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Everyone knows the old debate regarding whisky and ice. To have or not to have whisky with ice – that’s the question. We all know the famous expression “on the rocks”, which means drinking alcohol with few ice cubes to cool it. This is also a very popular way to drink whisky around the world, even though whisky enthusiasts usually don’t recommend it. “On the rocks” comes from the vikings, using pebbles to cool hydromel in the year 800. Hydromel is a fermented drink made from honey. The phrase “Scotch on the rocks” comes from the way Scottish farmers used rocks from springs or rivers to cool their whisky.
Drinking whisky with ice is popular but it can cause some inconvenient aspects as well:
- The dilution of whisky because of the melting ice
- Reducing the power of aromas because of the cold
First I used to have ice cubes with cheap blends but after a while, I learned that even the bad ones tend to get even worse with ice. The melting ice made all the taste go away, leaving only the stinging alcohol in there. So the only thing I ended up with, was the feel of grain and malt spirit, mostly the bad grainy spirit when talking about cheap blended whisky. So my tip would be:
Don’t have ice even with the whiskies you don’t love. Use whisky stones instead, if you want to cool your drink.
If you still want to use ice to cool your whisky, one tip is to use very large ice cubes, because they cool the drink more rapidly and tend to dilute the whisky less than small ice cubes. The Japanese have nice variants of whisky on the rocks, so I’ll take you through the Japanese way of using ice in whisky.
Usage of ice in Japanese culture
Suntory tells the story behind the importance of ice in Japan. In Japanese bar culture, it is important to have high quality liquor and ice. The reason why Japanese are so insistent on high quality ice can be found in Japanese history. Long time ago, storage areas were controlled by powerful people in Japan. When Japanese summers had extremely humid peaks, natural ice was made mostly for the Emperor and shoguns. The ice was made during winter time, drawing underground water from the base of mountains into a pool-like enclosure. This natural water was slowly frozen in 2 or 3 weeks. After that, the ice was cut into smaller pieces and stored for one year in caves. The ice was carried from the mountain villages to the city where the Emperor resided. Back then, ice was not commonly available for normal citizens – just a handful of the privileged class were able to cool down with ice during hot summers of Japan. That’s why Japanese people think ice as a noble commodity. Ice in Japan is like a symbol for power. The history is present in Japanese bar culture nowadays.
The Japanese “ice ball” whisky
The great Japanese sense of aesthetics along with good skills have given birth to a highly accurate and functional variant: the ice ball whisky. The reason why it’s accurate, is because of the perfectly round ball of ice replacing the usual ice cubes in the glass. Functionality comes from the fact that a large sphere of ice has much better cooling power. That is why carving ice into perfectly round balls has become an art, which is mastered perfectly by only a few great bartenders.
Nowadays there are also available ice ball pressing machines, that do the job of sculpting a perfectly rounded ice sphere.
Ice ball whisky is like a ritual, which has been divided into many stages. The first stage is the carving of the sphere. After that, the bartender slips the perfectly round ice ball into a empty glass. Bartenders may use cool water along with the ice, even though it’s not involved in the Suntory video below. The ice cools the glass quickly when turning it several times. Once the glass is cool (water is thrown away if used), the bartender pours whisky slowly on top of the whisky ball and moves the ball several times while the whisky is in the glass – the motion is important, because it homogenizes the temperature.
Whisky with ice ball allows you to drink the whisky cool and as thin as possible. It is very hard to carve the ice into a sphere, so you will have to find a bar where they offer whisky ice ball. Or start to practice ice sculpting immediately. Well, a very big block of ice, the one that will fill your whisky glass, will do as well if you can’t find a sphere of ice.
Mizuwari – whisky with mineral water
The Mizuwari is a typical Japanese way of drinking whisky. It literally means “mixed with water” and it is usually being served during a meal – in an ice filled glass. This way the whisky is being transformed into a less alcoholic drink, while trying to retain most of its flavors. Mizuwari is probably the most common Japanese way to drink whisky. It is very much used in gourmet restaurants of Japan.
If you’re in for a perfect Mizuwari:
- Fill the glass with ice and add one dose of whisky
- Then add 2 or 2 and a half doses of mineral water
- Below, Suntory shows you a nice way to make a Mizuwari
If you want the sparkling version of Mizuwari, you have to choose highball whisky. This drink is made using sparkling water. You can discover your favorite Japanese (or other) whiskies in a funny new way by drinking them as a Mizuwari or a highball. I’ll guarantee you will discover whisky in a new light way. Below is another Suntory video guiding you through the making of a highball whisky.
The “Twice up” whisky
Twice up is a mix of water and whisky in equal proportions. You simply add one dose of whisky for one dose of mineral water. Stated as “half-half”, usually served in a wine glass if you’re having it in Japan. This variant is not as much used as the other suggestions above.
Addition of water to whisky
I started this article by giving my own recommendation on the “can I put ice in my whisky” subject. Another question might be: can I add water to my whisky?
In my opinion, like anything regarding whisky, addition of water to whisky is a matter of own taste. Many people are not on the same page when it comes to this matter. Some like to add much water, some put only few drops and some people simply just drink the whisky as neat as possible. It’s up to you to find your perfect mix. For Japanese people, adding water to whisky not a problem. Japan is an archipelago where whisky has been consumed for over half a century by diluting it with water in Mizuwari or highball, for example. If you’re taking your first steps in your personal whisky voyage, simply start by experimenting. It is the only way to find out, whether you want you’re whisky with ice or water, or without them. If you decide to add water, here are few tips on adding it:
- One of the great rules in adding water in to whisky is to choose a neutral mineral water. Some mineral waters have surprisingly strong taste, which may interfere with the aromas of your whisky.
- Once in a while, even if you’re a big friend of “whisky/Scotch on the rocks” or “twice up”, it’s nice to enjoy whisky as it was developed by the producer. We are usually talking about a product, which has been carefully selected and worked with – usually aged for quite many years, well, even the youngest have been 3 years in a cask. Whisky is a product offering expertise and true craftsmanship in your glass. That’s why it is nice to appreciate it, look at the color, smell it, taste it before adding water or ice. Get to know it, as stupid as it may sound. Take your time, there’s no rush. The perfect way of enjoying whisky is in no hurry.
- About the progressive dilution of whisky:
- Few drops of water with a tea spoon is the whisky connoisseur or enthusiastic way to enjoy whisky. I myself, usually add only two to three drops water – allowing it to react with whisky by opening the aromas and taste a little bit. Some people use one third of water to two thirds of whisky. For my taste this procedure is diluting too much (if not talking about cask strength whisky), but for many people the dilution is weak so they like it. The alcohol level of the dram is only slightly declined, the aggressiveness of the drink is significantly decreased, without minifying the flavors too much. Of course this level of dilution will change the flavor profile, yet it remains pretty close to the original. Like stated before, one thirds of water dilution can be recommended on cask strength whiskies, which contain more than 50% of alcohol per volume level (ABV).
- Continuing on the adding water theme, the twice up is next. Like mentioned above on the section about Japanese whisky drinking culture, the “twice up” is made with 50% water and 50% whisky. This makes the whisky less aggressive and the alcoholic mouth power is equivalent to that of wine (if not a cask strength whisky). Gaining a smooth side, yet losing flavors – it has its ups and downs. This level of dilution changes the flavor profile and character of whisky, but suits for some people. It is up to you to find the best way enjoying whisky.
- Like stated before, Japanese people continued experimenting with the dilution and created the Mizuwari and highball whisky drinks. In those, the mixture is two thirds of water to one third of whisky. This makes the aggression of alcohol disappear very much. Water loosens the aromas and change the flavor profile significantly. Making it easier to drink the whisky, you’re drinking whisky as strong as a strong beer, served in a tall highball glass filled with ice. Suitable during meal.
- To go beyond this point would be useless. Aromas and flavors of whisky would be drowned by water and you might as well will be drinking some other, mild alcohol or beverages.
So can you add water in your whisky? The answer would be yes, of course you can. It is even sometimes highly recommended, even by hardcore whisky aficionados or connoisseurs. Start by experimenting, it’s the only way you’ll find your favorite way of enjoying whisky. Remember to take notes and tips from more experienced whisky fanatics, but always follow your own desire in taste.Whisky on the rocks Addition of water to whisky Japanese whisky culture