Tips for Serving Drinks On The Rocks

Bottle of whiskey with full glasses and ice cubes

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In the bar, the term "rocks" refers to ice. When someone orders a "scotch on the rocks," they are asking for a straight pour of the house scotch served over ice. It seems simple, right? If you have been around the bar long enough, you know that things are never as simple as they seem.

The Debate

Any liquor can be served "on the rocks." Whiskey happens to be the one that is most often ordered this way. This often 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. 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.

Dilution is the major disadvantage of adding ice to whiskey. After all, it's only natural that ice melts and the longer you take to sip your whiskey, the more diluted it will get.

However, in the bar, the primary purpose of ice is to chill drinks. For the right whiskey, it can also open up the spirit's flavors and aromas. A few pieces of ice can replace a splash of water in your whiskey while cooling the drink at the same time.

The Best Whiskeys

Choosing which whiskeys to serve over ice is going to be a matter of personal preference. When it comes to bourbon and rye whiskeys, it really 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 makes it more enjoyable to sip. Others prefer the kick that a whiskey like that gives. The same can be said for the flavorful rye whiskey options available today.

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 matter. Most of the time, it is a matter of quality (and price).

You may enjoy a decent blended scotch like Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks after work. You are, however, going to be less likely to request a coveted (pricey) glass of the brand's Blue Label served the same way. Single malt scotch tends to follow suit. These whiskeys tend to be more expensive and rarer than their blended counterparts. It is common to serve them straight, with no ice.

In reality, the majority of premium Scotch whiskys are perfect exactly how they are bottled. There is no need to doctor them up, and if you do want to enjoy one slightly cold, chill your glass.

Choosing the Best "Rocks"

All ice is not created equal. It is a statement that any whiskey or cocktail lover needs to wrap their brain around because it's true. The average ice that your bartender scoops out of the bin is not going to be 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 an ice cube has, the slower it dilutes your drink. That is why ice balls and two-inch cubes have become so popular in recent years. The history of the old-fashioned proves this is not just a modern preference, either.
  • Clean: The best ice should be made with the cleanest water available (pure spring water or distilled water). It should also be frozen away from things that contaminate it.

Your freezer makes a difference because it can contaminate your ice with extra and unwanted flavors. If you are freezing your ice next to fish fillets, the ice is probably going to pick up fishy nuances.

Some whiskey aficionados go to great lengths to keep their "whiskey ice" free from outside flavors. Something as simple as sealing ice trays in plastic bags can make a big difference. Make sure to throw out ice that has been in the freezer for too long. One week is a good general rule.

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. Made of materials like stainless steel or soapstone, they are tiny 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. You do have to remember to rinse them off after each use and refreeze them.

"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 on the rocks.

The association between ice and rocks extends to the type of glass as well. Those short drinks are often called lowballs and served in tumblers called an old-fashioned glass. Many drinkers and bartenders will also 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 that accompanies that whiskey on the rocks (or a straight shot of liquor). You might say, "I'll have a scotch on the rocks with a beer back." With this request, the bartender would give you a glass of whiskey served over ice with a draw of beer.

The "back" can be any tall drink—beer or a nonalcoholic option like water or soda are most common—that is served in a tall glass. It is a nice 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.