Sipping spirits: just add ... what, exactly?

Bottles and bottles stare at you from behind the bar. You might be with awkward colleagues, resistant clients, or an obnoxious date, and the time has come to take control of proceedings and order the perfect spirit to turn around the moment.

Maybe you choose a brooding Scottish malt, a spicy mezcal, or a velvety rum or cognac. Then the tricky part – how do you take it? What's the etiquette?

Ice or no ice? Water or a mixer? In a cocktail? Mythology and bewilderment cloud the issue, although many of the musty rules around appreciating spirits are currently under challenge. These things are worth your knowing, because misinformation abounds. But there are simple principles to contemplate when imbibing the world's finest water of life.

After many years behind the bar and having travelled the world chasing some of the best drops on the planet, I've seen my fair share of confusion. Incredible 40-year-old single malts drowned in soda, delicate armagnacs smothered with ice. Increasingly, though, a more liberated culture is transforming fine spirits into something new and different.

Why water works

The idea that spirits, particularly whiskies, must be taken neat is both boring and dubious. High alcohol distillates have long been consumed by connoisseurs and commoners alike with the aid of a sympathetic liquid. Yes, purists insist that neat is best. And that's appropriate if your aim is evaluation and analysis.

But some of the best palettes in the biz attest that water is also your friend. Adding a touch can open up the spirit and guide the sensory receptors in your mouth and nose to the mysteries and flavours hiding behind the alcohol. Try tiny amounts at first – you can't take out what's been put in. Spirits might improve, or fall over with dilution. Trust your tongue.

Ice, ice baby

Does your tongue like it on the rocks? Ice, especially when it comes to whisky, is widely considered a no-no. It lowers the temperature of the liquid, making it hard for your palette to access subtle flavours and intricacies.

But if it's hot where you live, or you don't really care for grog snobbery, then by God, put some ice in your drink. Try removing the ice once your tipple reaches your desired temperature, to avoid drinking alcohol-flavoured water.

Let the spirit be the star

Then there's the vexed issue of mixing. When practised with skill, cocktails mixed with fine spirits are entrancing. We're lucky in Australia to be graced with incredibly knowledgeable bartenders. Take advantage. Recipes that let the spirit shine with little adulteration will impress. But the possibilities are boundless. So experiment, the more the better.

Sean Baxter, the Reserve brands ambassador for the luxury division of spirits giant Diageo (and a contestant in the current series of Masterchef), has witnessed a change in the way people are now interacting with premium spirits.

“There has been a wonderful shift in the perception of super-premium brands on the whole across a range of different products, not just alcohol,” he says.

“Today you can find these spirits in a variety of different experiences, from delicious cocktails to meticulously paired degustations.”

His advice: “The new rule is that there are no rules, which I think has contributed to the growing popularity of these products.”

The unmentionable

With that in mind, what about the particularly taboo topic of adding a simple mixer to a spirit? In order to calm the dogmatists, try choosing something that emphasises the characters of the spirit and its companion. Or take the opposite route: I'm occasionally partial to a dirty, meaty Islay malt that punches its way through a dash of Coke. Wait, did I say that aloud?

Damn straight I did. The age of staid proscriptions is over. With a little reflection and research you can learn how to best enjoy your favourite tipple, white or dark, neat or mixed, and enhance your party in the process.

What do you add to your drink, or refuse to, and why?

In between seasons behind the stick and chasing booze around the world, drinks correspondent Luke McCarthy investigates the fermented stuff we love.

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