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Jamie Walker, our guest writer, answers the perennial question that has been plaguing us since time immemorial

Words Jamie Walker

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An easy way to think about this is if you taste a cheap white wine. It may taste great when it is ice cold, but once it warms up a bit you really taste what the wine tastes of

This question has the effect of raising eyebrows and causing arguments from bar to household around the world. I have witnessed customers in whisky bars refuse to pay for a whisky if someone dares to ask for ice or water in their glass, let alone a dreaded mixer. Whisky is enjoyed all over the globe, and in many ways, but is there an optimal way to enjoy your dram?

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Whether it is mixing whisky with green tea in Japan, American whisky with coke served in a can in Australia, stirred in a glass with sugar and bitters to make an old fashioned cocktail in a speakeasy bar, whisky is enjoyed by millions of people every week, and in different ways. Why do ‘whisky purists’ demand that it should be drank in a certain way? And is this view changing with time?

Whisky makers are already adding water to your whisky before you even open the bottle

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Firstly, let us look at the addition of water to your whisky. This I find is one of the strangest views that is held by many people I meet. Whisky is normally blended and bottled at around 40- 45% abv. This is not the strength it comes from the cask at. Even many cask strength whiskies have water added to either work on a flavour profile, or for import and export tax reasons. Whisky makers are already adding water to your whisky before you even open the bottle, so what is the issue if you, the drinker, wants to add a little splash extra to your glass? Adding water can open up a whisky, break down the chemical compounds and release better bouquet when nosing your whisky. Most whisky specialists when writing tasting notes now write notes before and after the addition of water, so don’t worry if you like a splash with your chosen whisky, you are among great company.

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Secondly,the addition of ice. On this one, I at least understand a singular reason. When tasting a whisky for the first time, the addition of ice will mean that your taste receptors will have a hard time picking up the nuances in the spirit due to the temperature. An easy way to think about this is if you taste a cheap white wine. It may taste great when it is ice cold, but once it warms up a bit you really taste what the wine tastes of. The opposite is true with whisky. 

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Personally, I would not add ice to whisky if I am tasting it. To enjoy drinking a few whiskies however, if you live in the tropics and it is a warm, humid evening, I completely understand why people like ice in their whisky. There are now so many options on ice as well.Large cubes that don’t melt quickly, the almost omnipresent ice sphere, whisky stones that always make me paranoid that if you aren’t paying attention you may lose your front teeth on a night out, or just the normal ice that melts quickly from the freezer. All will affect the flavour of your whisky slightly differently due to dilution and temperature, but each to their own.

Now we get on to the really fun argument, mixer and cocktails…

High ball serves are probably the most advertised mixed whisky drinks on the planet right now, and for good reason

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High ball serves are probably the most advertised mixed whisky drinks on the planet right now, and for good reason. They are a great way to attract new drinkers to the category, the drinks are light and refreshing, and with the almost unending variety of syrups, cordials and sodas available at home and in your favourite bars, the options are endless.

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Spicy ginger beer with full bodied smoky single malts. Talisker and Bowmore I feel work especially well in these, and you can add some rich fruit flavours as well.

Light floral mixers to match with younger blends or more delicate single malts. Elderflower, lavender, lemongrass and yuzu work brilliantly with blends like Dewar’s or single malts like Glenkinchie.

Whisky will appeal to different people in different ways. It is a spirit that takes time to explore, enjoy the journey

As far as cocktails are concerned, you just need to look at the most famous whisky cocktails from the past to see what a versatile spirit whisky is, and how many flavours you can pair with your chosen malt or blend. Making a whisky sour with an American bourbon and then also with an Islay single malt will give you hugely different results. Exactly the same happens when making an old fashioned with an Irish blend and a highland single malt.

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Never be scared to push your own boundaries, and find a bartender who understands your taste and have them make drinks for you with differing whiskies so you can understand your own palate.

Whisky will appeal to different people in different ways. Highball as an aperitif or after a round of golf, a dram with your coffee after dinner, a hot toddy when the rain comes in. 

Whisky is a spirit that takes time to explore, enjoy the journey.

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