For many men, there is no rite of passage more exciting – or more intimidating – than becoming a whiskey drinker. In movies and TV shows, in rock, rap, and country music, whiskey and Scotch drinkers are the height of cool. In the real world, many of the best stories start with, “I was drinking some whiskey…” That is why so many guys, young and old alike, want to learn how to drink whiskey.
Frankly, as long as you enjoy whiskey and its variants, there’s no wrong way to drink it. Mix it with Coke or soda water, or drink it neat or on the rocks. Enjoy a sweet Canadian whisky, a stiff American bourbon, or a peaty Scotch. There are as many ways to enjoy a whiskey (or whisky) as there are variants of the liquor. Like drinking wine or eating haute cuisine, the first and most important goal is to enjoy the experience. If you don’t, what’s the point?
Still, for many long-time whiskey drinkers, myself included, an appreciation for the sauce didn’t come immediately. The first time a single malt hits the back of your throat, you might find yourself coughing and sputtering. Don’t let that deter you, though. There is no finer drinking experience than sipping on a good Scotch. You just have to learn how to drink whiskey and properly appreciate it.
Becoming a Whiskey Drinker
I adore whiskey. I like bourbon. I love Scotch. I enjoy them when they’re mixed with soda, and I absolutely savor them when they’re served straight up. I will happily down low-quality bourbon when I’m drinking to get drunk, but I prefer sipping an expertly crafted Scotch. In fact, if money is no issue and there are options, I’ll choose the smokiest Scotch whisky on the shelf. The peatier, the better; that’s my motto. But that wasn’t always the case.
When it comes to alcohol, I was a late bloomer. I didn’t really get into liquor until after college when I was 22. I had beers or mixed drinks from time to time and celebrated my 21st with an Irish Car Bomb. But, for the most part, I rarely touched the stuff. When I did start drinking, my go-to liquor was rum. After about a year of rum and Cokes (and some bad nights), I switched to vodka. Rum had gotten too sweet. Vodka had more bite but wasn’t as harsh as brown liquors. I stuck with vodka and soda for about a year and then switched again. My new liquor of choice was Jack Daniels.
JD remained my drink for years after that. Usually, I mixed it with Coke, but sometimes I drank it straight. I abandoned Jack around the time I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, ironically, and switched to Irish whiskey; Jameson, specifically. It took a few more years before I got into Scotch. The first time I had a really smoky Scotch, in my early 20s, I nearly coughed up a lung. Over time, and with the help of more experienced drinkers, though, I gained an appreciation for it. Now, Scotch is always my first choice.
Understanding the different types of whiskey
More than any other liquor, becoming a whiskey drinker takes work. For one, you might be wondering why I sometimes write “whiskey” and other times write “whisky.” No, it isn’t a typo, there actually is a difference. As a general rule, the US and Ireland spell whiskey with an ‘e’. Most everyone else, including Scotland, Canada, and Japan, leaves the ‘e’ out.
Though there are dozens if not hundreds of variations on whiskey, the common ingredient is grain mash. The mash can contain barley, rye, corn, wheat, etc., and usually, it’s a mix of two or more. When something is referred to as a “single malt,” it means it’s made from just one malted grain, usually barley.
From there, whiskeys are generally referred to by their respective nations of origin. There is American and Irish whiskey, and Canadian and Scotch whisky, to name a few. Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that is usually (but not always) made in Kentucky. Each country has guidelines on what constitutes its specific types of whiskey. For instance, in the US, for something to be labeled “rye whiskey,” it must be made with at least 51% rye. Not so in Canada; any amount of rye in the mix makes it a Canadian rye whisky.
Though whiskeys (or whiskies) from particular nations often have common characteristics due to local regulations and grains, big variations exist. Personally, I often avoid Canadian whiskies because I find many to be sweeter than I like, but there are earthier ones. Likewise, not all Scotches are “smoky” (or peaty). If you don’t understand what smoky means, imagine the musky smell of a campfire in the autumn. It’s like that but on the back of your throat. Some people hate it. Others, like myself, crave it.
The Best Way to Drink Whiskey
Now that you know more about the stuff, it’s time to get into how to drink whiskey. Once you get the basics down, you can show off with your bros or impress a date. Or you can just learn to appreciate one of the finer things in life.
How to drink Scotch and whiskey
Most quality Scotches and whiskies are meant to be enjoyed neat, meaning no mixers or ice. However, some connoisseurs say good whiskeys should be served with a splash of water or ice (on the rocks). The water, they contend, brings out the various flavors of the particular whiskey. Personally, I prefer my whiskey straight up. When I do have ice, though, I opt for one large cube or, better yet, a solid ice ball. That way the whiskey isn’t too watered down.
Certain whiskeys are better with mixers than others. For instance, while Jameson and Coke is a thing, it’s less common than Jack and Coke. With Irish whiskeys like Jameson, if I mix it with something, I choose ginger ale or ginger beer. Then there’s the classic “7 and 7”: Seagram's Seven Crown mixed with 7 Up. While a bit sweet for my taste, this is the type of simple cocktail a traveling salesman might drink.
Speaking of cocktails, there are numerous good ones made with whiskey. I rarely order a drink with more than two ingredients, but if I do, Don Draper’s favorite is great. The Old Fashioned, repopularized by Mad Men and hipster bartenders with handlebar mustaches, is a classic for a reason. Just don’t bother ordering it at a dive bar. Other essential whiskey cocktails include the Manhattan (essentially a whiskey martini), mint julep, whiskey sour, and the Sazerac.
If you want a mixed whiskey without a fancy name, order a highball: it’s whiskey, a non-alcoholic mixer, and ice. The mixer can be soda water, Coke, ginger ale, or basically anything else. If you order a highball at a bar without specifying the mixer, you’ll probably get soda water from the gun. These are just some possibilities, but you should experiment until you find the drink that’s right for you.
Should you be sipping whiskey?
Once you’ve developed a taste for whiskey, you may choose to enter the world of sipping whiskey. While some whiskeys are basically meant to be mixed or taken as a shot, some whiskeys need to be savored. For such whiskies, which tend to be pricier, you’ll often be advised to sip them. (If you’re the one paying the bill, you may sip them just to make them last.)
Sipping is commonly how you drink Scotch, particularly the single malt varieties. You won’t get the full flavor profile if you shoot or mix high-quality Scotches. This is true with most liquors, actually. While tequila is a go-to alcohol for shot takers, there are quite a few tequilas (and mezcals) designed for sipping. Tastes will vary and so will your preferences. As a general rule, though, if the bartender retrieves your whiskey from the third shelf or higher, sip it.
How to Drink Whiskey with Other Whiskey Drinkers
In my experience, the best way to drink whiskey is with fellow whiskey appreciators. I’ve learned tons over the years from more experienced drinkers. They’ll tell you which mixers best complement certain brands and which whiskeys should be drunk neat (or with water). Like wine connoisseurs, they can also help you recognize the unique flavor profiles of what you’re drinking. Pretty soon you’ll be detecting notes of caramel or hazelnuts.
Whiskey and Scotch snobs do tend to be very opinionated when it comes to the hard stuff. And, yes, some will judge you and your comparative lack of knowledge. Like any snob, though, they’ll warm to you immediately if you defer to their wisdom and experience. Get them to be your teacher and they won’t stop pontificating on what makes a good Scotch truly great. You’ll probably even get a history lesson out of it.
It's okay if whiskey isn’t your thing
If you try different whiskeys and decide none are right for you, that’s fine. Not everyone is going to be a whiskey or Scotch drinker. Don’t feel pressured by some silly ideal of manhood into drinking something you don’t enjoy. If your drink is making you sick, why waste the money?
If you’re really set on becoming a whiskey or Scotch drinker, though, then follow my lead. Try a few different styles and find which floats your boat. Get to know some other whiskey drinkers and learn from their experiences. Heck, do a deep dive online so you sound smart. The most important thing, though, is that you enjoy yourself. Once you find the whiskey that’s right for you, you’re in for some great conversations, wild nights, and good stories.
Frequently Asked Questions About Drinking Whiskey
What is the correct way to drink whiskey?
It depends on the brand and style. Generally, if the whiskey is good quality, drink it neat or with one ice cube or a splash of water. Common mixers are Coke, ginger ale, and soda water; however, certain mixers go better with certain styles.
How do you drink whiskey on a date?
Never order a drink on a date that you don’t know you already like. If you don’t normally drink whiskey neat, don’t do it just to impress a date; you’ll regret it. The best idea is to have a go-to cocktail (e.g., Old Fashioned, Manhattan) and know how you like it made. That way you won’t be thrown when the bartender or server asks you any questions.
What do you mix with whiskey?
If you are mixing your whiskey, the standard mixers are ginger ale/beer, Coke, and soda water. Some people enjoy a citrus-based mixer, such as lemon or even grapefruit. Try different mixers until you find what tastes best for you. Eventually, you might find you prefer your whiskey without mixers.
What is a good drink to order on a first date?
On a first date, you should go with an uncomplicated cocktail like a highball. A whiskey and ginger ale is always a good simple choice; you want to avoid anything too strong. If you’re nervous and drinking straight whiskey, you could embarrass yourself or ruin the date.