The Bar Dictionary: Tips for Serving Drinks 'On the Rocks'

Should You Serve Your Whiskey Over Ice?

Whiskey 'On the Rocks'
'On the Rocks' is a common way to order whiskey, but how do you know what is the best whiskey for it? The answer's not as simple as you think. Tetra Images / Getty Images

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 Pros and Cons of Whiskey "On the Rocks"

Any liquor can be served on the rocks, it just happens that whiskey is the one that is most often ordered this way.

This brings up much debate among whiskey connoisseurs: 

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

First of all, my advice on any drink is that there is not a right or wrong answer. If you enjoy it, drink it! There are, however, legitimate arguments and instances that you may want to think about when exploring your options.

The major disadvantage of adding ice to whiskey is dilution. It is only natural that ice melts and the longer you take to sip your whiskey, the more diluted it will get.

What Does Ice Bring to Liquor?

We all know that ice is used to chill drinks, that is its primary purpose in the bar. It is not the only reason to consider, though.

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.

This gives drinkers two benefits in a single glass.

Is Any Whiskey Okay On the Rocks?

Choosing the whiskies to be served over ice is going to be a matter of personal preference.

Bourbon and Rye Whiskey

Many drinkers find that the watering down effects on a high-proof bourbon like Knob Creek makes a sipper of this whiskey more enjoyable.

Others prefer the kick a whiskey like this gives. The same can be said for the flavorful rye whiskey options available today.

A milder bourbon like Maker's Mark doesn't necessarily require any additions because it has a lower alcohol content. That said, its red winter wheat notes do open up with a hint of water and it is very nice to sip a chilled glass of Maker's after a long day, particularly in the summer.

Scotch is a Different Story

Scotch tends to be a different matter and you can read thousands of pages of advice on the matter. Most of the time, it is a matter of quality.

You may enjoy a decent blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks after work. However, you are going to be less likely to request that coveted glass of the brand's Blue Label served the same way.

Single malt Scotch tends to follow suit. These whiskies tend to be more expensive and rarer than their blended counterparts and it is common to serve them straight, with no ice.

In reality, the majority of premium Scotch whiskies 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, simply chill your glass.

Choosing the Best "Rocks"

All ice is not created equally.

It is a statement that any whiskey or cocktail lover needs to wrap their brain around because it is true.

The average ice that your bartender scoops out of the bin to shake up a Manhattan is not going to be the best choice for your whiskey on the rocks. It is small and dilutes very quickly and it is not guaranteed to be made with the cleanest water.

The best ice for whiskey on the rocks is:

Your Freezer Makes a Difference

On this last point, your home freezer is the biggest contaminator for your ice. If you are freezing your ice next to those fish fillets you intend to cook for dinner, your ice is likely to pick up fishy nuances.

Some whiskey aficionados go to great lengths to keep their 'whiskey ice' free from outside flavors. Case in point, Chris Morris, Master Distiller of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, admitted to me in a Twitter conversation that he has a separate freezer for ice that goes into his drinks.

That may be extreme for the average home bartender, but you can take measures to lessen the ice contamination.

  • Something as simple as sealing ice trays in plastic bags can make a big difference.
  • Also, make sure to throw out ice that has been in the freezer for too long (my general rule is a week).

Whiskey Stones: An Alternative to Ice

Do you want the chill without the dilution? There is a solution for that beyond chilling your glass and they are known as whiskey stones.

Made of a material like stainless steel or soapstone, these tiny cubes get ice cold in the freezer and be added to any drink for an instant chill. They're quite nice and convenient for the casual nightcap. You just have to remember to rinse them off after each use and refreeze them.

Beyond Whiskey "On the Rocks"

"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, this is used to describe short drinks like the Rusty Nail or Black Russian, though it can be used for those tall drinks as well. If the drink has ice, it has rocks.

The 'Rocks' Glass

The association between ice and rocks extends to the type of glass used as well. Those short drinks we often call lowballs are 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'?

Now that we have dissected the term on the rocks to a great extent (I told you that it wasn't simple!), there's another bar term that often goes along with this order.

It is the back.

A back is nothing more than a tall drink that you would order to accompany that whiskey on the rocks (or a 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 in a pint glass or beer mug.

The back can be any tall drink, beer or a non-alcoholic option like water or soda that is served in a tall glass. It is a nice option for those times at the bar when you want to limit your alcohol consumption and enjoy a longer lasting drink while enjoying a straight sipper of whiskey.

It was customary in the 1800's to serve every alcoholic beverage with a water back.