Today, a 340-ton boulder hovered some ten feet above me. Yes, ABOVE.

Between a rock and a hard place.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art unveiled its latest outdoor artwork, Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass,” which hangs heavily above an open air subterranean walkway. The artwork opened after months of anticipation. Thousands of visitors streamed to the museum to see a sculpture that basically is a really, really big rock.

People have been fascinated by the magnitude of rocks for millennia. Even on an island as small as Islay, one drives by ancient standing stones on the way to several distilleries and more monoliths lurk in the hills beyond view. From Stonehenge to Easter Island, Egyptian pyramids to Mayan temples, there is something in the power of rock that captivates our imagination.

A rock of a different sort hangs above the whisky world – ice. That wonderful example of a liquid turning into a solid. A very, very cold solid. The issue of whisky on the rocks is a complicated one that sometimes turns into an argument that has the fervor of a Celtic-Rangers match or a Packers-Bears game. Even that middle-ground solution – whisky stones – has both supporters and detractors. The stones chill whisky without the melt-off of ice, but are they good for the whisky?

Though, I don’t want to get into a big argument, lecture or soapbox about the role of ice in whisky, I certainly have my preferences.

I’ve tried ice in single malts a couple of times and it makes me feel like I’m kissing a cousin. There is something so inherently wrong with that action that I cringe and my face curdles. Even a single ice cube seems to strangle all the wonderful flavors and aromas that are trying to express themselves as they warm to room or hand temperature.

I’m happy to put ice cubes in blended Scotches. As they tend to be “greatest hits” of single malts with the filler of grain alcohol, I feel I don’t lose many of those high notes when ice is added. (There are exceptions. The day I put ice in my Campbeltown Loch 25-year-old is the day someone must cut me off completely).

Ice in Irish whiskey does nothing for me. The general sweetness is diluted and disappears on my palate. Ice cubes in American whiskies tend to hold up well, especially in strong bourbon like Wild Turkey 101, which Michael Jackson told me is something he liked to do when the weather turned too hot for neat whiskey.

Bourbons and blends tend to play well with other liquids, as do some Irish and single malts, so of course adding ice to cocktails does not take away from the whisky, as the whisky has already been altered. Beside, some cocktails require precise measurements of ice density and predictive melt rates in order to maintain the mixological integrity of the drink (I say facetiously – not a fan of the term “mixology” and the airs that come with it. Make a drink, make it well, and people will know you’re a great bartender. No need to add an –ology to situation).

All that being said, I rarely judge anyone’s choices when it comes to putting ice in whisky – though if you put a cube in Highland Park 18 I will slap you down. Repeatedly.

The thing that matters most to me is that, straight up or on the rocks, people find a reason to return to the common connection of enjoying whisky. Just as people have gathered around rocks for eons to share stories, celebrate, worship, mourn or give thanks, so too should we all continue to gather together around the water of life – rocks or not.

3 Responses to “Does Whisky Roll With Rocks?”

  1. Phil

    I agree what matters most is that a person enjoys the whisky they’re drinking. I would add, though, that for someone like me, who is new to whisky, it’s important to learn how ice affects whisky. Not everyone initially understands the difference between blended and single malts. As a result, they have no idea why you wouldn’t ask for a Highland Park 18 on the rocks. They don’t realize they’re going to miss the whisky’s otherwise distinctive notes. You’re probably the one who had to teach me that. And I wouldn’t want someone to miss out on the opportunity I’ve had to learn what a single malt has to offer in it’s own right.

  2. Rob

    I agree that a lot of education goes into that what and why regarding how water affects whisky, how cold affects it, and how cold water – ice – affects whisky. There’s a link in my piece to an excellent blog that goes into some of the issues surrounding that. But, you’re right; there is ample room for more discussion on the topic. I’ve had some cask-strength whisky straight from the hogshead in an unheated warehouse in the middle of a Scottish winter that tasted better cold than warmed up in my hand. There are exceptions to every generalization.

  3. Mark H (@fr1day)

    Nicely put Rob. I too cringe when friends add a couple of cubes to my precious single malts. They’re just lucky that the bonds of friendship are ever so slightly stronger than my abhorrence of chilled drams. For now at least… 🙂


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