A while back, we told you to never trust a so-called “craft cocktail bar” that serves their drinks with gross ice, because while it may seem like a drink accessory, the truth is that the quality of your ice plays greatly into the way your drink tastes. We think this is especially pertinent when it comes to serving plain ol’ liquor – like whiskey – on the rocks. When it comes to whiskey on ice, there are no mixers or liquers to divert your attention – what you see is what you taste. So in what way does ice affect the taste of your whiskey, and what determines how good said ice is? Let’s count the ways.
The warmer a whiskey is, the more you’ll pick up on that “heat”; i.e. dominant alcohol flavors and scents. Ice will take the temperature of the whiskey down a few notches, making it a bit more palatable. Whiskey purists might scoff at this and say that adding ice takes away from the true whiskey experience. While you can drink whiskey neat at room temperature, if you’re still getting used to the idea of sipping on whiskey, we recommend using ice to temper the intensity. Even if you’re normally a neat whiskey drinker, try it out. The colder the ice, the better.
As it melts, the ice will also help dilute the whiskey. Once again, “dilution” might not seem like an appealing word. You want to taste your whiskey, damn it! But sometimes a bit of water helps “open up” the whiskey and release new tastes and aromas. And once again, dilution makes the whiskey less strong and in the eyes of many, more quaffable.
Once you’ve accepted that ice in whiskey can be a good thing, you might wonder what kind of ice you should use. You’ll notice that at great cocktail bars, large blocks of ice – as opposed to many smaller ice cubes or ice chips – are often used for whiskey on the rocks. That’s because big ice blocks melt slower than little ones. The big ice will dilute your whiskey at a healthy pace as opposed to waterlogging it immediately.
Last, but not least, make sure your ice is fresh and made with good water. You don’t have to source mineral water, but make sure it’s water you’d feel comfortable drinking. If that means tap water, awesome! If that means running your tap water through a Brita filter, that’s cool, too! If you want to go all out and buy Fiji, well… you do you. We recommend using ice that hasn’t been made too far in advance. If you don’t believe us, taste stale ice that’s been sitting in your freezer for a few months. We promise you, you’ll taste the difference between that and new ice.
Ultimately, you will be drinking your ice, so it should be complementing rather than fighting your whiskey. Start with clean water, make big ice blocks, and of course, don’t forget the most important thing: fantastic whiskey.