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Mastering Whisky: Our Guide to Whisky on the Rocks

E600CA23-A5CF-4F30-BC0F-7E8B830451E0@2x Jun 04 2019 · 5 min read

High quality enables simplicity, while also allowing versatility. An excellent single malt Scotch whisky does not need additions to supplement it, and is often preferred to be enjoyed neat, with a little water, or “on the rocks”. But what does it mean to serve whisky on the rocks, and what are the possible reasons for doing so? 

Having whisky on the rocks is essentially serving whisky poured over ice, as opposed to neat in a glass with nothing added. While the denotation “on the rocks” can be applicable to any liquor, it is most commonly associated with, and attributed to, whisky. The definitive history of the phrase is uncertain, although it rose to popularity in the mid 1900s. Some hold that it became a slang term for ice back when drinkers had to chip off chunks of ice from a large block, so their appearance was that of small rocks. Others muse that in the past, Scots would take stones from cold mountain streams to help chill their whisky. However the term came to be widely known and any bartender will understand the meaning if you order a whisky on the rocks. 


How does drinking whisky on the rocks change the experience?

Choosing to drink whisky on the rocks is an ongoing point of debate and contention in the world of whisky. Traditionalists and purists hold that whisky should only be enjoyed neat, or with a little splash of water at most. However, for those who like a more chilled whisky, or prefer a larger amount of dilution, whisky with ice is preferred. We don’t believe there is a right or wrong way to enjoy whisky, in the end it all comes down to personal preference. However having whisky on the rocks will change the composition of the spirit, and thus your experience of it. 

When you serve whisky on the rocks, two main things happen. First, you are diluting the drink. This means that the alcohol percentage in the whisky is being lowered, which can moderate the stronger flavours and particular characteristics of the spirit. This initially can actually reveal new dimensions of the whisky, as the water will interact with the whisky to change the composition of the spirit. Second, drinking whisky on the rocks chills the whisky. This obviously changes the flavours that are revealed in the whisky as you experience it.


Why Choose to drink whisky on the rocks?

Some people prefer a colder serve, so whisky with ice is a clear way to achieve this. Additionally, serving scotch on the rocks is a means of introducing whisky to those who may have not had the spirit before. This is because the combination of dilution and chilled temperature helps make the initial bold flavours more approachable to a new drinker. 


Why shouldn’t you choose to drink whisky on the rocks?

While there are many who believe that whisky with ice is a perfectly suitable way to consume single malt, there are others who hold that it is unacceptable just as strongly. This is because drinking whisky when it is too cold may actually depress and numb the very flavours that make that whisky distinct. This chilled dilution can upset the balance of the whisky, and thus lowers the experience. Furthermore, it is impossible to regulate the rate and amount of dilution, thus your whisky can quickly pass through that desired ratio and temperature and become too watery. Purists believe that the warming, bolder characteristics of a neat whisky is preferred, and is experiencing the flavours as the whisky maker intended, with nothing added.


What is the best ice to use?

While this may seem like an unnecessary question to some, there are elements to ice that will serve to enhance or degrade the overall enjoyment of your whisky. Elements such as e size, age and shape of your ice changes the rate of dilution and flavour. Choose large cubes over small ice cubes, as it will melt slower and lessen the likelihood of over-dilution. Use fresh ice cubes as opposed to older, as the aged ice can slowly take on the flavours of the freezer, and can transfer to your drink. Additionally, spherical balls of ice will melt slower than cubes, as there are no thin areas or corners. Thus they offer a more even rate of dilution while still effectively cooling your drink. You can buy an ice baller double that can easily be stored in your freezer for quick access. They also make a sophisticated statement in your whisky glass.


Different Variations on the Classic

While drinking your favourite whisky on the rocks is always an option, different whiskies can change their flavours when served on the rocks, so feel free to try whiskies you might have otherwise turned aside. Bourbon or rye whisky will taste differently compared to scotch whisky served on the rocks. Whiskies with higher alcohol content in particular are suited to being served on the rocks, as the dilution can prevent your smell and taste buds from the ethanol burn from the alcohol fumes. Alternatively, whiskies with lower ABVs may be more suited to being enjoyed neat, as they have lighter more balanced flavours that do not require ice. 


Alternatives to Ice

For those who prefer to drink chilled whisky while avoiding dilution, whisky stones present an alternative. Chilled stones usually made of soapstone or other soft rock can be added to your glass and chill your whisky, without the risk of dilution. While soapstone stops retaining heat of the whisky after a certain point, limiting its effectiveness, they are a useful option. As another option stainless steel whisky stones have come into popularity in recent years. Filled with a cooling gel, they stay cold much longer than a stone material, and thus can chill whisky more effectively. Additionally, taking measures such as chilling your glass before serving whisky can cool down your whisky to the desired level, without using ice or whisky stones.


However you choose to enjoy your whisky, there are multiple options for experimentation. You can try a new whisky neat or on the rocks, and then perhaps compare how the flavours play on your palate, or notice how the ice might impact the aromas created. In the end it all comes down to personal taste, and what you feel elevates your experience and enjoyment of your favourite single malt.