would refer to my whiskey as a single-ingredient cocktail.”

whiskey shot cheers
George Rudy/Getty Images

If you find that you don’t like your whiskey neat, that’s totally fine. With the high alcohol content (approximately 40 percent to 43 percent alcohol by volume) and bold flavor profiles, a glass of straight whiskey can be like a slap in the face to your taste buds. In order to get more of a warm hug experience, why not try adding a little water?

Why You Can Add Water to Whiskey

If you’re new to the world of whiskey, you might roll your eyes at the prospect of adding a few drops of water. How could a drop of water make a difference?

“A splash of water can be a great thing,” says Tardie. “A little water releases the hydrophobic (water repellent) elements in the glass, allowing you to detect more aromatics on the nose and, by lowering the alcohol content, it can allow you to taste more flavors on your palate.”

The easiest way to go about this is with a glass of water and a straw. Simply add a drop, give your whiskey a swirl, take a sip, and repeat until you find the pleasing flavors you’re looking for. The bigger the splash, the more diluted your whiskey will become, achieving the effect of ice without the chilling refreshment.

Should You Get Whiskey On the Rocks?

Ordering a whiskey “on the rocks” may sound cool, but it may not necessarily be what you want. “Ice actually numbs your palate and dulls the flavors,” Tardie laments. “But hey, sometimes you just want a cold glass of whiskey — I say go for it.”

drinking whiskey on the rocks

As for the type of ice, you’re best off going with a large ice cube (1.5 to 2 inch) or ice ball. Small cubes or chunks of ice will melt faster than larger pieces, diluting your whiskey more quickly. If you want the chilling effect without the dilution, you might consider adding chilled whiskey stones.

Whiskey Cocktails

If you simply don’t like the taste of whiskey by itself, or if you’re looking for a new way to enjoy whiskey, we urge you to try it in a classic cocktail. Tardie recommends rye whiskey bases due to their assertiveness and ability to hold their own in a mix.

Had your fill of the classics? Try out simple twists on time-tested recipes, especially ones where you wouldn’t expect whiskey. “Because the profile of whiskey is so diverse, you can have a lot of fun experimenting with the various flavors,” says Tardie, whose only experimental kryptonite is frozen water. “[At Fine & Rare, Tardie’s restaurant venture] we offer a unique twist on the Bloody Mary but we substitute vodka with Ardbeg, a heavily seated single malt from Islay.”

how to make an old fashioned cocktail
Dan Baker/The Manual

Need a few more ideas? We’ve included two classic whiskey cocktails below to get you started. You can find even more classic whiskey cocktails right here.

Whiskey Sour

  • 2 oz bourbon
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • .75 oz simple syrup
  • 1 egg white
  • Cherry for garnish

Method: In a shaker tin, add all ingredients except for ice. Dry shake for 10-15seconds. Add ice and shake again. Double strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a cherry.

Manhattan

  • 2 oz rye whiskey
  • .5 oz sweet vermouth
  • 1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Cherry for garnish

Method: Stir liquid ingredients together with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with a cherry.

Ultimately, you’ll find what works for you, so take these parting wise words about whiskey from Tardie to heart: “Experiment and find what’s right for you. Don’t let anyone tell you how to enjoy it.”

(Except for us.)

Article originally published by J Fergus on July 6, 2017. Last updated by Sam Slaughter in December 2018.
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