Tips On Enjoying Whiskey The Right Way, From The Head Distiller At Buffalo Trace

Whiskey is an extraordinary liquid, but despite its lovely aromas and exquisite flavor, it can be a bit fickle. It may seem like another brown spirit on the shelf to the untrained drinker, but it requires a bit of care and attention to shine at its absolute brightest. Across the globe, whiskey distillers are producing a liquid they want the drinker to enjoy in the best possible way, and to do that, there are a few items to tick off the list to maximize that drinking experience. Whether you're a regular whiskey tippler or a first-timer who wants to get into whiskey but has zero clue where to start, we firmly believe there's a whiskey out there for everyone, and we're here to help you find it and love it.

To find that whiskey and enjoy it in the best possible way, we decided to turn to an expert for guidance in the art of whiskey. We sat down with Harlen Wheatley, master distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery, to get a few of his tips on the best ways to enjoy whiskey that, to our extreme pleasure, aren't nearly as complex or high maintenance as you may think. Grab a pen and paper; it's time to go to school.

Get the right glassware

Believe it or not, your whiskey's glassware will make for a better drinking experience. While cocktails provide more wiggle room regarding what to drink out of, whiskey is more of a process. It would be best to have a glass that gives the whiskey room to swirl and breathe and lets you capture the aroma of the spirit before you take that first sip. For Wheatley, finding the right whiskey glass is essential for best enjoying the aromas and flavor of the whiskey, so before you dive face-first into that whiskey, make sure you're giving it the right home. "If you are doing a neat tasting, you need a proper snifter or whiskey-tasting glass," says Wheatley.

So, how do you find yourself the right glass? According to our 2023 Tasting Table survey asking about whiskey glass preferences, 39.86% of respondents went with the highball whiskey glass, preferring the thick-based, straight-rimmed, crystal-clear glass overall. Second place was the whiskey tumbler glass at a close 31.92%, with a similarly thick base but a shorter rim. Third place, at 10.58%, went to the tulip and snifter glass, and the Glencairn glass came in last with 7.05%. Despite this survey, we would opt for the third and fourth-place glasses as our first choice for getting the best neat whiskey experience, as they are ideal for swirling and giving the whiskey room to open up and release those delicious aromas.

First, try it neat

Your glassware is picked out, and now it's time to sample the goods. Do you drop in an ice cube or a splash of water? Perhaps something with bubbles for that kick of effervescence? No! Put down the soda gun and the whiskey stones, and before you even think about adding anything to that whiskey, try it neat.

"What we always say is to be able to taste a whiskey appropriately and appreciate it is to taste it neat," says Wheatley. "Do a neat taste first. There are so many variations of whiskey...and so many talented bartenders who know how to bring out the best of the spirit. Appreciate the spirit first, and then experiment." With so many whiskey varietals out there, from wheated whiskies and ryes to white dogs and aged whiskies, many tastes depend on the whiskey you choose. Before diluting it with any outside factors, understanding the flavors in the whiskey will help you find what you want to add to it if you want or need to add anything. If you're feeling bold, you may want nothing more than a splash of water or an ice cube to open up the whiskey a bit more. Still, if you need a little more oomph in your glass, that initial neat taste can help guide you toward a cocktail that, just like Goldilocks finding the right porridge, tastes just right.

Find the right cocktail for your whiskey of choice

Mixing various ingredients with your whiskey and crossing your fingers, hoping you find a winning combination, is one way to find the right cocktail for you, but not necessarily one we would recommend. Instead, you can rely on the professionals to help you out. And, as always, there's an app for that. For Wheatley, using Mr. Boston, the official cocktail guide for Sazerac, is a great place to start, especially for the novice cocktail drinker looking for help navigating such a potentially confusing space. Simply plug in the ingredients you have to find a recipe or discover recipes throughout the app that may lead you in the right direction, depending on your whiskey taste.

While the apps certainly have their benefits, we have an equal love and appreciation for the face-to-face interaction with asking your local bartender for a whiskey cocktail recommendation. A good bartender will ask questions and help you determine which concoction works best for you. If you tell them you prefer something sweeter, they may recommend an Old Fashioned. Suppose you're ready to take on something stronger and more bitter, perhaps a Boulevardier. However, be on the lookout for red flags, as Wheatley warns. "If I order a Manhattan at a bar, and the bartender says 'what's in a Manhattan,' I say never mind. No reason to ruin a bourbon."