When people speak of “whiskey weather,” they refer to the cold, wet days of late autumn, winter and early spring, where whiskey’s warming finish offers good service. Indeed, it is that warming effect provides the stimulant value for that classic cold remedy, the Hot Toddy.
That same warming effect poses a dilemma for most whiskey enthusiasts during the warmer summer months. Unless you live in naturally cool climate, such as Scotland, or a refrigerated, air conditioned bunker and never leave it, the finish on a fine, neat whiskey is at best uncomfortable in the summer heat, and at worst unpleasant.
The standard solution for this problem is to chill the whiskey with ice, but therein lies the problem: to many enthusiasts, ice is an anathema for their good whiskey. “Tap water ice in my Glen Olympus 23 Year Old!? Never!” is the sort of cry one sometimes hears from the serious whiskey fan, and for good reason. If that is the case, just what can you do to temper your whiskey in the summer months?
As a whiskey drinker who grew up in Kentucky, lived in the sweltering swamp of Washington DC for 13 years, spent substantial time in India and Southeast Asia, and finally settled in Portugal, I have a lot of experience in indulging my preferred libation in sweltering summer heat. Based on that I have two pieces of advice for making cold work: go cheap or go bold.
The solution to not getting hot and sweaty from drinking whiskey in the summer is to cool the liquid itself, and the main complain about this is that using ice or stashing the bottle in the refrigerator dulls or spoils the flavor. One way around this is to save the good stuff for proper whiskey weather, take your sights down a notch, and go cheap.
By “go cheap,” I don’t mean “go rotgut.” There is no need to punish yourself with Highland Clan or Imperial. Instead, look at Jim Beam, Grant’s, Evan Williams and the like.
A common sight in Portugal and Spain between May and November are a bunch of guys sitting around a table after lunch with a bucket of ice and a bottle of Famous Grouse. What is more, I grew up watching Kentucky distillery guys at Keeneland race track drinking their own bourbon out of Dixie cups with plenty of ice. Whatever anyone says, the judicious use of ice isn’t going to ruin any bourbon, scotch, Irish whiskey or what have you coming from that decent, mass market level.
Jimmy Russell, who after six decades at Wild Turkey is virtually synonymous with the brand, always manages to raise a few eyebrows when he says he keeps his Rare Breed bourbon in the freezer and drinks it straight from there. Of course, even the biggest blowhards of the whiskey blogosphere shrink from criticizing Russell in public, but I know from experience that some of them quietly sniff and snort at the thought of putting a premium bourbon in the freezer.
Yet Russell is onto something. Just as cheaper whiskeys are hard to ruin with ice, it is also hard for cold to overcome whiskeys with big and bold characters. Many fine whiskeys have huge personalities, fine balance, but little subtlety, and these are perfect for chilling in the refrigerator or freezer. Rare Breed is Russell’s choice from among his own wares, but whiskeys like Stagg, Jr. and Compass Box’s The General work just as well.
So, if you wish to enjoy some of your good stuff, borrow my adaptation of Jimmy Russell’s method: take down a bottle with big flavors, pour some into a flask, and tuck that flask into the fridge. Alternately, some of these whiskeys are very high proof and need a little water to enjoy in the first place, and what is an ice cube except for a chilly splash of water?