How to Drink Whiskey: A Beginner’s Guide

whiskey old fashioned

Whiskey is not derived from the term “water of life” for nothing. On your best day, it’s a delicious way to celebrate the highest of highs in one’s life. On your worst, it provides a comfort blanket to block out the world for a little while. 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 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.

Introduction to 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.

“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,” check out this page: Whiskey v. Whisky.)

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.

Neat Beginnings

Glass of whiskey and ice on brown bar counter

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.”

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 ABV) 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?

Drops of Water

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.

On the Rocks

whiskeys

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.”

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.”

If you’re chomping at the bit to get going, here are a couple whiskey cocktails you can make right now, both of which were taken from the Playboy Bartender’s Guide:

Bourbon Collins

  • 2 oz 100-proof bourbon
  • 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
  • .5 oz lemon juice
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 slice lemon
  • Iced club soda to top

Method: Shake bourbon, bitters, lemon juice, and sugar well with ice. Strain into a tall 14-oz glass half-filled with ice. Add soda. Stir. Add lemon slice.

Lynchburg Lemonade

  • 2 oz Jack Daniel’s
  • 1 oz lemonade
  • .5 oz grenadine
  • 1 slice lemon
  • 7-Up to top

Method: Shake Jack Daniel’s, lemonade, and grenadine with ice. Strain over ice into tall Collins glass. Top off with 7-Up. Garnish with lemon slice.

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 on April 9, 2018.