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Ice in Whisky. Yes, that again!

Jesus Christ. Here we are. Had to happen eventually I guess. It literally says in the Musings section of this website “Hopefully this is a departure from the ‘How Should I Drink My Whisky?’ … nonsense that seems to crowd the online drinks-space.” But, while there is a lot of that nonsense, it is just that – poorly argued, preachy, borderline elitist nonsense. One such article was brought to my attention recently (today) as the focal point for a discussion on the subject of ice in whisky and I – foolishly – offered to write a better one. If it’s a conversation that we need to have, at least let it not be based around sharing articles from the fossil record.

Speaking to Claire Tesh, Brands Manager at Berry Bros and Rudd, she echoed my sentiments:

“I roll my eyes when I see the words whisky and ice mentioned on whisky threads. Most responses to ‘should I drink with ice?’ Range from ‘neat, how dare you’ to ‘I observe the whisky first, open, leave to breathe for 15-20mins then pour at a slow steady pace into a room temperature glass ONLY’. So many whisky drinkers have an opinion on this, whether it is something they have picked up in their whisky journey, clinging onto old traditions that are ancient and archaic, or they genuinely believe there must be fundamental rules surrounding whisky. My job is to encourage more drinkers and occasions to drink whisky, so if a consumer wants to go into a bar (a distant memory now) and order a whisky with ice or in a cocktail – so be it, just be thankful that they are sticking to the category and move on.”

To be honest, I could simply leave it at that – Claire’s words being the upshot of how I feel on the subject – but I’ll press on. For those who haven’t come across this argument yet – and trust me it couldn’t be lower down a list of priorities in this turbulent time – there are a few camps:

  1. Whisky can only be drunk as is. Never add anything to it or you’ll be cast out, shunned by society and will walk alone evermore through a dark and shady netherworld.

  2. Room temperature water ONLY, from a pipette, in tiny quantities to ‘release the oils in the whisky’. Or something.

  3. Water, a few cubes of ice if it’s warm outside, who cares? Just never mix it.

  4. Have a Smokey Cokey and a smile and shut the fuck up (to paraphrase Eddie Murphy).

These various arguments are then backed up by science and pseudo science and wistful romantic notions of scotch whisky. ‘Chilling a liquid kills the flavour’ is one that gets traipsed out often. ‘Whisky should be drunk in it’s natural form’ – presumably in Scotland at about four degrees Celsius then. The counter argument is that people should drink their whisky how they want to, because … well because it’s their fucking whisky and they’re drinking it, so who are we to dictate otherwise? This argument is, frankly, hard to go past.

Let’s look at the temperature thing to start. If someone told you you could only listen to your favourite song at a certain temperature you’d tell them to seek help. Pizza, like many foods, is designed to be served warm – but can also be delicious cold. So why then is chilling whisky to augment (and possibly dampen) it’s flavour so terrible? If those with a couple of cubes in their glass were out here shouting ‘it’s the only way to drink it’ and ‘letting it warm to room temperature exposes negative flavours’ I’d be equally as annoyed. But they’re not. Folk who put ice in their whisky – and I’ve asked around – do so because ‘they like it that way’. In contrast, Sian Buchan, Bar Owner and well-renowned Cocktail Bartender said:

“I don’t personally have straight whisky with ice, I don’t really know why; it’s just never really been my thing. I add water depending on the whisky but I think I like the power of controlling the dilution.”

Unsurprising that someone involved in mixed drinks is concerned with dilution – its a huge part of the craft – but notice that ice in whisky is simply not her ‘thing’. Doesn’t mean it can’t be somebody else’s.

So then to the ‘natural’ argument – that chilling whisky is somehow an abomination. First; whisky, inherently, is not natural. Fermentation can certainly occur naturally – it happens often in various forms and is often what leads to the development of certain alcohols. Distillation – the process that draws a line between spirits such as whisky and fermented beverages like beer and wine – is not (actually, freeze distillation could maybe happen in certain circumstances, but for the purposes of this conversation whisky does not pour out of the earth in any way). Whisky is made, mainly, in cold climates. Scotch whisky comes exclusively from one. Historically, whisky would have been drunk in the cold – or possibly in the uncontrolled heat from a stove or fire. Equally, it would have been made in such situations. The first modern air conditioner (according to a quick google search) was invented in 1902 – eighty odd years after, for example, the excise act, which was a huge step in modernising and regulating the Scotch Whisky industry. Therefore, we can assume that the first couple of hundred years of modern scotch whisky development – and still now the vast majority of it’s history -was done in, at the very least, uncontrolled and likely rather cold temperatures.

So historically, naturally, traditionally – whatever – Scotch whisky has likely been predominantly drunk colder than at ‘room temperature’ (given at around twenty degrees Celsius). This has not, however, seemed to restrict the enjoyment of it. ‘Yes!’ I hear you cry, ‘but now we can regulate temperature, very easily, so in the modern world we know how best it’s drunk and we should do that’. Well, ok. We certainly can now make whisky (especially when it comes to blending/nosing and the laboratories of people who do such things) in very specific temperatures and controlled environments. But by no means is whisky designed to be only enjoyed in a certain ambit of temperature. As Arthur Motley, my colleague (boss) at Royal Mile Whiskies pointed out in the discussion that precipitated this article:

“It is interesting to note how many ubermaltnerds count the best whisky they ever had as something drawn straight from a cask in a chilly warehouse (probably including myself here). They may say it is the experience or quality of whisky that helped them fall in love with that cask dram, but in terms of texture and flavour ‘too cold’ whisky is often a delicious experience.”

Equally, a dram poured from a flask at the top of a chilly Munro, or on a windy pier anywhere on Scotland’s beautiful coastline, or at sunrise at sea, or a plethora of other places in Scotch Whisky’s natural habitat will be delicious – and likely colder than those couple of ice cubes would make it in a bar or home.

Stefanie Anderson, Bar Manager at Edinburgh’s Prestigious Whisky Bar Devil’s Advocate, acknowledges the context of the dram as being important:

“Personally, the two most important factors in relation to the ice vs water argument are; what are you enjoying the whisky for and where are you enjoying it? Are you enjoying it because it is an old or rare whisky and you want to savour every drop and flavour note? Then I would say add water, as you are controlling the dilution specifically. Adding ice chunks is risky as you don’t know the temperature of the ice, how fast it will melt and what residual water it has on the outside, whereas water can be controlled, drop by drop, to get to your optimum tasting platform. Here, the whisky is the main experience, and should be given full attention and the proper care.”

So then – and I do agree with this – if it is a rare or valuable (either sentimental or financial) whisky, then be gentle with it. At the very least try it neat first, and go easy on some water to start. Though once you’ve experienced it thusly, if you then want to add anything else to it – I say go ahead.

Expanding on this, Stefanie gave us her perspective from someone who serves whisky, all day, as a profession:

“It’s great that people want to educate themselves on what is the right and wrong way to drink whisky (there isn’t really one, just the way you want to in the moment). The main takeaway people should have though is assess the situation and decide how you want to drink it in that precise instance. And please, for everyone’s sakes, tell your bartender before they pour the dram how you want it. No one likes pouring wasted whisky down the drain…”

What we seem to come back to, time and time again, is that the perfect way to drink your whisky is the way that makes you enjoy it most in the place and time you’re drinking it.

My biggest issue with all of this – and really a lot of what gets thrown around in the whisky world as being righteous behaviour – are the words ‘only’ and ‘never’. Here are some of my favourites:

  • “I only drink cask strength whisky”

  • “I never put water in my whisky”

  • “I only ever drink single malt”

  • “I’ve never had a whisky cocktail”

These are sentences meant to prove the purity and piety of the whisky drinker, but instead serve to prove that they inherently refuse to immerse themselves fully in whisky. While I feel some sympathy towards people like this who cut themselves off from some delicious drinking experiences, the detriment it does to the approachability of whisky means said sympathy simply evaporates. Imagine, if you will, this scenario:

  • As a youngster, you order your first whisky in a bar. With some ice, because that’s how you like it.

  • Some fucker who’s been knitted from tweed jumps out from behind an anachronism and publicly admonishes you for it.

This could put you off whisky for life, which is the opposite of what we should be trying to do. Regardless of how you drink your whisky, or don’t, if you love the dram you should only encourage more people to enjoy it in all it’s forms – whether they align with your own consumption methods or not.


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