In good spirits: The fine art of how to sip whiskey

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Unlock the secrets of sophistication as you delve into the nuanced art of how to sip whiskey. Learn to appreciate every nuanced note, gain insights into glassware, savor tasting techniques and enjoy the pleasure of this timeless spirit. 

A glass of whiskey with ice and grapes on a marble table.
Photo credit: YayImages.

Sip whiskey the right way 

Popular all over the world, whiskey is a strong spirit with lots of character. Whether it’s bourbon, scotch, rye or any other type of whiskey, this amber-colored spirit has depth, complexity and lots of flavor. 

Just as with enjoying vodka, when you learn how to sip whiskey properly, you can savor and appreciate its many layers of caramel, smoky or woodsy notes. Learn how to sip whiskey neat, enjoy it on the rocks and mix it into drinks to get the most out of this complicated spirit. 

This guide will walk you through how to drink whiskey for maximum enjoyment. Uncask the strength of this spirit and experience its multitude of flavors. 

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Types of whiskey 

Beloved in many countries around the world, whiskey carries different mash make-ups, methods of distillation and aging requirements. Here are the most common styles of whiskey: 

Bourbon whiskey: Bourbon, born in Kentucky, must have a mash of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new oak barrels. It’s sweet and caramel-like. Famous brands include Old Forester and Maker’s Mark.

Rye whiskey: With a mash of 51 percent rye, rye whiskey has a more astringent flavor than bourbon. Many bourbon distillers also craft rye whiskeys. Canadian regulations lack a minimum rye percentage.

Tennessee whiskey: Similar to bourbon, Tennessee whiskey undergoes charcoal-filtering before aging, known as the Lincoln County process. Jack Daniels is a renowned producer of this distinctive style.

Scotch whisky: Scotch, from Scotland, features a smoky flavor from peat fires during malting. It must be entirely produced and bottled in Scotland. Famous brands include Johnnie Walker and Macallan. 

Irish whiskey: Triple-distilled from unmalted barley, Irish whiskey offers a smoother and less smoky profile compared to Scotch. Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore D.E.W. are common brands.

Canadian whisky: Often referred to as rye whisky, Canadian whisky is lighter and smoother, containing a mix of grains. Canadian Club and Crown Royal are popular brands.

Japanese whisky: Similar to Scotch, Japanese whisky often uses malted or peated barley. It is double-distilled and refined for delicate flavors. Popular distillers include Nikka and Suntory.

Flavored whiskey: Some brands sell flavored whiskeys that may be infused with fruit or spices or have added flavoring and coloring. Popular flavors include cinnamon, caramel, apple and honey whiskey.

Though each style differs in flavor and origin, they all go through a similar process, with some variation for some styles. The stages of whiskey production include malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation and bottling. 

a set of books, a bottle of bourbon, a cocktail shaker and two glasses rest on the top of a wooden bar cart.
Photo credit: Unsplash.

Storing whiskey

Whiskey should be stored correctly for the best experience. Storing alcohol properly gives it more longevity, preserving its flavor and fragrance. 

Any type of whiskey should be stored in a cool, dark place, out of direct sunlight. You can store whiskey in a decorative yet functional glass decanter, but make sure to enjoy it soon after transferring it to the container.

Glassware for whiskey

Before you take a sip of whiskey, it’s important to serve it with the proper glassware. Different types of glassware are designed to highlight their contents’ flavors, textures and aromas of their contents. 

Rocks glasses, also known as old-fashioned glasses and lowball glasses, are short tumblers ideal for sipping whiskey. The short height of the glass brings the whiskey close to the nose, allowing its aromas to enhance the sipping experience. 

However, some whiskey cocktails are served in different types of glasses. For example, a whiskey sour is often poured into a coupe glass and a hot toddy is enjoyed in a heat-safe mug. 

A glass of whiskey on a wooden table.
Photo credit: YayImages.

How to sip whiskey

Because whiskey is strong, taking a sip isn’t the same as sipping lighter drinks. When trying any new whiskey, follow these steps to take in the layers of flavor. 

  1. Hold the glass to your mouth, but keep your mouth closed. Inhale to take in the fragrance of the whiskey, preparing your palate for the next step. Take note of any scents you smell. 
  2. Then, inhale through your nose with your mouth open. This further prepares you for the flavor of the whiskey, softening the blow of its strength. 
  3. Take a small sip, but don’t swallow just yet. Swish the whiskey around your mouth, then swallow. You may feel a lingering effect after you swallow. Bourbon drinkers call this feeling a Kentucky hug. 
  4. Finally, take a longer sip and swallow as you normally would. Because of the previous steps, the feeling of the whiskey going down your throat will be less jarring. 

If the whiskey is too strong for you, you’re not out of options. You can add a splash of water to dilute its strength, enjoy it with ice or try it in a cocktail. 

“When I want to enjoy a good glass of whiskey, my go-to is Single Barrel Jack Daniels with just one ice cube. It’s the kind of whiskey that’s perfect for sipping — really smooth and with a hint of sweetness. Just right for relaxing and enjoying the moment.” 

— Ryan Horton, Horton Barbell

Ways to sip whiskey

Whiskey can be enjoyed in a number of ways. Here are some terms to know: 

Neat: When you order whiskey neat, it means you’d like it served without ice, straight from the bottle. Nothing is added to whiskey neat. However, frozen cubes of metal or marble called whiskey stones can be added to chill the drink without dilution for those who like their whiskey cold but without ice. 

Straight: Drinking whiskey straight is the same as neat — there is no ice or mixers in the drink. 

On the rocks: When you order whiskey on the rocks, it means you’d like it served over ice cubes. As you sip, the ice melts. Larger pieces of ice shaped like a sphere or cube have less surface area, allowing the ice to melt more slowly. 

In cocktails: If you don’t wish to sip whiskey neat or on the rocks, you can try it in a cocktail. Popular drinks include the whiskey sour, old-fashioned and whiskey smash, which is whiskey muddled with fruits. 

Next time you sip whiskey, try following the steps to prepare your palate for its rich flavor. Sample different types and brands of whiskey to develop your own preferences, or mix it into cocktails to bring out different qualities of this endlessly interesting spirit. 

Based in Charlotte, N.C., Susannah Brinkley Henry is the cocktail content creator behind the blog Feast + West. Her work has been featured in Southern Living, Oprah Daily, Buzzfeed and more. In 2019, her website was a finalist in the Saveur Blog Awards for Best Entertaining Blog. As a professional graphic designer, photographer, writer and recipe developer, Susannah helps home bartenders and drink enthusiasts level up their cocktail skills.  

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