Tips for Serving Drinks On The Rocks

Why, Why, and How to Best Enjoy Whiskey on the Rocks

Bottle of whiskey with full glasses and ice cubes

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In the bar, the term "rocks" is slang for ice. For instance, when someone orders a "scotch on the rocks," they are asking for a straight pour of the house scotch served over ice. While that's easy enough, if you've been around the bar long enough, you know that things are rarely as simple as they seem.

Beyond the debate about whether ice degrades whiskey and which types of whiskey are best over ice, the word is also used to describe a style of glass or drink. Additionally, there are ways you can ensure your ice matches the quality of your drinks or chill a drink and avoid dilution entirely.

The Whiskey on the Rocks Debate

Any liquor can be served on the rocks. Whiskey just happens to be the spirit that is most often ordered this way. This frequently brings up a debate among whiskey connoisseurs:

  • Do you need to add ice to your premium whiskey?
  • Will ice dilute the whiskey and ruin the experience?
  • Is there a better option that will chill the whiskey without the dilution?

First of all, with any drink, there is no right or wrong answer because it's all about personal preference. If you enjoy it, then drink it. There are, however, legitimate arguments and instances that you may want to think about when exploring your options.

In the bar, the primary purpose of ice is to chill drinks. When drinking whiskey (or any liquor) straight, you have the option of enjoying it at room temperature or slightly chilled; the latter is achieved by pouring it over ice or into a chilled glass.

Dilution is the downside of adding ice to whiskey. Ice melts and that can lead to a watery drink, but it can be a welcomed addition. When mixing drinks, the water from shaking or stirring a cocktail with ice marries the various flavors and softens the alcohol kick to create a smoother drink. Whiskey aficionados have mixed opinions about whether this is good for whiskey, and several reject ice entirely.

For the right whiskey, the cold water from melting ice opens up the spirit's flavors and aromas while relaxing some of the harsher notes. It's similar to adding a splash of water to your whiskey, but the ice cools it at the same time. Just remember that the longer you take to drink whiskey on the rocks, the more watery it will become.

The Best Whiskeys

Choosing which whiskeys to serve over ice is a matter of personal preference and what you're drinking at the moment. Your choice may change as you explore different styles and brands, and it's good to try whiskeys both ways.

When it comes to bourbon and rye whiskeys, the decision largely depends on the flavor intensity and strength of the whiskey. For instance, many drinkers find that watering down a high-proof bourbon like Knob Creek or a spicy rye whiskey makes it more enjoyable to sip. Others prefer the kick that a flavorful whiskey like these gives. On the other hand, a softer bourbon like Maker's Mark doesn't necessarily require any additions because it has a lower alcohol content and less bite. That said, its red winter wheat notes do open up with a hint of water.

Scotch whisky is a different story, and you can read thousands of pages of advice on the subject. Most of the time, it is a matter of quality, price, and style. It's common to serve expensive premium Scotch whiskies straight with no ice and blended or cheaper scotch on the rocks.

For example, you may enjoy a blended scotch like Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks after work. Yet, you'll be less likely to request a coveted (and very pricey) glass of the brand's Blue Label the same way; it's absolutely perfect straight out of the bottle. Single malt scotch tends to follow suit because they are generally more expensive and rarer than their blended counterparts.

Choosing the Best "Rocks"

All ice is not created equal, and bad ice will ruin an otherwise good drink. The average ice that your bartender scoops out of the bin is not the best choice for your whiskey on the rocks. It is small, dilutes very quickly, and may not be made with the cleanest water.

The best ice for whiskey on the rocks is:

  • Large: The more surface area a piece of ice has, the slower it dilutes your drink. That is why ice balls and two-inch cubes are often used, and the history of the old-fashioned proves this is not just a modern preference, either.
  • Clean: The best ice is made with the cleanest water available; use pure spring water or distilled water.

Even with the purest water, your freezer can contaminate ice with unwanted flavors. For example, ice frozen next to fish fillets will likely pick up a fishy smell and taste. While some whiskey enthusiasts go to great lengths for their "whiskey ice," such as using a separate freezer that doesn't contain food, something as simple as sealing ice trays in plastic bags can make a significant difference.

Finally, make sure to throw out any ice that has been in the freezer for too long. Beyond the increased chance of trapping food flavors, after one week, ice cubes will begin to crystallize too much and deteriorate, which leads to faster melting and watered-down drinks.

Illustration for whiskey on the rocks
Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018 

Whiskey Stones

If you want the chill without the dilution, you can chill your glass or use whiskey stones (also called scotch rocks). Made of materials like stainless steel or soapstone, they are small cubes that get ice-cold in the freezer and can be added to any drink for an instant chill. They're quite nice and convenient, but you do have to remember to rinse them off and refreeze them after each use.

"Rocks" Beyond Whiskey

"On the rocks" can also be used when describing the preferred way to serve a mixed drink, such as a screwdriver or sea breeze. Most often, however, it's used to describe short drinks like the rusty nail or Manhattan, which can be served either up or over ice.

The association between ice and rocks extends to the type of glass as well. Short mixed drinks are often called lowballs or rocks drinks and served in tumblers called an old-fashioned glass. Many drinkers and bartenders call this a rocks glass, and the larger version a double rocks glass.

What Is a "Back"?

When ordering at the bar, "on the rocks" can also be associated with a "back." A "back" is nothing more than a tall drink—beer or a nonalcoholic option like water or soda are most common—that accompanies whiskey on the rocks or a straight shot of liquor. For instance, you might say, "I'll have a scotch on the rocks with a beer back." With this request, the bartender will give you a glass of whisky served over ice with a draw of beer. It's an excellent option for those times when you want to limit your alcohol consumption and enjoy a longer-lasting drink that happens to include a straight sipper of whiskey.