Straight Vs On The Rocks: Pros Explain The Best Way To Drink Bourbon

bourbon in bottle and glasses composite image
bourbon in bottle and glasses composite image - Static Media / Shutterstock

Venturing into the world of bourbon can be an intimidating prospect. There's a ton of advice out there, not to mention plenty of myths to debunk, and much of it is given by people who claim to know the right way to drink, order, and enjoy this wildly popular spirit. But we'd like to argue something that's a little different, with the help of Four Roses Brand Ambassador and Chief Mixologist Abby Martinie.

She explained her take to us, and it's pretty refreshing. "Ultimately, whether you prefer bourbon on the rocks or straight comes down to personal preference, and at Four Roses, we encourage bourbon lovers and new bourbon drinkers to explore both methods to discover their ideal way to enjoy it." In other words, the best method is the one that you like best, and we're going to give you some pointers on how to find your best way — with help from Martinie.

What can you hope to learn? We're going to talk about how to order a bourbon so you get exactly what you're expecting — because there's a surprising amount of confusion out there — along with how to compare flavors and aromas, what ice does when it's added to bourbon, and how to find your favorite way to enjoy a glass of this versatile spirit.

Read more: Popular Vodka Brands Ranked From Worst To Best

What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Bourbon Straight?

shot of bourbon straight
shot of bourbon straight - Toddtaulman/Getty Images

Different types of bourbon have different flavor profiles, and experimenting with different varieties will help you discover what you like. Some come with strong flavors of caramel or cinnamon, some have a distinct spice profile, and in some, the flavor comes directly from the grains. There's also strength to take into consideration. Four Roses, for example, has an 80 proof 5-year-old, as well as a 104 proof 6- to 7-year-old.

That's all important to keep in mind. Martinie gave us her thoughts on the benefits of drinking bourbon — particularly different types of bourbon — straight, and you can think of it as putting nothing between yourself, the master distiller, and years of expertise.

"Drinking bourbon straight allows you to experience the full, unadulterated flavor profile crafted by the distillers," she said. "Every nuance, from the tasting notes to the aromas, are presented in its purest form. This method also gives you complete control over the strength and intensity of your drink, without any dilution altering the proof aside from using a water dropper should you choose." Slowly sipping straight bourbon will give you the chance to taste it as it was intended to be enjoyed by distillers who have perfected their craft, and utilize knowledge that has oftentimes been handed down through generations.

What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Bourbon On The Rocks?

Four Roses bottle and on the rocks glass
Four Roses bottle and on the rocks glass - Debra Anderson/Shutterstock

When you serve bourbon over ice, something interesting happens. In 2021, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers published a study on the chemistry of bourbon, and it's fascinating — albeit technical — stuff. They found that when ice was added to bourbon, some slightly water soluble compounds, like guaiacol, rose to the surface. That made them more likely to be transferred to the air, which provided for a stronger, more concentrated experience.

So, what does that mean in non-technical terms? Martinie told us: "The gradual dilution from the melting ice can also open up the bourbon's flavors and armors, revealing nuances that may not be present when drinking it neat. This slow evolution of flavors also makes the drink smoother and more palatable, especially for those new to bourbon or those who prefer a less intense drinking experience."

Opting for serving bourbon on the rocks will, of course, also chill the drink, which can make for a much more refreshing warm-weather beverage. Although some will claim that adding ice will water down bourbon and somehow make it lesser, Martinie says that it can be a great way to introduce yourself to the differences in each unique bourbon.

Is There A Proper Ice-To-Bourbon Ratio?

boubon rocks glass with ice
boubon rocks glass with ice - Evgeny Karandaev/Shutterstock

Watch almost anyone pour bourbon or whiskey in a movie, and they'll probably pour out a random amount, throw in some ice — or not — and be done with it. But what if you want to get the most out of that bottle, and drink it in a way that will give you the most honest and best flavors?

Martinie told us that it comes down to dilution. If you want the benefits of drinking bourbon on the rocks with minimal dilution, she recommends using one or two large ice cubes, or one large ice sphere for 1.5 to 2 ounces of bourbon. She also says that you're not going to go wrong with three or four standard ice cubes for a slightly different level of dilution, and adds that it's definitely worth trying different ways. "The key here is to experiment with different ice shapes and sizes as you work to find the perfect balance to suit your taste," she advises.

There's a footnote to this, though, and that's the fact that you can add too much ice. In a 2023 study done by food science experts at Washington State, Michigan State, and Oregon State Universities and published in the journal Foods, they found that when whiskey was diluted by more than 20%, experts found it more difficult to pinpoint flavors and aromas, and even to tell the difference between varieties of bourbon and whiskey. So, be sure to use a light hand.

The Shape Of The Ice Really Does Matter

glass of bourbon with sphere ice
glass of bourbon with sphere ice - Auster Pics/Shutterstock

There are a ton of options out there when it comes to fun, cool ice cube trays and molds, but is there really a difference? Is there a benefit to using a single large ice cube over the smaller ones that you might already have in a tray in the freezer? Yes, and that's according to experts like Martinie.

As Martinie told us, "The shape and size of the ice can significantly influence the bourbon drinking experience. Large ice cubes or spheres, which melt slowly, are ideal for sipping bourbon on the rocks as they chill the drink without diluting it too quickly." However, she also says there's room for those smaller cubes: "Standard ice cubes, melting at a moderate rate, are a good choice for those who prefer slight dilution to mellow the bourbon's intensity." Other experts agree, saying that if you're drinking bourbon on the rocks, large ice cubes are typically the way to go.

There is a footnote to this, however, courtesy of Martinie. It turns out that not all ice is made equal. She says that she doesn't recommend extra small ice cubes or ice chips, unless they're being used in a cocktail. Otherwise, the dilution may become too great to fully appreciate the bourbon.

Should You Go On The Rocks Or Chill And Serve Straight?

woman outside with a glass of bourbon
woman outside with a glass of bourbon - Lucentius/Getty Images

Here's a question that you may have seen posed online: Should you drink bourbon by chilling it in a shaker with ice, then pouring it into a glass? Though it's often condemned, the true answer depends on a few things, starting with the ambient temperature.

Some experts maintain that the best temperature to enjoy bourbon at is room temperature. But that leaves a lot up in the air. Is that room temperature in summertime Arizona or in the wintery depths of Maine, for instance? Most generally recommend that the temperature be a little on the cool side, and go on to say that if your house is above 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, you might want to cool it in the fridge first. Blasphemy? Not quite.

Martinie agrees that serving bourbon at varying temperatures is a great way to get to know different varieties and flavors. She says that even though some who pretend to be in-the-know will scoff at the idea of chilling bourbon — either in the fridge or by mixing it in a shaker with ice before draining into a glass — she recommends giving it a try. "I believe there's room for experimentation," she told us. "Using a mixing glass or pouring into a chilled glass can slightly cool the bourbon without diluting it excessively, offering a refreshing twist, especially during the warmer months."

Does The Shape Of The Glass Matter?

whiskey bourbon in variety of glasses
whiskey bourbon in variety of glasses - 5PH/Shutterstock

If you're ordering bourbon at a restaurant or bar, you'll probably notice you're going to get served in a particular glass. Does the type of glassware your drink is served in really matter, or is it just an aesthetic choice? Turns out that the specifics of your whiskey glass actually do matter, and it's all down to the fact that when you drink, you're leading with your nose.

For starters, experts suggest that when you're drinking bourbon on the rocks, you'll get all the benefits of a chilled drink with minimal dilution. That's best served by using a glass that's known alternately as a rocks glass, whiskey tumbler, lowball, or old-fashioned glass. They also say that if you're drinking your bourbon straight, you'll want to use a glass that captures all those amazing aromas so that when you taste it, you're smelling it as well. In that case, they recommend a tulip-shaped glass. Many might recognize that as a Glencairn glass, but there are a variety of other types of tulip-shaped vessels out there, too.

In 2023, Craft Irish Whiskey's tulip-shaped glass, the Érimón, took home  major awards for whiskey glass design. Made from soda-lima glass, it adds a conical base that guides the spirit as you swirl. The glass, they say, actually absorbs some of the whiskey's ethanol, which is what you might consider the smell of raw alcohol. Craft's glass shape reportedly pulls that scent away while keeping the aromas you want. So yes, the glass matters.

Are Whiskey Stones A Legit Choice For Bourbon Or A Trendy Waste?

glass with whiskey stones
glass with whiskey stones - Yulia Gust/Shutterstock

Whenever gift-giving time rolls around, trying to find the perfect gift for a whiskey- or bourbon-lover will invariably lead to advertisements for whiskey stones. They're typically made from soapstone, stainless steel, or granite, and the idea is that once they're frozen, they can be added to a drink to chill it without diluting it. But should they be? The answer to that varies.

Naysayers might suggest that whiskey stones shouldn't be on the list of anyone's bar essentials for a few reasons, starting with the idea that, by using them, you're missing out on the benefits of the slow dilution of melting ice. But what if you don't want that? There's also an argument that whiskey stones don't work to chill as well as ice or simply putting a bottle in the fridge.

But, for those who like adding a little something fancy to their glass, don't worry. Martinie told us that she believes there's room for whiskey stones in the bourbon world. The key? It's all down to what you are personally looking for, which is ultimately the right way to drink bourbon. "They provide a gentle chill without watering down the drink, allowing you to savor every note and complexity that bourbon has to offer," she says.

Does The Quality And Type Of Bourbon Matter?

bottles of Four Roses bourbon
bottles of Four Roses bourbon - Irik Bik/Shutterstock

When it comes to bourbons on the market today, there are so many different types and descriptions of each that if you're new to the game, it can be kind of overwhelming. Once you've chosen a bottle, then there's the question of how to drink it. Is there a difference between how best to drink, say, a single barrel bourbon over a small batch bourbon?

We asked Martinie, and it's worth noting here that among the Four Roses lineup is a brilliant variety: In addition to its 80 proof 5-year-old, there's a slightly older 90 proof Small Batch, a 100 proof Single Barrel, and a 104 proof Small Batch Select. If you have the inclination, sampling them all side-by-side is a great way to experience the difference in flavors, aromas, and strengths within a single line.

That said, Martinie explained that she does have suggestions for the best ways to enjoy each type. For more robust, intense bourbons — like the Single Barrel — she recommends drinking it straight with a dash of water to "fully appreciate the depth, boldness, and specific nuances of each barrel." On the other hand, she said that she prefers the Small Batch served on the rocks. "The dilution softens the initial intensity and reveals different layers of flavor, providing a smooth and refreshing experience," Martinie explained. That use of ice, she says, is also her choice for cocktails — preferably "spirit forward selections, like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned."

Is There A Difference Between Straight And Neat?

clinking bourbon glasses together
clinking bourbon glasses together - Krisanapong Detraphiphat/Getty Images

There's a good chance you may have heard someone order their drink straight, and others order it neat. What's the difference?

Let's turn to the Michelin Guide for its official descriptions. "Neat" officially means you'd like a room temperature spirit in a glass, and that's it. But there's also another term in here, and that's "up." That means a spirit that's been chilled with ice, then transferred — ice-free — to another glass. Then, there's "straight up," which can mean either neat or up, depending on the type of spirit you're ordering. Where does ordering something "straight" come in? Other sources agree that, too, is pretty much the same as ordering neat, although some bartenders, bars, and restaurants might actually have a different definition ... and if it seems like that's all pretty vague, well, it is

We wanted to get the final word from someone here, and so asked Martinie what the deal is. She clarified: "In the context of ordering drinks, there is a subtle but significant difference between the two." According to her, while neat is always liquor alone, "straight can sometimes imply the same, but with the possibility of ice." Bottom line? Just ask. According to Martinie, "It's always a good idea to clarify with your bartender to ensure you get what you prefer."

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