The Good Life: Bourbon as you like it

Steve Palec on Bourbon


One of the things I discovered when I finally hit the intersection of bourbon desire and bourbon knowledge was the new level of respect I received from bartenders when ordering a specific bourbon “neat.”

For those uninitiated, neat means straight out of the bottle with no ice or other accouterments.

However, if you’ve graduated to bourbon mastery, you already know the answer to the often-asked question: Which is correct, drinking bourbon with or without ice? The answer is unequivocally yes—both are fine. It is a misconception that experts only partake of their bourbon neat.

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For me, 9 out of 10 times I am going to choose to drink bourbon without any additives. (And I should clarify: those ten times do not necessarily occur on the same day.)

There are reasons I make this choice. First, I find that I can judge the bourbon better neat.

Next, the bourbon tastes a little different with each subsequent sip, which has more to do with my ability to focus than anything the bourbon is doing,

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And finally, I prefer both water and bourbon at room temperature.

I can list a lot of drinks I like hot and many that are best cold, but we are not playing Family Feud.

HOWEVER, and I AM capitalizing RANDOM words in THIS SENTENCE because I REALLY want to make a POINT. There is no right or wrong. Personal preference is both judge and jury in determining neat or on the rocks.

By definition, a purist can say they want nothing added but it doesn’t make them right. There is a bit of quantification that accompanies the right way to drink bourbon with ice. What you don’t want to do is have the ice melt and alter the drink without intent.

That is like a waiter asking if you’d like pepper, and instead of following directions to say “when,” you look away to see if that really was Alexandra Daddario who played Rachel Patton, the frustrated new bride in the HBO series “The White Lotus,” who happened to walk into the restaurant, you lose sight of what excess pepper will do to your meal.

But I digress. The point is that if you are drinking with ice to change the temperature you need to be cognizant that melting ice will fundamentally change the drink. That’s why you sometimes see that one giant chunk of ice in a glass or artificial materials that do not melt.

There is also the point that adding a few drops of water to straight bourbon can be done to purposely alter taste or take off some of the heat. Heat is related to the intensity of the alcohol in those first few sips. Evidently, a little bit of water can open up the aromas of the bourbon, but I’ve never waited long enough to notice or care how it smells. Again, that is neither right nor wrong. Right?

Nor should any bourbon fanatic ever scoff at those who prefer a mixed drink. A Manhattan, old fashioned, mint julep or even a Coke and bourbon cocktail are totally your choice. Unless of course you have procured an expensive and/or rare find and mindlessly mix it with any carbonated corn syrup. That is bourbon blasphemy.

On occasion I have been forced to coexist with ice in my bourbon. Many large venues and events have rules about not serving hard liquor without to discourage overindulgence.

One option is to smile and as you walk away, remove the ice and discreetly dispose of it.

I’ve also elected to just go with the flow, especially if I am somewhere that has only one brand of bourbon that isn’t among my 873 favorites. In those instances, I let the ice melt willy-nilly and pretend I am drinking bourbon-flavored water.

I happen to like my bourbon neat. Not because I am a purist but because I like my bourbon neat. There is no right or wrong. The best way to drink bourbon is the way you best enjoy it.

Steve Palec is chief marketing officer of Milwaukee-based commercial real estate development firm Irgens. ‘The Good Life: Steve Palec on Bourbon’ lifestyle feature appears regularly at

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