Featured American Stoneware and On the Wrox whiskey stones - photos by Mary Powers

For many years, whiskey advocates have sworn by the belief that one should never add ice or water to whiskey when enjoying the spirit. The idea to let the whiskey breathe and to taste it without cutting the flavor is what many enthusiasts are adamant about. We believe that people should enjoy whiskey the way that they want, but there is a little bit of science that might make you reconsider how you decide to in the future. 

For starters, if you leave whiskey out in a glass neat for about 30 minutes, it will taste watered down and flat from alcohol evaporation. Also, if you swirl your glass, it causes the evaporation to occur even faster. The alcohol sits at the top so that when you smell it, you get a nice burn in your lungs. Distilleries commonly cut whiskeys to get more volume out of a barrel, and as long as companies meet the minimum guidelines for their specific genre of whiskey, say more specifically bourbon (which can be no lower than 80 proof at bottling), distilleries can stretch how much bourbon they get per barrel by adding water to it. With some of the higher proofed bourbons, distillers barrel at a lower proof so that when the whiskey is ready to bottle, they can maintain the flavor profile without compromising the integrity by watering it down. Water it down too much, and you get 80 proof Old Grand Dad.

Based off of the evaporation and proof information, we set out to determine if bottling should dictate how one should drink whiskey. Drinking it neat could be a bit harsh, while drinking it with ice could possibly ruin the flavor. We figured that if some of the bourbon legends enjoyed the spirit differently, we should consider it too. Master distiller Elmer T. Lee drank his bourbon with a cube of ice. Booker Noe (Jim Beam) drank his straight from the barrel with a couple swipes of Kentucky faucet water. Adding a little bit of water or a cube of ice to help open up some new flavors, especially with the higher proofed whiskeys, doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Basically, bourbon neat at room temperature, chilled, diluted we weren’t sure what to think.

We decided to investigate what method of drinking bourbon tasted best. We first chose a test subject: Wild Turkey 101, because it’s one of the few true bourbons that retains its flavor profile due to minimal cutting at bottling, and is also probably the whiskey you fooled around with one night in college and still can’t make eye contact with. We then decided on testing several different consumption methods: neat, splash of water, over ice, whiskey stones and a whiskey glass carved from stone. Here’s what we concluded:

Delilah Tennyson drinking liquid fire
Delilah Tennyson drinking liquid fire

Neat: Nothing added. Just pure whiskey and drawing straws to see who tries this one first. We really rolled the dice on this method. Straight from the bottle. You still get a pretty good flavor profile, it just burns a lot going down. 

Water: Just a splash. Takes the intensity from a ten down to about an eight, still tastes relatively similar to neat. Eyes aren’t watering as bad this time, but still kind of wondering why drinking at room temperature has such an appeal. Also, pretty sure our voices are deeper now. 

The calm before the storm
The calm before the storm

Ice: No fancy ice here. We used only the finest Lake Mead water filtered and frozen. Sourced from freezer to cup. Yes, that’s better. Ice seems to mellow out the bourbon to a tolerable state enhancing the nose of spice and vanilla instead of just spice, oak and fire.

Whiskey stones: Non-porous soapstone from On The Wrox. Stones were chilled and added to bourbon. These stones are supposed to allow you to enjoy the spirit chilled without ice. The temperature of the bourbon is brought down slightly, but the boldness and the burn still remain. Basically, we just tricked ourselves into drinking this bourbon neat again. These are a great conversation piece, and can alter the temperature if that’s your thing, but would be better for a more flavorful scotch or a lower-proofed bourbon. 

Whiskey stone carved glass: Courtesy of American Stoneware. Very caveman-esque. Makes this glass super fun to grab and shout random quotes from Encino Man. Add an ounce of water into the glass and freeze. This is actually a pretty neat way of drinking. The small layer of ice helps to subtly break down the whiskey while the glass remains cool long enough for you to “weeze the juice.”