What Real Whiskey Drinkers Know About Drinking Whiskey

Whiskey on the rocks

It’s safe to say we’ve entered an era of peak whiskey. Brown liquor’s getting more love at the bar—and not just in the form of a burning shot after a bad breakup. For the finer bullet points of this sweet, barreled spirit, we checked in with five men who’ve made whiskey sips part of their payroll.

Price doesn’t always equal quality

“Whiskey doesn’t ‘show price’ the way some wines or foods do. A higher price tag does not always indicate a superior product, just as the cheap stuff isn’t necessarily swill. Bourbon, for example, has become big business; a booming industry with annual global sales numbers that flirt with the $10 billion mark. All this means to us whiskey drinkers is that we need to watch our backs. Do your homework. Know your distillers and the quality of the products they offer. And trust your palate, not your wallet. Nobody wants to be the guy having to pretend that a $65 shot tastes transcendent, while all his drinking buddies know it’s bunk.”

-Beau Burtnick, bar manager at SuperBite and Kask in Portland

Try it neat and breathe through your mouth

“If you’re tasting a whiskey for the first time, you have to approach it neat. (The moment you add water or ice the molecules break apart and the flavor changes.) Put the whiskey under your nose, but breathe through your mouth so you get a nice soft airflow. If you go in for a huge whiff you’re going to assault your palette and numb it, and the nuances of the flavor will be lost. When you take a sip, try to hold the liquid in your mouth for 20 to 30 seconds so you can taste the evolution of the spirit before swallowing.”

-Andrew Abrahamson, bartender, Director of Single Spirit Bars at 213 Hospitality in LA.

… But there’s no wrong way to drink it

“I’ve learned not to judge. Everyone likes different types of whiskey and drinks them differently. With water, ice, neat—there is no wrong way to drink a whiskey. I mean, it can be frustrating to talk to a customer for 10-15 minutes about a certain whisky and then they order it with cranberry juice, but hey, it’s their choice.”

-Marcel Simoneau, bartender, owner at Noorman’s Kil in Brooklyn, NY


Mixing isn’t rocket science

“There are four main types of whiskey to choose from when cocktailing. Bourbon whiskey (51% corn plus malted barley and wheat/rye), rye whiskey (51% rye grain), wheat whiskey (51% wheat grain) and corn whiskey (must contain at least 80% corn grain). When tasting the different types you need to look for the qualities of corn, wheat, barley and rye to distinguish one from the other. You’ll be able to pick up a range of flavors from spice, caramel, and the barrel itself.”

– Jon Ruiz, bartender and beverage director at AMK Kitchen Bar and Nosh & Booze in Chicago.

Ask for a scoot

“Years ago, my dear friend and colleague Ansel Vickery (Free House, Portland) introduced me to the “scoot,” as he coined it, a simple half-pour of any spirit. Drinking this abbreviated version of a full shot made my drinking life better in more ways than I can list here. First off, I got less hammered. Maybe it’s my old age setting in, but I’m starting to think that most bars’ standard pour volumes are gradually increasing toward homicidal. Enjoying big flavor without committing to a big hangover is what I’m all about, and a half-shot keeps things civil. Secondly, sipping less whiskey per drink means I can try a few different bottles before I get pie-eyed. Just like comparing wine varietals or vintages side-by-side, tasting small amounts of whiskey helps in understanding the nuances and subtleties of one versus another. Not all bars will grant you this luxury, but any bartender worth his salt should be happy to sell you a measured scoot.”

-Beau Burtnick, bar manager at SuperBite and Kask in Portland


Don’t get stuck on one

“The more I work with whiskey, the more I learn to revel in its sheer variety. There are a few bottles that I return to again and again, but only a few. Mostly I enjoy drinking something interesting, deep, unique, sometimes even a little strange. I definitely don’t believe there’s such as thing as the best whiskey—the happy truth is that there are so many beautiful whiskies, and that they’re so different from one another.”

-Dan Smith, bartender, general manager at Queen Mary Tavern in Chicago

Think beyond the Old Fashioned

“A well-made Old Fashioned or Manhattan works wonders to showcase whiskey’s elegant simplicity, but dig a little deeper and familiarize yourself with equally badass drinks like the Brooklyn, Lion’s Tail, Toronto, Brown Derby, American Trilogy, and Tipperary. Whiskey loves to open up and expose hidden complexities, and cocktails are an efficient means to that end.”

-Beau Burtnick, bar manager at SuperBite and Kask in Portland

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