Proper Scotch Whisky Drinking: Neat vs. Ice vs. Splash of Water

30 Jul

I have received a lot of e-mails already asking how to properly drink scotch.
Unfortunately–and depending on how you look at it, fortunately–there is no strict answer to this. I can not write the liquor drinking instruction equivalent of “you can only put unleaded gasoline in your car or it will not work.” You should drink scotch whisky however and whenever you want according to your personal taste. There are, however, several widely accepted ways of drinking scotch whisky in public that would ensure that you do not get yourself into a brawl by drunken neighbors. As a side note, most scotch whiskies are served as a 1 oz. to 2 oz. serving (around 1 shot).


Drinking single-malts “neat” is the most basic, and in my opinion, the most satisfying in the short-run. Ordering–or serving–a drink “neat” means ordering the liquor with no sort of outside mixer. This means the liquor is served alone; not even ice.

By drinking a single-malt scotch whisky neat, you are able to experience the full impact of the dram (editor’s note: “dram” meaning a small glass of whisky) without the dilution of adding water or ice. Drinking a whisky neat can reveal a lot about its character that water can sometimes push to the side.

Another factor to keep in mind is your palate. If you are planning to enjoy more than one dram from different bottles and desire intact taste buds and for them not to be utterly destroyed, you may want to use a splash or two of water. High alcohol content, such as that found in straight whisky (especially cask-strength), has a tendency to cause your taste buds to burn out after a glass or two. You will find a higher enjoyment over the course of a tasting with a little help from dilution.


There are times, however, when the whisky is high in alcohol content (i.e. any bottles that you read that refer to the contents as being “cask strength”). In these cases, drinking the whisky neat is not always the best option and may require a splash of water to tone down the impact of the alcohol on your palate. I find it best to use water from a highly filtered source as to not add notes of chlorine into your fine single-malt. In a pinch, Aquafina is very good as a bottled water to have on hand for such an occasion. If one splash of filtered water does not bring the palate explosion down to a reasonable level, splash a little more until you are comfortable. By splash I am referring to just that–a splash. Imagine you are squirting the amount of a full small eye dropper one full dropper at at time. I also recommend never crossing the 50/50 threshold of whisky to water or you will most likely destroy the characteristics of your malt!


This is the hardest style for me to accept since I very much dislike this approach personally. Drinking your dram with ice should follow the same rules as the splash of water–try not to cross the 50/50 threshold. Unfortunately, single ice cubes are very difficult to get that are not going to over-dilute your whisky to the point of nonrecognition! I recommend trying to find the artificial chiller cubes (usually plastic) that do not physically melt. As you can imagine, using flashy-blinky Bacardi fake ice cubes might be pretty embarrassing!

My recommendation is to approach each new tasting as a progression downward:

  1. Try each new dram “neat.”
  2. If the drink is a bit too strong, add a splash of water.
  3. If the drink is a bit mediocre, uninteresting, and you just want to finish it so you can have a margarita, add an ice cube to it.

Are you picking up a bias in my writing? Oops.

Coming soon: Proper Glassware Reviewed!


One Response to “Proper Scotch Whisky Drinking: Neat vs. Ice vs. Splash of Water”

  1. jbteneyck1743 August 23, 2009 at 5:51 am #

    On a recent visit to Scotland, I met a very generous gentleman who invited me into the nearest pub to enjoy the correct way to drink scotch. What an eye openner! I will never forget the HEElander and the wonderful lesson. I will always remember the generosity and friendliness of Scots AND their humor. I enjoy Speyside as a neophite. Others recommended, McIvor, Old Pultney, McCallen, Glen Farclas and naturally, Highland Park….John, Mt. Clemens, MI

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