Several factors can enhance the enjoyment of fine spirits beyond the character of the liquid itself: the glassware, the environment and, of course, the company. But one element that is often overlooked is the temperature at which the spirit is served – which makes it all the more surprising that there is no consensus among industry commentators.
‘Just enjoy it how you like it,’ is a mantra shared by most of the spirits experts I spoke to. Regardless, certain perceptions endure when it comes to the serving temperature of spirits – and the use of ice. Why, for example, is it seen as more acceptable to serve bourbon over ice than Scotch? This is often dismissed as mere snobbery, but as with all conventions, its roots can be traced back somewhere – in this case, a mix of historic, geographic and social factors.
One such factor is the availability of ice, which is far less common in the UK than in the United States. And the warmer climate of much of the US leads to a predisposition to chilled drinks of all kinds, including many classic bourbon drinks, such as the Mint Julep, highly iced.
The type of ice used also makes a difference. Novelty ice-cube trays are best avoided because the ice tends to melt more quickly. And while a tray that makes up to 24 1in cubes will provide ice for almost any situation, a tray that makes fewer but bigger (2in) cubes is best for sipping neat spirits. A single larger ice cube adds a touch of chill and dilution without making the drink watery.
Beyond ice, there is a range of options for adjusting the temperature of drinks. But how much of an impact can such assiduousness have? I tasted the same Cognac in identical glasses at various temperatures. The difference in flavours was notable:
- Deep freeze (-16.0°C): A thick and viscous texture, but exceptionally dry. Floral notes, with vanilla fudge and a woody, tannic finish.
- Freezer (-3.5°C): Soft and delicate, with notes of dried raisins and dates, chamomile and redcurrant, before a dry, tannic finish.
- Fridge (5.0°C): Minimal nose: just a touch of wood and pistachio ice cream. The palate is fruity, sippable and accessible. Some oiliness, before nuttiness and a slightly tart finish of grape.
- Ambient/room temperature (18.0°C): Softer and sweeter, with a thinner texture. Confections on the palate, with notes of toffee, caramel, and chocolate.
- Hand-warmed (25.0°C): Soft and silky on the palate, with notes of Darjeeling tea, bergamot and a little marzipan.
- Candle-warmed (41.0°C): Any nuance has gone, replaced with powerful and volatile flavours that leap from the glass, with notes of crème brûlée and Earl Grey tea.
How does temperature affect Cognac?
I spoke to Zahra Bates, global educator for Courvoisier, who described the importance of ritual in shaping serving temperature. ‘Cognac was often stored in cellars, which could be a bit cold,’ she said. ‘Warming the balloon glass helped bring the spirit to a temperature that was seen as more drinkable.’ At a lower temperature, she added, the flavour molecules of Cognac move more slowly and pair well with chilled foods such as sushi. ‘As you eat and sip, both the food and drink warm in the mouth, releasing more of their characteristics; the thicker texture is also more compatible with the fattiness of the fish.’
Why is vodka better served ice-cold?
The most famous spirit to be served ice-cold is probably vodka, which is often served with ice or directly from the freezer, where the liquid becomes thick and viscous. However, if the contents freeze, the bottle may break; a minimum of 40% abv should help avoid this, but 45% is better. Bottles with stoppers are less likely to break than those with screwcaps, but try to keep them at least partially upright so they don’t leak if the stopper pops.
Can you put spirits in the freezer at home?
There is no reason why frozen spirits shouldn’t also work in a home bar. ‘I love the viscosity of subzero spirits,’ says gin expert Aaron Knoll of website The Gin Is In, ‘but you have to have a really good garnish, since a freezer totally mutes the aromatics [of the spirit].’
How does temperature affect cocktails?
And what about cocktails – notably the master of cool, in terms of both temperature and sophistication, the Martini? A simple mix of gin and dry vermouth, but with myriad variations: shaken or stirred, on the rocks or the Dukes/diamond method. In general, the shaken option results in a colder drink (because more of the ice melts), whereas the stirred drink looks clearer and doesn’t have any air bubbles trapped in it (sometimes referred to as ‘bruising’). A Martini on the rocks – served over ice – stays colder for longer but can also become more watery, which leaves, for some, the optimum way to make a Martini: the diamond, or frozen, method, made famous by the Dukes hotel in London.
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The diamond method involves keeping a bottle of gin (or vodka) in the freezer, along with the cocktail glass that it will be served in. The chilled glass is rinsed or sprayed with dry vermouth, then the spirit is poured straight in, before a garnish is added. At Dukes, the drink is made on a trolley alongside your table – a great example of ritual – but be warned: the undiluted nature of the drink means there is a limit of two per customer.