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Should you serve whisky with ice, water… or both?

How best to enjoy whisky has long been debated. But whether you prefer to drink whisky with ice, whisky with water or whisky neat, science suggests that dilution might just make it taste better.

There are almost as many ways to enjoy whisky as there are whiskies. Some of us enjoy it with ice, others prefer it with water. Many choose to drink it neat and countless others opt to shake, stir and mix it into cocktails. There’s no right or wrong way – how you choose to drink whisky is entirely up to you.

Whisky with ice

Ordering a whisky ‘on the rocks’ might not be the best approach if you want to appreciate the complex, hidden flavours and aromas of an aged single-malt whisky such as Glenmorangie 18 Years Old. That’s because the ice numbs your palate and dulls the taste and bouquet slightly. Instead, try it with a younger whisky such as Ardbeg Five Years Old Wee Beastie. Use large cubes or an ice ball, as smaller chunks will melt quickly and dilute the whisky. It’s also important to ensure the ice hasn’t been contaminated by other aromas in your freezer.

Whisky with water

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a drop or two of water in a glass of whisky wouldn’t make much difference. But adding even the smallest amount works a particular type of alchemy, softening its texture, preventing an overwhelming taste of alcohol that masks more delicate flavours, and opening up its bouquet – a bit like when you spritz water on a flower in bloom.

As two Swedish chemists discovered, the reason is quite scientific. Their study found that in whisky with lower alcohol concentrations, taste-making molecules bind with alcohol molecules and then get repelled by the water. This causes them to group at the surface, making it easier for aromas to emanate and for your tongue to taste the flavour molecules. But in whiskies with higher alcohol concentrations, the alcohol molecules pool at the surface, pushing the flavour molecules into the body of the whisky where your senses can't access them as easily.

There’s no neat formula for how much water optimises the flavour of whisky, but the best approach is to add a drop, give the glass a swirl, take a sip and repeat until you find the flavour that’s right for you. Keep water close to hand in a Glenmorangie water jug.