Neat or on Ice?: The Great Whiskey Debate
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Eating & Drinking

Neat or on Ice?: The Great Whiskey Debate

The answers you’ve been looking for about the right way to drink the classic symbol of machismo

Whiskey bottle and glasses with ice cubes on old wooden table
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I once asked Matthew McConaughey how he liked his Kentucky bourbon. Unsurprisingly, he started waxing philosophical. 

“I like a couple big cubes to cool it off,” he told me. “Wet it down, water it a hair. Let it sit there for about four, five minutes before I have my first sip. Let it take the edge off with that ice. Niiiice. While the sun’s going down, right about then, let those two cubes melt, and sip on that. That’s what I like.”

This caught me by surprise. I’ve been writing about whiskey for most of my life, and I always believed that the best way to drink it was neat — as in, room temperature, poured straight from the bottle into a glass, with nothing else added. As McConaughey would say, Niiiiice.

But that’s the problem with whiskey. Guys grow up learning a few absolutes — how to tie a tie, how to change a car tire, how to shave — but we’re never taught conclusively whether to drink whiskey with or without ice.

We even put it to you, Arrow readers. Sixteen percent of you think that neat is the only way to go, while 45 percent argue that an ice cube or splash of water “opens up” a whiskey.

Is It Ever Acceptable to Put Ice in Whiskey

There is no right or wrong way. But here are a few suggestions from the experts on how to get the full whiskey experience.

Always start with neat

“If it’s new whiskey to your palate, you have to start neat,” says whiskey sommelier Jack Beguedou. “It’s like meeting someone for the first time without seeing their true colors.”

But that doesn’t mean you should stick with neat. Beguedoiu believes it’s vital to drink this liquor in all its forms: neat, with a splash of water, on the rocks and in cocktails. Which is exactly the order he typically follows.

Ice or water?

Many experts think that ice is actually superior to water in terms of dilution. An ice cube “gives you that slow dilution, so you can experience how the flavors change,” explains Marianne Eaves, the master distiller behind the Eaves Blind bourbon education program and Sweetens Cove Kennessee Bourbon Whiskey, Peyton Manning’s brand.

Beguedou agrees, always opting for a single large ice cube. “Never use small pieces of ice, because they melt faster and may just water down your drink,” he says.

But these are just opinions, not gospel. Despite what you may have heard, it is not possible to ruin good whiskey. This goes beyond even the ice-or-no-ice debate.

“If you want to mix expensive whiskey into a cocktail, it’s going to be the best cocktail you’ve ever had,” says Maggie Kimberl, a judge for the World Whiskies Awards and a legitimate Kentucky Colonel, who prefers her whiskey neat. “If you want to pour Pappy into Diet Coke” — as in Pappy Van Winkle, the rare bourbon that can cost over $4,000 per bottle — “go for it.”

Choose like a master distiller

How do master distillers drink their bourbon? Any damn way they want, Kimberl says.

There’s a famous story about Preston Van Winkle, the great-grandson of bourbon icon Pappy Van Winkle. He tried ordering a glass of Pappy at a trendy New York bar, requesting it on the rocks with a twist, and the bartender refused, claiming it would be a waste of great whiskey. Preston responded, "Well, sir, that sure is disappointing, given that’s how my grandfather and father taught me to drink it, and my family made the stuff, after all.”

If the descendants of the guy who made the most sought-after whiskey in the world can put whatever they damn well please into their ridiculously expensive bourbon, so can you. Throw some cherries in there. Add a cocktail umbrella. Put your whiskey into a blender and make a smoothie. Whatever tastes good to you is the right choice.

If you’re still worried about being judged, heed the advice of Nick Offerman, a free-spoken dude who isn’t afraid to judge you. If he’s grilled you a ribeye and you ask for ketchup, he will make you “rue your decision,” he promises. But when it comes to whiskey, Offerman insists that every palate is subjective.

“There should be no shame associated with such matters of taste.”

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