I frequently get asked about the appropriate way to serve whiskies. Should they be served neat? On the rocks? Or perhaps with a splash of water in the classic Bourbon and branch water tradition? While the simple answer is to enjoy your whiskies any way you like to drink them, here are some suggestions for ways to get the most enjoyment out of your whiskies.
Cask strength or barrel proof whiskies (usually those over 50% abv) can usually benefit from the addition of a splash of cool water or an ice cube or two. By adding a splash of water, flavors and aromas that might be missed in such a high proof whiskey begin to emerge and the burn of the alcohol becomes less noticeable. Two whiskies in this category that I particularly enjoy with a splash of cool water are Booker's bourbon and Ardbeg Uigedail single malt Scotch whisky. If adding an ice cube, allow a few minutes for the whiskey and ice to warm up a bit before enjoying. As liquids become colder, less flavor is apparent, so adding a few cubes will actually tighten up the whiskey for a short time before the release of flavors from the addition of the melted ice becomes apparent.
Whiskies that range from 45% abv (90 proof) to 50% abv (100 proof) may either be enhanced with water, or you may find that water detracts from your experience depending on your palate. Some find that a splash of water helps to reduce the sting of alcohol while allowing them to detect subtle nuances in the spirit, while others find that the addition of water to the spirit can make it feel thin and watery on their palate. Trial and error are the only way to determine which method works best for you. While professional tasters and reviewers often add lots of water to review whiskies in order to detect every flavor in a particular whiskey, they do this in the interest of their review, not to maximize their own enjoyment of the whiskey.
Finally, whiskies at 80 proof, such as Jack Daniels, are probably best enjoyed neat. A whiskey at 40% abv has already been cut down to this strength at the distillery and may not need additional water or ice. This said, let your own palate be the ultimate arbiter of this discussion. Do not hesitate to order Jack Daniels on the rocks in a restaurant or bar if that is your preferred way to enjoy it. These are simply guidelines, not rules, and ultimately, what matters most is whatever gives you the most enjoyment while drinking the whiskey of your choice.
Experimentation is the key to understanding how your individual palate reacts to different whiskies. I encourage you to add a splash of water to a whiskey that you usually drink neat, or try a whiskey that you normally drink on the rocks neat and at room temperature. Think about the similarities and differences in the tastes, and ultimately choose whatever works best for you. I find that the above suggestions work well for me and they make a great starting point in your journey through whiskey. Try them out and see what works best for you.