How to Drink Whiskey Like a Pro
Mark Twain once quipped, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” That’s truer now than ever with the spirit in a glorified heyday, making it even more important to know how to drink whiskey like a pro.
Inspired by distilling technology medieval monks brought to Ireland—the first recorded mention of whiskey was in an Irish history book from 1405. Whiskey recently replaced vodka as the top-selling spirit in the U.S., and its popularity continues to grow.
“We’re in the middle of whiskey’s golden age, with more brands and varieties available than ever before,” says spirits expert Noah Rothbaum, author of The Art of American Whiskey.
We're seeing major booms in Irish whiskey and Japanese whisky especially.
What's the Difference Between Rye and Bourbon?
Before you learn how to drink whiskey, it's best you know its nuances. In America, two of the most popular types are bourbon and rye. Here's the difference between bourbon and whiskey.
Distilled from a mash bill that contains at least 51 percent corn, bourbon must be distilled to no more than 80 percent ABV, stored at no more than 62.5 percent alcohol by volume, and bottled at a minimum of 40 percent ABV. It also has to be aged in new charred oak barrels (often white oak), but no amount of time is specified, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
Straight bourbon, meanwhile, must be aged in charred new oak containers for two years or more. Nothing can be added to the bourbon, whether or not it's labeled “straight.”
Rye whiskey, on the other hand, can be made anywhere in the world. To be labeled rye in the U.S., it must be made from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent rye. Similar to bourbon, it also needs to be distilled to no more than 80 percent ABV, stored at no more than 62.5 percent alcohol by volume, and aged in new charred oak barrels. No amount of time is specified.
If rye isn’t labeled straight—or if it’s a blend of at least two straight ryes–up to 2.5 percent of the volume can be harmless coloring, flavoring, and/or blending materials, according to the TTB.
When it comes to flavor, bourbon is generally sweeter with a more oily mouthfeel. People tend to point toward notes of vanilla, caramel, wood, dark fruit, and baking spices. Rye whiskey can differ a lot depending on its mash bill. Those that are 100 percent rye tend to be spicier and offer herbal notes, as it nudges toward 51 percent rye, it gets more and more similar to bourbon.
How Is Whiskey Served?
Knowledge will help you understand how to drink whiskey like a pro, but what’s most important is personal taste. As such, there are a variety of ways to serve whiskey.
Shooting vs Sipping
The only time you should shoot back a shot of whiskey is if it's a fairly cheap bottle. For quality expressions, you want to sip it to reveal its full flavor profile.
When you serve whiskey neat, the first thing you need is a small tasting glass. Outside of that, you just need your favorite bottle or some other expression you’re looking to try. The first step is to pour the whiskey into the glass. The second, sip and enjoy! This is the best way to drink whiskey if you have minimal mixology experience.
If you’re looking for a cooler experience, you might want to consider ordering whiskey "up" or on the rocks. The term “up” means the whiskey is combined with ice and therefore chilled, but served without ice. To serve it this way, pour the whiskey in a glass with ice and let it chill, then strain into another glass without ice. If you ask for whiskey "up" at a bar, it's a surefire way to show the bartender you know the basics of how to drink whiskey.
Related: The Best American Single Malt Whiskeys of 2023
With a Few Drops of Water
While some aficionados insist the best way to drink whiskey is neat (served at room temperature and without any mixers or anything that would dilute the serving), others insist adding a few drops of water opens the spirit up allowing imbibers to enjoy more aromas and flavors.
Take the whiskey you’re looking to drink and pour it into a tasting glass. Let it breathe for a few seconds, then drip three drops of cold water into the glass. This can either be done via an eyedropper or, for those of us without middle school science equipment available, just dip your clean finger into a cup of cold water, hold it over the glass of whiskey, and wait patiently for three drops to fall into the glass.
On the Rocks
Serving whiskey on the rocks simply means serving it over ice. You’ll need a “rocks glass” for this and some ice. Pour 1.5 oz of your favorite whiskey over two ice cubes in your chosen glass. Voila.
Do You Drink Whiskey Neat or With Ice?
Serving whiskey neat or with ice has become quite the debate among whiskey professionals, but in the end it’s a matter of situation and personal preference. If you’re looking to taste a new whiskey, try it neat first. You can always add ice later.
That’s because adding ice can significantly change the flavor as it dilutes the whiskey. What’s important is to find the right balance for yourself. As you go about figuring out what works for you, consider the amount and shape of the ice, as well as the measure of whiskey. One quick note, bigger cubes (or simply more ice) melts slower.
Related: 30 Best Bottles of Whiskey Under $30
What Do You Mix With Whiskey?
Again, purists may assert whiskey shouldn't commingle with other mix-ins, but don't let that deter how you want to drink whiskey.
The list of what to mix with whiskey seems to grow by the year, but there are a few classics that professionals use consistently when mixing up a simple two-ingredient drink:
Ginger: Ginger can mean anything from ginger ale to ginger beer to even straight ginger. While straight ginger needs muddling and is more suited for a cocktail, both ginger ale and ginger beer can be combined with whiskey to make a delicious drink.
Coca Cola: Whiskey and Coca Cola get along famously. Coca Cola’s sweet, rooty, caramel flavors pair well with the vanilla and oak flavors in whiskey. Things work out particularly well when using bourbon.
Soda Water: A whiskey soda, which quickly becomes a highball when served with ice in a Collins glass and stirred, is currently having a moment. It’s a perfect option for fans of cold, bubbly drinks.
Lemonade: For a perfect summer cooler, mix lemonade with whiskey. It’s refreshing and goes down easy as the citrus and sugar cut the power of the whiskey.
Iced Tea: A favorite in the South (and sometimes just called Kentucky tea), mixing iced tea and bourbon is another refreshing summer serve. Together, they soften each other’s edges, while also increasing each other’s aromatics.
Amaro: Amaro comes in a variety of different styles and types but the bitter, earthy flavors found throughout the category tend to work well with whiskey. Try light to medium amari with rye whiskey, and darker amari with bourbon.
Related: 11 Best Whiskey Glasses You Can Buy
How to Taste Whiskey
Before you even think of lifting a glass, here are the basic tasting rules on how to drink whiskey like a pro.
1. Pour lightly (Appropriate Serving Size)
The best way to drink whiskey is to exercise control. Don’t fill your glass. You want an ounce or two at most.
2. Swirl the Whiskey
...So it coats the glass, then breathe deeply with your nose about an inch from the liquid. Open your mouth as you inhale to let the alcohol fumes escape so you can better discern other flavor notes.
3. Add a Splash of Water to Your Glass
Seriously. Even a few drops will help reduce that familiar burn you get from the alcohol in the whiskey, enabling you to pick up the other subtle flavors present.
4. “Chew” Your Drink
Roll the liquid around in your mouth, exposing it to your entire tongue so you can pick up each unique flavor.
5. Breathe Through Your Nose
...As you swallow so the fumes rise up into your sinuses—the best way to appreciate the spirit’s finish.
Whiskey Drinking Tips: How to Choose the Right Whiskey Glass
When it comes to choosing a whiskey glass, you first have to consider how you want to use it. Is this glass simply intended for tasting, do you want to use it for whiskey on the rocks, or are you looking to become an at-home mixologist (which will require a variety of glass types)?
Tasting glasses fit around one measure. They've got a short base, wide middle, and narrower top, which allows air to get to the liquid, releasing the aromas, then concentrating them at the top of the glass.
If you’re looking for a tasting glass, there’s really only one name worth knowing: Glencairn. The brand's been making its patented whisky glasses in Scotland since 1981. This is how to drink whiskey like a pro.
The tumbler (aka the rocks glass, old fashioned glass, and lowball) is the most common type of whiskey glass. While it’s not ideal for nosing due to its wide rim, this glass is perfect for serving whiskey on the rocks or using for a variety of cocktails, including the old fashioned, whiskey sour, Penicillin, and many more. You can use a variety of glassware for whiskey cocktails.
Best Whiskey Cocktails
2 ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Garnish: brandied cherry
Add rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters into a mixing glass with ice.
Stir until well-chilled.
Strain into a chilled Nick and Nora or coupe. Garnish with a brandied cherry.
2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
1/4 ounce simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon water
Garnish: orange peel or Luxardo cherry
Add sugar and bitters into a mixing glass with water and stir until the sugar is almost dissolved.
Fill the mixing glass with ice, bourbon, and stir until well-chilled.
Strain into a rocks glass over one large cube.
Garnish with cherry or express orange peel over glass.
2 ounces bourbon
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
¾ ounce simple syrup
Garnish: Maraschino cherry and ½ orange wheel
Combine bourbon, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker.
Fill shaker with ice, cover, and shake vigorously until the shaker is very cold (around 20 seconds).
Strain cocktail into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with orange wheel and cherry.
1.5 ounces whiskey
3 tsp honey
¾ cup of water
2 to 3 teaspoons lemon juice
Garnish: cinnamon stick and lemon round
In a teapot or saucepan, bring water to a simmer. Pour the hot water into a mug.
Add whiskey, 3 teaspoons honey, and 3 teaspoons lemon juice.
Stir until honey dissolves into hot water.
Garnish with a lemon round and cinnamon stick.
2 ounces blended Scotch
¾ ounces fresh lemon juice
¾ ounces honey/ginger syrup*
Garnish: candied ginger
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain over a giant ice rock in a chilled rocks glass.
Float a bar spoon of Scotch on top and garnish with candied ginger.
8 mint leaves
¼ ounce simple syrup
2 ounces bourbon
Garnish: mint sprig and Angostura bitters
In a julep cup or rocks glass, lightly muddle the mint leaves in simple syrup.
Add bourbon, then pack the glass tightly with crushed ice.
Stir until the cup is frosted on the outside.
Top with more crushed ice to form an ice dome, and garnish with a mint sprig and a few drops of bitters.