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Sipping spirits: just add ... what, exactly?


Luke McCarthy

Ice, water or neat for your spirit of choice?

Ice, water or neat for your spirit of choice? Photo: iStock

Bottles and bottles stare at you from behind the bar. You might be with awkward colleagues, resistant clients, or an obnoxious date, and the time has come to take control of proceedings and order the perfect spirit to turn around the moment.

Maybe you choose a brooding Scottish malt, a spicy mezcal, or a velvety rum or cognac. Then the tricky part – how do you take it? What's the etiquette?

Ice or no ice? Water or a mixer? In a cocktail? Mythology and bewilderment cloud the issue, although many of the musty rules around appreciating spirits are currently under challenge. These things are worth your knowing, because misinformation abounds. But there are simple principles to contemplate when imbibing the world's finest water of life.

After many years behind the bar and having travelled the world chasing some of the best drops on the planet, I've seen my fair share of confusion. Incredible 40-year-old single malts drowned in soda, delicate armagnacs smothered with ice. Increasingly, though, a more liberated culture is transforming fine spirits into something new and different.

Why water works

The idea that spirits, particularly whiskies, must be taken neat is both boring and dubious. High alcohol distillates have long been consumed by connoisseurs and commoners alike with the aid of a sympathetic liquid. Yes, purists insist that neat is best. And that's appropriate if your aim is evaluation and analysis.

But some of the best palettes in the biz attest that water is also your friend. Adding a touch can open up the spirit and guide the sensory receptors in your mouth and nose to the mysteries and flavours hiding behind the alcohol. Try tiny amounts at first – you can't take out what's been put in. Spirits might improve, or fall over with dilution. Trust your tongue.

Ice, ice baby

Does your tongue like it on the rocks? Ice, especially when it comes to whisky, is widely considered a no-no. It lowers the temperature of the liquid, making it hard for your palette to access subtle flavours and intricacies.

But if it's hot where you live, or you don't really care for grog snobbery, then by God, put some ice in your drink. Try removing the ice once your tipple reaches your desired temperature, to avoid drinking alcohol-flavoured water.

Let the spirit be the star

Then there's the vexed issue of mixing. When practised with skill, cocktails mixed with fine spirits are entrancing. We're lucky in Australia to be graced with incredibly knowledgeable bartenders. Take advantage. Recipes that let the spirit shine with little adulteration will impress. But the possibilities are boundless. So experiment, the more the better.

Sean Baxter, the Reserve brands ambassador for the luxury division of spirits giant Diageo (and a contestant in the current series of Masterchef), has witnessed a change in the way people are now interacting with premium spirits.

“There has been a wonderful shift in the perception of super-premium brands on the whole across a range of different products, not just alcohol,” he says.

“Today you can find these spirits in a variety of different experiences, from delicious cocktails to meticulously paired degustations.”

His advice: “The new rule is that there are no rules, which I think has contributed to the growing popularity of these products.”

The unmentionable

With that in mind, what about the particularly taboo topic of adding a simple mixer to a spirit? In order to calm the dogmatists, try choosing something that emphasises the characters of the spirit and its companion. Or take the opposite route: I'm occasionally partial to a dirty, meaty Islay malt that punches its way through a dash of Coke. Wait, did I say that aloud?

Damn straight I did. The age of staid proscriptions is over. With a little reflection and research you can learn how to best enjoy your favourite tipple, white or dark, neat or mixed, and enhance your party in the process.

What do you add to your drink, or refuse to, and why?

In between seasons behind the stick and chasing booze around the world, drinks correspondent Luke McCarthy investigates the fermented stuff we love.

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65 comments so far

  • Excellent points, but....
    Most mixers nowadays are appalling shams.
    Coke ? Hasn't tasted right for 20 years.
    Schwepervesence ? CO2 must be more expensive than gold
    the way you can count every bubble you paid for now.
    Bitter Lemon, Ginger Beer, Root Beer and the rest ?
    Just tasteless liquid sugar.
    Apparently after making 10,000% profit on a small bottle,
    the 1c cost of putting some taste in it is unthinkable.

    Date and time
    June 20, 2014, 2:08PM
    • Sugar farmers do well.
      Tonic is the only mixer, I'd even consider.
      Did used to have a bit of dry with Rum.
      Imagine Coke with Cognac, snort, splutter.
      Can't remember when I last had a Coke, 30 years maybe and probably that was 5 years after the previous one.

      Say no to CCola
      Date and time
      June 20, 2014, 6:04PM
    • If you have a nice dark rum- try it neat in a warmed glass.
      Nice whisky seem to be best at room temperature with a dash of room temperature water. About 50/50. I don't drink a lot of spirits but if I do it this way at least I can smell what I am getting and enjoy it for what it is. Good bars have room temperature water in a jug so you can add it yourself and good bar staff will warm the glass for your rum. Yum.

      Date and time
      June 21, 2014, 11:11AM
    • Say no to CCola: sugar farmers are also doing well out of you. Your tonic water is 22% sugar. I prefer to use sparkling mineral water (the kind with no additives) if I really feel like some bubbles. Which I often do. Then I tell myself I'm also keeping myself hydrated whilst I drink!

      Miss D
      Date and time
      June 21, 2014, 1:46PM
    • It's old fashioned, un-cool but what the heck. Nothing beats a very cold gin and tonic.
      By the way, a true Scot once told me that the way to drink Scotch was to have two glasses - one with the whisky and on with plain water and you took a sip from each alternately. Haven't tried it - I don't like Scotch myself.

      Date and time
      June 21, 2014, 7:00PM
    • Well, CO2 has been expensive ever since Gillard started taxing it. That must be the problem. Oh well - all will be fixed in a few months :)

      Date and time
      June 22, 2014, 8:45AM
  • coke? COKE!?!?

    hehe. Depends on the quality of the spirit. If you're drinking Johnnie Red or something I have no problem with people adding whatever they like. But there's no point drinking something a bit more top shelf if you can't taste it through the coke/ice whatever.

    Date and time
    June 20, 2014, 2:31PM
    • Totally agree. Mixing any spirit with cola (of any brand) is a complete waste of money, unless it is a very cheap drink to start with, as the cola will mask anything.

      Even JW Red deserves something better, eg soda water or dry ginger ale.

      Date and time
      June 20, 2014, 9:15PM
  • Coke - what a joke

    Scotch and coke (or whatever) is good if you're drinking cheap scotch (i.e. anything from JW) - mask the nasties..

    You wouldn't make a sangria from a Grand Cru... don't mix a single malt...

    Water/Ice... each to their own

    2 km east of Port Ellen
    Date and time
    June 20, 2014, 3:09PM
    • I say if you've paid your money you can do what you want with it. Coke in a 20YO single malt? If you've paid the money, and that's what you want to do, then go for it. I really don't understand all the snobbery that comes into drinks, just enjoy it your way and others who don't own the particular drink in front of you can mind their own business.

      Date and time
      June 20, 2014, 3:22PM

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