How to Drink Whisky the Right Way, According to an Expert

Bourbon, rye, scotch, Irish whiskey, and Canadian whisky are increasingly popular. Here's how to make the most of every sip.

Whisky drinking has been on the upswing. Data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) shows that revenues from the production and sale of bourbon — "America's native spirit," as they refer to it — have grown substantially over the past few years. Rye, Irish whiskey, and Scotch have also been getting more attention.

As it is with food, wine, fashion, and anything where personal taste is involved, there is more than one method of imbibing. With a variety of ways to enjoy distilled spirits, your tastes and preferences may evolve, or you might choose your whisky drinking style based on the occasion.

Travel + Leisure spoke to an expert on the topic of a growing interest in whisky, bar supervisor and tobacconist ("barkeep" is fine with him too) Russell Greene at Castle Hot Springs in Morristown, Arizona, who brings years of experience to his role at the resort's Bar 1896.

"I thought it was going to die out after a few years, but our culture has truly embraced whisky and brought it back to its original home," he said. "Now I have people of all ages eyeing the whisky shelves, and distilleries are popping up all over the place."

We spoke about how he usually serves whisky and any trends he's noticing. "Younger drinkers request cocktails more often than not, and the 40 and up crowd tend towards whisky neat or on the rocks," Greene said. "Plenty of younger guests will get whiskies, but I feel there are fewer due to the time it takes to develop an appreciative palate for whisky and spirits in general."

Professional bartender serving a cocktail in the glass with one big ice cube
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The most widely requested whisky cocktails are the Old Fashioned and Manhattan, according to several sources, including Greene. "Everyone loves an Old Fashioned," he told T+L, "It's by far the best seller here." Both classic cocktails highlight the whisky with minimal additional ingredients.

From there, whisky can be enjoyed "neat," which is without any mixer or ice. Neat whisky is usually a two-ounce serving at room temperature in a lowball glass. Many aficionados will add a few drops of water which enhances the aromas and softens the finish.

Drinking whisky "on the rocks" means with ice, of course, and frozen water is having its day. Large, clear ice cubes or hefty spheres are appearing in whisky glasses, appreciated for their looks as well as their slower melting, and less diluting, qualities. While a bit of flavor on the palate might be sacrificed when whisky is cold, the chill takes away some of the harsh edge. Either way, sipping slowly is the way to enjoy whisky, which is a spirit made from grain which has been mashed, fermented, distilled, and usually aged.

Of course, if you have the ingredients and the equipment, whisky can be made anywhere in the world, but there are specific types of whisky that must adhere to a few rules, and even legalities, to earn a certain definition. On top of these definitions, geography also plays in a role in the way you spell the word — as you may have already noticed.

Most countries, like Scotland, Japan, Canada, and others use the spelling "whisky," but any grain spirit made in the U.S. (with a few exceptions) or Ireland is typically written out as "whiskey." The origin of this spelling difference dates back to the late 19th century, when Irish companies adopted a new spelling to distinguish their product from their Scottish competitors. Later, the American distilleries would follow suit. Further distinctions like "bourbon" and "scotch" must meet both legal and geographical requirements to earn the name.

Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn, and it's made in the United States (mostly Kentucky) and aged in charred oak barrels. Tennessee whiskey is bourbon filtered through charcoal. Irish whiskey must be made in Ireland, Scotch whisky must be made in Scotland, and single malt Scotch must be made from 100% malted barley. And Canadian whisky must contain barley, corn, wheat, and rye and be aged in separate barrels. Japanese whisky production is based on the Scottish model, with both blended and single malt options, and is a relative newcomer to the world. The development of the industry only began in the 1920s, but it has since earned a reputation for its high standards for quality.

Along with the interest in sipping whisky (and whiskey), distillery travel has grown in popularity. Vacationers are visiting the places where their favorite brands are produced and taking tours to see how it's done — with post-tour tastings, of course. The distillery atmosphere and equipment are fascinating, whether it's a modern new facility or a vintage distillery in Scotland or Ireland.

Imagine a trip to the Scottish Highlands inspired by a "wee dram" of Scotch whisky or a vacation along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail that features not only distilleries, but also camping, bike paths, golf courses, restaurants, and natural wonders. The renaissance of Irish whiskey has led to a number of new distilleries around Ireland, another lovely tour-and-sip destination.

Greene also shared his advice for enjoying whisky at home, telling us that glassware makes a difference, as it does with wine, champagne, and cocktails. "For whisky neat, I have always loved the Riedel Single Malt glass — super fine crystal, clean lip, noses properly," Greene said. "For on the rocks, a large tumbler is my go-to, something sturdy and heavy, with a nice lip."

Fans claim that cigars and whiskey are a perfect match, consumed together slowly along with a picturesque outdoor view and friendly company. Pairings are based on the flavors and intensities of both, and planning can be as thoughtful as matching the perfect wine with each dinner course. At some restaurants and resorts, a tobacconist like Greene is there to offer suggestions.

So, after all, it's up to you to discover the best way to drink whisky, and we hope a few of our ideas will send you in the right direction.

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