A whiskey neat has long been considered a man's go-to drink. Never with ice, never with water, just a glass of aged glory. But this isn't really justified.
"The first thing I like to dispel, and I hear it much too frequently, is that you should never add water to your whiskey," says Tommy Tardie, owner of The Flatiron Room, an award-winning whiskey bar in New York featuring over 1,000 bottles of whiskey.
"I've had the pleasure of visiting a ton of distilleries and drinking with a lot of distillers who make [whiskey], and I've yet to find one who drinks their whiskey neat," Tardie says. "People like Dave Stewart, who's the distiller behind Glenfiddich and Balvenie, putting a big splash of water in it, you know that's gotta be okay, you know?"
However, Tardie says, "if you're looking to really understand it and decipher what's in the glass, start with it neat." When you order your whiskey neat, ask for water on the side. If you're drinking luxury whiskeys and distilled water is available, use that — it won't add any external flavors to the whiskey. If you don't have distilled water, bottled or even tap will be just fine. If you like the whiskey neat, then just keep drinking it that way. "If maybe you want to try a little bit more or maybe it's not speaking to you, just add a couple drops of water," Tardie continues. "You don't want to add too much — you can always add more, but you can't take it out. Then let it sit and then come back to it and see if you like it." If it's still not for you after that, try adding a little bit more water, and try it again. "If after that you don't like it, just give it to a friend," he laughs.
Tardie says adding water to whiskey can have very positive effects, equating it to what happens to the countryside after a rain. "Suddenly everything is very alive," he says. "You can smell the pavement, you can smell the grass, the wood in the barn: it's wet, suddenly all these aromatics come to life." Adding water can release subtle scents and tastes in the whiskey you might not be able to experience otherwise, while also making the whiskey more palatable. "If you drink something that's really strong, sometimes the alcohol just masks your tongue and you're left with that heat in your mouth," Tardie says. "By adding water to it, you're bringing down the alcohol content and you're allowing yourself to taste more of the flavors."
This sounds like something you should do all the time then, right? Nope. "Sometimes certain whiskeys that are really old, they're really fragile, and if you add water to them, they're going to break it apart, and you'll just lose everything," Tardie says. "It doesn't apply to all whiskeys. It really applies to your palate and what you prefer drinking at the time." How a whiskey tastes to you can depend on everything from the weather to your metabolism, so ultimately you should just do what works for you on a particular day.
"It's a social lubricant, it's meant to be enjoyed, and the best way to drink it is however you want," Tardie says. "It's still just a drink, it's still just a glass of whiskey."
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