Food & Drink

How to Drink Whiskey: A Complete Guide

From what to order to how it's made, here's a primer on America's favorite spirit.

How to Drink Whiskey Whiskey 101: A Primer The Best Bottles to Try

There may be no liquor more synonymous with "having a drink" than whiskey. Champagne is celebratory, wine is the epitome of sophistication, but whiskey is the platonic ideal of a grown-up's pour, the most adult thing you can order.

Whiskey is an incredibly versatile spirit, perfect for sipping neat or mixing into a cocktail. It's a wide umbrella though—there's whiskey from Ireland and the U.S. and whisky (yes a different spelling) from Scotland, Canada, Japan, and elsewhere. There's bourbon, rye, and scotch—and a broad range of flavors, from sweet and smokey, to spicy and smooth.

Read on for what to order, how to order, and how to sound smart when you talk about it.


Try one of these four classic drinks:


2 oz rye whiskey
1 oz sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Stir the rye, vermouth, and bitters in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Old Fashioned

2 oz bourbon or rye whiskey
1 sugar cube or 1 tsp sugar
3 dashes Angostura Bitters

Place the sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Splash it with three dashes of bitters and muddle together. Add the whiskey, a large ice cube, and stir. Garnish with an orange peel.

Hot Toddy

8 oz. hot water
1 tea bag
2 oz. whiskey
1 tbsp. honey
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 lemon slice

Pour hot water into mug and steep tea for two to three minutes. Remove tea bag and add honey, whiskey, and lemon juice. Stir. Garnish with lemon slice.

Whiskey Sour

2 oz whiskey
.75 oz lemon juice
.75 oz simple syrup
Maraschino cherry

Add whiskey, lemon juice, and simple syrup to a cocktail shaker. Fill shaker with ice and shake. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with a cherry.



Connoisseurs recommend drinking whiskey from a Glencairn glass (above), which is designed to direct the aromas from the liquid up and out of the glass toward the drinker's nose. This is valuable since smell is an integral part of taste (if you don't believe that, try pinching your nose the next time you put something in your mouth). 

SHOP NOW: Glencairn Whisky Glass (Set of 4),, $29.99

To release additional aromas and flavors, try adding a few drops of water. The late Booker Noe, who served as master distiller at his grandfather's bourbon distillery, Jim Beam, and founded his own brand, Booker's, had a signature method of tasting bourbon that is still relevant today. The "Kentucky Chew," a term that was coined by a whiskey writer who joined Noe for a bourbon tasting, involves taking a sip of whiskey, working it around the mouth, and then smacking one's lips a few tips in a way that resembles chewing on the liquid. You can watch actress Mila Kunis, a Jim Beam brand ambassador, try it out with Jim Beam's current master distiller (and Booker's son) Fred Noe, in the video below.


Along with tasting whiskey straight (or "neat"), another option is to drink it on the rocks, meaning over a few ice cubes. The ice chills the whiskey, but as it melts it also dilutes it.

Some people welcome this, but if you want to avoid that, whiskey stones are an option. The solid soapstone cubes, which can be stored in the freezer, are odorless and tasteless, so the only thing they add to your spirit is their cool factor.


For storage, you can consider a glass decanter like this one, but know that many whiskey lovers prefer to store their beloved liquid in its original bottle, especially since most whiskies come with interesting labels.


Cocktail enthusiasts will want to invest in a set of tools for mixing drinks, like this one from Cocktail Kingdom, a favorite emporium of bartenders. The kit includes a Yarai Mixing Glass for stirred cocktails, a bar spoon, a jigger for measuring proper amounts (a key to maintaining consistency in recipes), a set of Koriko shaking tins for shaken drinks, and a Hawthorne strainer.

First a note on spelling: It's spelled with an "e" in America and Ireland, but it's whisky when it's from Scotland, England, Canada, or Japan.

Now for the basics: Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from fermented grains including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. It's typically aged in wooden casks, often made from charred white oak. The video below describes the complex process.

A primer on the different types:

  • Bourbon: While many think bourbon needs to be made in Kentucky, that's not true. In fact, today it's produced in every state in America except Hawaii. The only rules around it stipulate that bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred oak barrels, distilled to no more than 160 proof, put into barrels at no more than 125 proof, and bottled at no less than 80 proof (40 percent alcohol by volume). While there is no minimum aging requirement, "straight" bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years. Here's a handy tip, too: all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

  • Rye Whiskey: Must be made from a mash bill (or recipe) that contains at least 51 percent rye.

  • Malt Whiskey: Must contain at least 51 percent malted barley.

  • Tennessee Whiskey: Must be distilled in Tennessee using the charcoal-filtering method.

  • All Scotch whisky has to be distilled in Scotland and aged there in oak barrels for at least three years. It also must be at least 40 percent alcohol by volume (80 proof).

  • A "single malt" is a malt whisky produced entirely at one distillery; a "blended malt" is a mixture of single malt whiskies.

  • Any age stated on the bottle (like in the case of Talisker 10-Year-Old Single Malt) must reflect the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. In other words, a whisky that's been aged for more than 10 years can go into a 10-year-old Scotch whisky, but a younger one cannot.

  • Scotch has a reputation for being smoky, but many Scotches exhibit no smoky flavors at all; most of the ones that do come from the island of Islay, which is known for its peat bogs that provide the decayed vegetation that give Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg and other island whiskies their signature smoky flavor.

  • Irish whiskey must be distilled in Ireland and aged in wooden casks for at least three years.

  • Known for blends without age statements, a few typical Irish whiskies are Jameson, Bushmills, and Tullamore D.E.W.

  • Canadian whisky is typically lighter-bodied and fruitier than whiskies from other parts of the world

  • It needs to be distilled and aged for at least three years in Canada.

  • Canadian Club and Crown Royal are a couple of popular brands.

  • Japanese distiller Shinjiro Torii looked to the Scotch world for inspiration when he launched the company that eventually became Suntory and built Japan's first malt whisky distillery, Yamazaki, in 1923.

  • Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had studied distilling in Scotland, as an early Suntory executive, and in 1934 Taketsuru formed a competing company now known as Nikka.

  • The whiskies resemble the style of smooth Scotch single malts and are not typically peated.

Michter's 10 Year Rye,$114.99, Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky,$19.98, Bowmore Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky 15 Year,$59.99, Johnnie Walker Black Label,$24.99

Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey,$16.99, Crown Royal Deluxe,$9.99, Yamazaki 12 Year Old Whisky,, $63.99, Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky,$57.10

*This story originally appeared on

*Minor edits have been made by the editors

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Sam Dangremond
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