Bourbon drinkers will choose to enjoy their bourbon neat, on ice, with a splash of water, or possibly with whiskey stones. Is there a “best” method? Let’s take a look at what each of these preparations has to offer and how they affect the smell, taste, touch, and overall experience.
Neat, or simply in a glass with nothing added, is the preferred method of many enthusiasts. This maintains the full flavor intended by the distiller when the spirit was bottled. When using this method it helps to swirl the bourbon in the glass for a few minutes prior to drinking, and continue to swirl throughout enjoying. Swirling will encourage the release of ethanol. Letting the spirit breath in the glass for up to 20 minutes prior to enjoying is another option to release ethanol. Ethanol is the scent that can feel like a punch in the nose when taking that first whiff of a fresh pour. Allowing the ethanol to escape will lead to a better drinking experience and the ability to detect and enjoy more of the pleasurable smells and tastes.
Ice will chill the bourbon and add a bit of water as the ice melts. One or two ice cubes, or even better a single ice ball, will change the flavor of your bourbon. Smoothing it out a bit and releasing some otherwise hidden flavors. Too much ice though will severely chill and water down an otherwise nice bourbon. Much like cooking a steak well-done, in my opinion too much ice or water will ruin most bourbon or whiskey.
Most bourbons, with the exception of those bottled at “Cask Strength/Barrel Proof”, receive the addition of water after aging and before bottling. The addition of water allows the bottler to achieve a desired and specific proof level consistent across all bottles. Adding a small amount of water to your bourbon can open up the flavor profile and release scents and tastes not as readily noticeable. A nice experiment is to pour a glass neat, take a few sips, then add a bit of water and try to pick out new tastes.
Whisky stones seem to be everywhere these days. Advertised to chill whisky without watering it down. Some people swear by these stones, typically made of soapstone though they can be made of many different materials including metals. Although these have gained popularity they are not particularly effective at their primary job of chilling a spirit. Further, lower quality stones can impart unwanted flavors on your drink. We’ve tried several different brands/materials and found them to not be worth the hassle. Stick with a bit of ice or chilled water to bring down the temperature of your bourbon.
Let’s finish up by answering our initial question. Is there a best way to drink bourbon? Much like choosing your glass; what you put in that glass should be guided by what enhances your drinking experience. Start with a great bourbon and proceed as desired. Cheers!