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Fib Friday #4: Single malt should only be drunk neat

It’s #FibFriday, so what do we have for you today? Fib of the Week #4 – ‘single malt should only be drunk neat.’. Of course, there are many variations on this: you shouldn’t add anything other than maybe a little water to good whisky, never use ice, single malts should never be put in a cocktail. Let’s start with the basics - whisky is a distilled spirit at minimum 40% ABV and in single cask expressions in particular ~50% ABV or higher. That’s strong, and if you aren’t used to it, that’s likely to burn. Most sane people started by watering their whisky at least a bit - I know we did, in some cases as high as 50:50 water to the bottled strength in the first couple of years. But what about taste?

A 2017 study proved what a lot of whisky enthusiasts already knew anecdotally. You add a bit of water, you don’t just lower the strength, you also bring out more, different flavours. Usually these relate to what you are already tasting, but some can be a surprise. This used to be summarised by saying that adding water helps separate out complex strands of chemicals, so that you can taste the full range of flavours more easily. We now know from this study that it’s more to do with how ethanol molecules accumulate on the surface or pocket throughout the drinks, as affected by their bonding with water at one end and repelling water at the other. Higher water concentration, more dispersed ethanol molecules, also more flavour compounds towards the top of the glass for you to taste. Be careful, though: a little water can go a long way to changing the taste, so we always recommend adding only at most a couple of drops at a time, ideally using a pipette. If you don’t happen to have one, but do have a straw, putting your thumb or finger over the end to draw up water and then gradually releasing it makes a good makeshift alternative - what can I say, we’ve been caught out before!

In the case of adding ice, it is likewise all about the chemistry. When a molecule is warmer, it will vibrate and move more; colder things will be more clustered together, and thus more closed off in flavour. If you want to mute and bind the flavours in your drink closer together, add ice. The same applies the process of going with e.g. those whisky rocks/stones that are now on the market, although obviously if you are operating from either a cold glass or chilled stones, rather than ice, you won’t have the gradual addition of further dilution to consider as well. In either case, you will affect the flavour so that it is less intense. But equally this applies in reverse, where the same pertains beautifully in a few whiskies we know to warming them gently in the glass to a little above room temperature with your hand, adding to the intensity and bringing out further notes.

What does this tell us about ice and water? It’s all about flavour and how you want to experience it. Take hotter climate countries like much of Japan or particularly India - straight whisky might not be very appealing some days. But you know what might be? A long, chilled whisky-based drink that emphasises the qualities of the spirit - and that’s precisely why highballs are so popular in certain countries (and also among many whisky experts). Incidentally our favourite highball is made in a tall glass filled with ice, add a slice of citrus, ideally lime, then squeeze the rest of the fruit in as well; add a couple of measures of lightly peated whisky - Caol Ila is a particular favourite; add a liberal dash of your bitters of choice and top up with a good quality soda water like the one from Fever Tree. Simply give it a wee stir before garnishing with a teaspoon of pink peppercorns. Bliss on a hot day, e.g. for aperitifs when you’ve got your pals round for a barbecue or to watch the rugby. Stronger mixers will of course cover the flavour more and integrate differently, but if your preference is for a whisky and coke, then why shouldn’t you? If you’ve bought it, it is yours to drink, and you should do that however you enjoy it. Just, please, use a good quality cola.

And speaking of all things good quality? As we’ve tried to emphasise throughout this post, what you do with your whisky is all about flavour and how you want to drink it. Have a cocktail idea? Well, we are huge fans of the theory that the better quality ingredients you use, for anything, the better it will taste. Whisky is a massive, hugely diverse spirit perfectly suited to being the star of the show in a whole range of cocktail styles. Have an idea but worried about using too good quality a whisky? We say go for it. Why not elevate that drink? If you’ve got the flavours right, it’s going to be sublime.

Here at Fib Whisky, we are all about honest spirits and enjoying them your way. Do what you like with your dram. Just be aware of the effects on flavour of doing different things and you can’t go wrong. Indeed, you’ll enjoy everything so much more. Slàinte!


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