The Wall Street Journal has a very interesting article posted this weekend about the evolution/heresy of “scotch on the rocks,” and how the whisky business has responded to this very “American” approach to whisky drinking: A Chill to Scotch Purists’ Hearts. Most drinkers of single malts will shudder at the thought of adding ice to their whisky:
The purists’ complaint is that whereas a small splash of spring water seems to open up a whisky, releasing its full bouquet and flavor, ice tends to do the opposite. The tongue is anesthetized by the cold, and the whisky itself acquires a smoothness that glosses over the deeper complexities of the dram.
Despite this, drinking scotch on the rocks is a fairly common practice here in America. I’d never given much thought to how that tradition evolved, but apparently, it has its history early in the 20th Century:
But that particular sort of frigid gloss is just what many, perhaps most, Americans are looking for in their whisky. And it’s worth noting that, in the U.S., the taste for drinking Scotch on the rocks was itself a move toward a more pure whisky experience. In the first half of the 20th century the standard way to drink Scotch in the States was in a Highball — a tall glass of whisky, ice and soda water. It was toward the end of the 1940s that the phrase “on the rocks” emerged to describe doing without the fizzy dilution of seltzer. By 1950 Whitney Bolton, a New York Morning Telegraph columnist, wrote that “in the last six months sales of sparkling water in all brands have dropped alarmingly.” Before long, Scotch brands such as the Famous Grouse were promoting their whiskies as being well suited for drinking with ice. Even now, after a couple of decades of emphasis on single-malt connoisseurship, Scotch ads in the U.S. still tend to feature ice in the glass.
It should also be pointed out that during this time frame, most scotch sales in the US focused on blends, which are perhaps more suited to drinking on the rocks. Since then, the popularity of single malts has risen, but drinking habits have not changed to keep pace. Bars that stock a decent range of scotches are multiplying (especially here in Brooklyn), but even in these bars adding ice is often the expectation (to be fair, it is really about how knowledgeable the bar staff are). Also interesting — and perhaps indicative of the power of the American market for scotch — is how the distilleries are grudgingly working to adapt to this situation:
But that doesn’t mean Scotch professionals are happy about the way Americans drink their product. The Islay single-malt distillery Bruichladdich nods to the durable U.S. preference by offering a “Rocks” version of its whisky specially selected to hold up to the icy onslaught. But Bruichladdich exec Mark Reynier still complains: “We go to all the lengths to provide hand-selected, natural whisky, unadulterated by additives, sweeteners or colorings,” he says, “only for the drinker to go and add chlorine and fluoride,” chemicals commonly found in frozen tap water. So there is a move to elevate Scotch on the rocks by improving the rocks. Most ice at home suffers from chlorine and/or the smelly taint of frozen foods. Ice at bars and restaurants tends to be in little chips or discs that melt too fast. The best bars have machines that produce big, square-sided cubes. The Macallan distillery is taking it one step further by encouraging bars to acquire its “ice ball” machine, which crafts a crystalline sphere of frozen water slightly smaller than a baseball, served one to a glass. At home, the best bet is to make fresh ice using spring water in a tray that makes big cubes.
It’s an interesting move on the part of the distilleries, but I wonder if it is necessary. The popularity of single malts is on the rise, at least in major metropolitan areas of the US. More and more whisky drinkers are educating themselves on the proper way to drink single malt scotch. I too started out drinking my whisky on the rocks and gradually moved over to drinking it neat. Eventually, more and more people like me — newbies in their 20s and 30s — will change their drinking habits. I wouldn’t be surprised if, 10 or 20 years from now, scotch on the rocks became a significantly less common drink order in major US markets like New York, Chicago, Boston, etc.