In this past weekend's WSJ, Eric Felten examines the all too common American practice of putting the taste of good Scotch on ice (sub req):
Richard Paterson -- renowned whisky blender with Scotland's Whyte & Mackay Ltd., home of such single malts as the Dalmore and Isle of Jura -- has come to dread ordering whisky in America: "Ask for Scotch in the U.S. and before you know it you hear that horrible clink, clink, clink of ice going in the glass," he says in a voice that's two parts exasperation and one part burr. "As far as I'm concerned," says Mr. Paterson, "if you've got a nice 12-year-old Scotch whisky, there's nothing more ridiculous than putting ice in it."
Amen. I used to be among those who preferred my Scotch with ice (just a single cube). Then, I realized just how much that mellowed the richness of the taste experience. I now like to infusion my Scotch with just a touch of water.
The problem is that at many places you just about have to beg the server to hold the ice. The worst is on airplanes where my pleas to flight attendants to not cram the cup with eleven ice cubes have been made with a mixture of confusion and contempt. Often the best I can hope for is to convince them to limit the ice to one solitary cube, which they reluctantly do while giving you a derisive look that says "What kind of freak are you, anyway?"
You know you're in good Scotch bar when you receive a small jug of water with your dram. And no ice.
The purists' complaint is that whereas a small splash of spring water seems to open up a whisky, releasing its full bouquet and flavor, ice tends to do the opposite. The tongue is anesthetized by the cold, and the whisky itself acquires a smoothness that glosses over the deeper complexities of the dram.
The mindless pursuit of "smoothness" in drinks is something that JB and I have discussed of late. While there certainly are drinks where "smooth" is a complimentary description, Scotch--and in fact all whisky (or whiskey)--is not one of them. What smooth really means for whisky is lack of texture, flavor, and character. While it might be easier to drink a "smooth" whisky, it certainly is not enjoyable. If you want something that's easy to drink and smooth to the point of being tasteless, stick to high-end vodka whose penultimate distillation goal seems to creating a spirit as bland and indistinguishable as possible.
Not that a whisky necessarily has to be rough, harsh, or sharp to be good. One of my favorites that I came across last year is Tomintoul, which is billed as "The Gentle Dram." And there is nothing wrong with a whisky that has a smooth finish. The problem is that seeking "smoothness" often means sacrificing the very things that you drink whisky to experience in the first place.
If you're still not convinced that keeping your Scotch neat and tidy is the way to go, you might want to conduct a side-by-side taste test as Felten did:
Still, I think the ice-dependent drinkers among us will find it illuminating to do their own side-by-side tasting. Take a good, straightforward single malt (any of the standard drams represented by the partisans I consulted -- Macallan, Glenfiddich, Bruichladdich, or Dalmore -- will do admirably). Pour two glasses: one without ice, and another embellished with a large cube or two of ice made from spring water. Take a taste of the tepid malt. It will seem at first sip rather fiery. Then taste the iced whisky. It will seem soothing, a respite from the spirit's alcohol burn. But then go back to the neat Scotch. You'll find that it blossoms with flavor in your mouth. If you keep going back and forth, I suspect you will perceive the taste of the Scotch on the rocks as narrower and perhaps even thinner with each sip.
And definitely smoother.