As we’re discussing temperature, let’s begin with a cold open. Imagine you’re in a bar – it’s way past ten and you’re dressed to the nines. You saunter over to the barman and order a single malt scotch. He nods, picks up a glass, and reaches for your chosen whisky. And then, under the soft music of the bar and chatter of the patrons, you hear a gentle clink – the unmistakable sound of ice against glass.
How do you react? Do you crack a small smile, glad that you’re not going to have to drink your drink neat? Or does the sound – that quiet, frosty jangle – chill you to the bone?
Ice in single malt scotch is one of the world’s most contentious issues – it may not be up there with nuclear disarmament and human cloning, but it is controversial nonetheless. Some swear by the addition of ice, claiming that a welcome drop in temperature affords the spirit a smoother, cleaner taste. But others consider those who use cubes rubes, and judge ice in whisky more devastating than an oil spill in the ocean.
But is there a definitive answer – a final, unequivocal yes or no that will either persuade ice die-hards to warm to their whisky neat, or those opposed to, quite literally, chill out over the matter?
“I’d suggest water instead,” says Sam MacDonald of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. “Whisky, particularly if it’s cask strength, can actually have its flavours amplified by adding a little water. But, add ice, and you’re going to dilute the flavours. The best way to drink whisky will always be neat.”
A frank and straight response – but that cuts no ice with me. For a question that has been asked over and over again over dram after dram, MacDonald must be hiding further ice advice.
“When we do tastings,” the expert continues, “we want to amplify the experience as much as possible – and how we serve is crucial to that. However, with regards to ice specifically, there is a scientific reason why it isn’t the optimal way to enjoy whisky.
Add ice, and you’re going to dilute the flavours. The best way to drink whisky will always be neat.
“Temperature is the real problem. If you remember back to science at school, a basic lesson of physics is that warm things go up and cool things go down. As a result, put ice in your whisky and all of these carefully balanced flavours will get confused, and your tongue won’t pick up all the intricacies.”
So ice is bad then? All sorted?
“Yes, you can put ice in single malt scotch,” says Glenlivet Ambassador Phil Huckle, immediately throwing cold water on our seemingly cut-and-dry answer. “But not too much. Put one or two cubes in your whisky, it will chill it slightly, melt into water, and then help release all these wonderful aromas and flavours.”
But ice can’t both dull the flavours and wake them up – so which is it?
“Obviously if you pack the glass full of ice, it will melt very slowly, chill the whisky too much and suppress the flavour,” Huckle continues. “And you don’t want that. If you poured our Glenlivet 18yr, which has spent all those years resting and ageing in the fragrant mountain air of the Glenlivet Valley, picking up all those intricate flavours and complexities, over ice – you’ll lose what makes a great whisky a great whisky.”
Throwing yet another spanner in the works – and ice cube in the glass – the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Sam MacDonald reveals that even he isn’t entirely against chilling a single malt on occasion.
“I’m very much of the opinion that you should never tell somebody how to enjoy their whisky,” rationalises the expert. “It’s entirely their own experience. So, if you want to enjoy your whisky with ice – despite there being solid science behind why we don’t do it – you should be allowed to. There’s something really nice looking about a whisky on ice, too.”
Over ice - you’ll lose what makes a great whisky a great whisky.
Laura Mustard, brand ambassador for Chivas Regal, agrees. She believes that the drinking situation dictates how icy it’s acceptable to go.
“During the summer months, when you want something cool and refreshing, adding ice to your whisky will achieve that,” says Mustard. “However, my thoughts on this are that ice is so cold that it dulls the flavour of the whisky. It all just depends on what you’re looking for, or need from, your whisky.”
James MacDonald thinks much the same: “In India, most people drink their whisky with ice,” he says. “But it’s really hot there.”
Whisky, then, may be created to taste good on its own, but sometimes you want – or need – a little more. MacDonald explains through analogy.
“I’m a big meat eater,” says MacDonald, “and if I went into a butcher’s shop and ordered a very, very nice steak – a 72-day aged ribeye, say – and then asked the butcher, as many do, how I should serve that piece of meat, typically he would just suggest the simplest way possible. They won’t start giving you recipes, they’ll just say that the steak doesn’t need a lot doing with it.
“But then sometimes you’ll want a little bit of Béarnaise sauce on the side – and it’s the same with ice and whisky. Sometimes you want a little more.”
MacDonald is quick to add that ice is only permissible if it is of adequate quality.
“A lot of places put too much focus on the ice itself,” he warns. “In some fancy cocktail bars, you see some really amazing and inventive ways of serving ice but, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the water.”
Richard Paterson, Master Distiller for The Dalmore, shares the belief that using impure water can leave you skating on very thin ice.
“If you do prefer to add ice then, just be mindful of where your ice has come from,” says Paterson. “I was once in a bar in America, and the barman put ice in my drink. I asked him where he took the ice from and he replied my refrigerator – I could tell, as it made the whisky taste of garlic, cheese and pasta…
“It comes down to personal taste,” the distiller continues. “But, as far I’m concerned, when I take so many years to create a great single malt, adding ice really does numb it and takes away that quality that opens up in the mouth. You don’t need to chill it. Let the warmth of your tongue do the talking – not the ice.”
If you do prefer to add ice then, just be mindful of where your ice has come from.
The consensus, then, is much the same as the science – adding ice dulls flavours, anaesthetises the tongue and confuses the composition of the spirit. But should you never put ice in a single malt scotch?
“I’ll say this as an Irish man,” concludes MacDonald. “Scottish whisky is as complicated as it gets. The flavour – there is always loads going on and, if you really want to experience that, then drink it neat.”