Five great myths of cocktail chemistry

There is nothing wrong with adding ice to scotch, writes Kevin Liu at Serious Eats. In fact, a little water can change the flavor profile of the drink for the better. What's more, chilling your scotch won't dampen down the aroma. A chilled drink won't be flinging off scent molecules left and right, but it will warm up enough from your hot breath to get the chemistry of scent where it needs to go — and to give you the flavor experience you want.


  1. i always drink Scotch on ice. that is the flavor experience i want.

    if someone else wants a different flavor experience, they can drink their Scotch differently.

    1. I know. I’ve gotten  so much flak from snobs, and you know what… I *have* tried it both ways, and yes with *good* Scotch. I know what I like. 

      Maybe now people will STFU a bit about what other people’s taste buds must be like.

      1. A friend of mine once said, “Anyone who complains that British beer is served at room temperature is missing the fact that the average British room is fifty degrees.” Although technically he should have said ten degrees, since they use Celsius on their side of the pond…

        Also I prefer to drink Scotch neat, but it never bothered me if someone else wanted to drink it over ice or, for that matter, mixed with Dr. Pepper and served in a plastic cup. And now I think I should try it with ice, or at least chilled.

        I’m tearing up my snob card now.

        1. Officially they use Celcius, but if it’s anything like Canada, a lot of people still use Fahrenheit. Especially older people who will try to justify why it’s a better system.

          1. While it’s not an unreasonable assumption, people in England use Celsius pretty much exclusively.

          2. I never use Fahrenheit, but I’ll use other imperial units such as miles and pounds at times. Generally at the supermarket they use kg, in a market they have lb.

      2. I’ve often found that the snobs who harp on the no ice things the hardest are the ones who know the least about whiskey. My uncle for example insists on all whiskey being served neat, and swears up and down that Johnny Walker Blue is the greatest Scotch on the planet. This is despite his having never tried quality Scotch other than Johnny Walker Blue, and the fact that his argument for why its good is mostly based on how satisfying it is to spend $200 on it.

        1. Is that how much it costs?  Good lord, you can buy excellent single malts for that price can’t you?

          1. There are at least dozens of way better single malts that are very accessible and cheaper than the $200-$250 price tag of Blue. 

    2.  Have you ever tried like a nice modest Laphroaig 18 with a splash of Heinz fancy katsup? Oh, man! That’s extasy.

        1.  oh, but there is no “wrong way” to drink! I also enjo a nice Templeton rye with some nacho cheese sauce in it. mmmmmmm

  2. Well thank goodness for that. All this time I thought those ice cubes made me a bad person.

  3. I’ve tried to explain this business of a “wee drop of water” in my single malt many times, always to blank or incredulous stares.  Really, it brings out the flavor nicely.  It’s not crazy!

    1. I had a remarkable experience with that: a friend had procured some cask-strength scotch from a small distillery in Scotland, and we all anxiously tried it out.  It was, of course, extremely strong: probably too strong for any subtle flavors, but surprisingly smooth and drinkable.  Then, on recommendation, I tried it with the “wee drop of water”: all the alcohol was suddenly released and it became almost undrinkable.

      1. Cask strength liquors are actually intended to be watered down for service. This is the way whiskey was traditionally produced: high proof, unwatered. You would then water it to ~40% abv before consuming. Either the barman would water it before pouring, or a blender before bottling, or you’d be served water with your whiskey to do so yourself. Now a days its mostly done in the distillery right after production. 

        1. Exactly correct.  It was just remarkable to me that it was so easily palatable before the drop of water.

          1. I’m guessing that depends on the exact proof it comes out of the barrel at. I’ve had a lot of whiskey and other liquors that are around 100-120 proof and their generally pretty palatable, even if they’re better diluted a bit. But there are some cask strength tipples out there that hit 135+  I imagine those would be quite harsh. 

    2. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society always give tasting notes neat and “reduced” (i.e. with water) for example:
      (they also write poetry, but that’s another matter)

      Personally, I find water can bring out peppery, hot tastes especially in Islay/Campbeltown malts, or some of the vanillas and sweetness in Speysides – depends on the whisky.

      Most tastings I’ve been to encourage you start neat, and then add progressively more to see how it changes. I tend to like a couple of drops in cask strength whisky, but not much more, but there’s definitely other tastes that come out when it gets very dilute.

      I wouldn’t tend to chill it myself – I like it on the warm side, and will happily float a glass in the bath when I’m feeling indulgent. Disagree with the article’s reasoning about “it’s all OK, it gets hot in your mouth” because so much of the subtlety comes from “nosing”.

      Strength can be an issue, but I’ve had 80%ABV rums which are quite drinkable neat. It does take practice to enjoy cask strength whisky without just burning your mouth, though.

      Thoroughly agree that however you like it is the right way to drink whisky!

  4. I first learnt to drink scotch neat on a school trip to France at the age of fourteen. I don’t believe the flavour experience was uppermost in my thoughts. Now I drink Irish whiskey with a little water.

  5. Depends on the Scotch. A really peaty single malt like an Islay needs no more than 2-3 drops of water and no chilling. A young blended Scotch can usually benefit from a healthy amount of ice. And the former you sip, the latter you drink.

  6. A wee drop of water is fine but a regular sized ice cube in a 1.5-ounce glass of scotch is about 1:1 water and scotch by the time you’re done.  That’s not a wee drop, that’s watered down horribly.

  7. Well now, I can’t but help correct you…

    There’s nothing wrong with ice in YOUR whisky. You can put what you like in YOUR whisky.

    Put ice in mine, and I’m liable to be rather upset with you.
    It does affect the flavour by dampening it. (The article even admits that.) And I don’t like that.

    But heck, when it’s your whisky, do as you please!

  8. You know, Maggie, there are some ideas worth going to war over… not any of the silly reasons for which this country actually goes to war, but maybe the inviolability of Scotch.  So I hope you think very carefully before posting such incendiary articles.  It would be cruel to just sit back after dropping such a bomb, claiming ‘the fog of war’ and then waiting to see what happens.  You wouldn’t do that, would you?

    I have a vague recollection of the last Bond villain pouring out two drinks from a cask of what he claimed was 50-year-old Macallans.  If he had corrupted the Scotch with ice or water, well, that villain turned out to be a candy-assed mama’s boy* anyway, so I wouldn’t have been surprised to see that he knew what the ‘good stuff’ was but not how to drink it properly. 

    If you don’t enjoy the burn while drinking Scotch, ya’ll can hike yer skirts up to perch on a bar stool and order one a them sweet drinks with the umbrellas en’m, or maybe a sodee pop.  When your balls finally descend in a decade or so, you can try again, see if the burn is more to your liking.

    *actually, I love watching Javier Bardem.  He scares the crap out of me every time.  Hugely talented actor.

    1. He scares the crap out of me every time.

      I guess that you don’t think of him as That Guy from Jamón Jamón and Huevos de Oro.

  9. I order it neat because you usually get a better pour that way.

    You can also put some actual rocks in the freezer to keep your scotch chilled without watering it down.

    1. Yeah when out it is best to order neat I think. I made that mistake once or twice and received an nasty look and a glass  full of ice in return. Point taken.

    2. It would depend. A lot of places just fill a glass top with liquor for rocks,,,, while they measure 2oz for a neat poor. The fill to the brim will likely give you a lot more for your money. Most places use a measure amount regardless of how its served, even if its eye balled or speed poured the goal is usually 2-2.5oz. 2oz is the standard bar pour, but some places will add a little extra to make a healthy volume out of anything that goes unmixed into a rocks glass. But I have been to (usually up scale) places where a rocks pour is a stringy measure and a neat order is poured to 2-3 fingers (whatever looks best in the glass).

      When I was a bartending the pour was the pour. You got your 2oz regardless of how you ordered it. If you wanted a heavier pour you ordered a double.

  10. Everything you ever need to know about Scotch whiskey and more:

    and if I catch you drinking it wrong… I will kill you

  11. They appear to have missed the mark entirely on why you should not add ice to Scotch.  The issue is not the temp.  nor is it watering down the drink.  Cold is fine; water does indeed make the flavors bloom in various different brands of scotch.

    The issue is that even if 1 ice cube  == desired splash of water.  While the ice is frozen, that splash of water is not integrated into the drink.  The ice turns into the splash of water over time.  And over that time, you are also drinking the scotch.

    It is all about the ratio of Scotch:Water.  As the ice melts, the ratio changes.  You start with one flavor profile and end up with another.  

    1. And that’s a problem? I most often drink my scotch on the rocks for exactly that reason. Its a dynamic experience. For the first minute or so the scotch is still warm and undiluted so you’re effectively tasting it neat. The over the next few minutes it starts to bloom and open up and you can taste that as its happening . It moves into the sweet spot and you’ve got a nice stretch of time  where the scotch is exactly where it should be but constantly changing. Different flavors recede while others come out. Provided you don’t finish it quickly interesting stuff keeps happening as it begins to get even more diluted. The subtler flavors fall off, then some of the more robust ones, and finally on the last sip all  the complexity is gone. And you can taste the single defining character of the whiskey all on its own. 

      If you’re interested in understanding, dissecting, and enjoying any spirit (as opposed to posturing) you should be drinking it on the rocks. And neat. And chilled. And mixed. Any way you can get it really.
      Ice doesn’t work for everything every time. I wouldn’t for example drink a Glenfarclas on the rocks regularly. Their stuff is very subtle and complex, and you’re going to lose that a bit too quickly for ice to be the way to go. Laphroaig on the other hand is about as subtle as a hammer. But there’s a lot of complexity there (hidden by all the smoke) that comes out and develops quite  well as a decent amount of ice slowly melts into it. And I wouldn’t know this unless I had tried them both in as many different configurations as I could muster. 

      1. The problem is when you pass that sweet spot and go into the watery/undrinkable stage, or when you have a drink that you know well and dislike it neat.
        Why not just taste, add a splash, taste, add a splash, repeat?  This way you can learn your preference for that particular scotch or whiskey.This also allows you to adjust the component ratio at your own drinking speed, instead of having to adjust your drinking speed to the melting ice.

  12. There’s a link in the article to another article regarding supertasters and the taste of alcohol, here. I found it much more interesting because all those ice myths are completely lost on me – drinking whisky neat, with ice, or with water are all intolerable to me and any subtle differences are completely lost.

    I knew about the science of supertasters (and that I am one) but not the specific relationship to alcohol. It’s a good article for anyone else reading the comments here wondering how everyone can tolerate whisky drunk like this (I can drink – and reasonably enjoy it – mixed with copious amounts of Coke or DP; don’t give me that look).

  13. There is another issue when it comes to scotch & ice – the change in temperature can make whiskies   of less than 46% ABV go cloud up. There’s apparently no chang in taste, but it’s often perceived as a defect. This isn’t much of a problem in the UK, where whisky is rarely drunk with a great deal of ice, but apparently plenty of distilleries with an eye on the US market now preemptively chill filter their whiskies before bottling. Whether this process has an effect on taste is apparently a cause of controversy.

  14. Enjoy drinks the way you like them, but be willing to experiment. Mostly, this article makes me want to mix up more cocktails. 

  15. “A cocktail is an alcoholic mixed drink that contains three or more ingredients.” – Oxford English Dictionary

      1. Going by this definition, no, but of course you could call it that. We could probably agree that at least two components would have to be present to make a cocktail though. And one of them couldn´t be ice.

  16. Now explain why putting any kind of booze into any kind of soda makes the soda go instantly flat.

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