Each person’s choice of go-to spirit usually depends on his or her current mood (wine for nights of solitary reflection, champagne for celebrations), social situation (beer at a football game, margaritas at a club on a Friday night), and even geographical location (spirits in the east, beer and wine in the west).
Thousands of years of mixology have paved the way for alcohol connoisseurs to come up with continually-evolving ways to appreciate each type of alcohol from rum, mezcal, whiskey, sake, brandy, to tequila. But if you want to go outside your comfort drink and branch out a bit, you need to know the different types of drinks as well as how to properly consume them.
What does “proper way of drinking alcohol” even mean?
While drinking is mostly a social activity, the act of drinking alcohol itself is a personal experience. As far as anyone is concerned, drinking alcohol is a simple process: you choose a drink, you down it, and you keep going until you get a buzz. If you get a hangover the next day, does that mean you didn’t do it right? If you sip it alone without any chaser, does that mean you didn’t enjoy it enough? If you drink it on the rocks instead of neat, does that make the quality of the drink inferior?
Remember, most drinks didn’t just pop into existence in the last few years but have been around for millennia. The ingredients and the methods of creating them have gained more intricacy and precision, making each process one step closer to perfection. That’s why it’s only fair that we consume the finished product the way master blenders intended to, or at the very least, in a way that unleashes its true taste and flavor.
Refresher: Common terminologies when ordering a drink
Before we talk about how to drink alcohol properly, let’s first review some bar terms that we commonly use when asking for our favorite drinks. These terms might already be ingrained in your common dipsomaniac lexicon, but for the benefit of the uninitiated, let’s clarify the distinctions.
Neat, on the rocks, or straight up
Believe it or not, even local bar regulars sometimes misuse these terms. Order a drink “neat” when you want it poured straight into a glass at room temperature without ice. When you want that drink chilled but still without ice, you say “up” so that the bartender shakes it with ice, then strains it into a stemmed cocktail glass. You can still order it in a rocks glass, though.
“Over” and “on the rocks” both mean “served over ice”. You’ve probably heard "on the rocks" a million times in the movies and on TV shows, but "over" is a common term among seasoned alcohol drinkers.
"Straight up" is actually where it gets confusing at times. The phrase implies that you want something straightforward or direct, like saying “give it to me straight". However, the drink you get when you order “straight-up” depends on your bartender's mood. More often than not, he’ll probably assume you mean "neat" and will serve your drink that way. A more sophisticated bartender will probably chill your whiskey and serve it "up". But what you really want is a bartender who will politely clarify what you mean.
Single or double
How much alcohol do you want in your drink? A single pour is about 1.5 oz of alcohol and the double is 3 oz. The volume can vary from bar to bar.
Short or tall
This determines how much soda, juice, or any other mixer you want in your drink. You ask for a short drink if you want it served in a rocks glass with roughly equal portions of liquor to the mixer. Meanwhile, a tall drink is served in a larger glass and contains double or triple the amount of mixer.
How to drink rum
Again, the goal is to fully experience the flavor from that bottle of rum, so we’re going beyond casual drinking without minding the wonderful details and subtleties.
1. Go with good quality rum.
The key is to steer clear of flavored or “over-proofed” varieties, typically with 75% ABV or higher, rather than the typical 40% ABV. Also, stay away from brands of rum that have artificial colors in an attempt to imitate the traditional amber color. The safest route is to buy the more expensive variety.
2. Take small sips.
Rum is best poured into a small glass for sipping. Enjoy the full flavor. Warm the glass in your hands and sip slowly while smelling the aromas of the rum as you pull the glass away. Allow the flavor to reach all parts of your tongue.
3. Neat or on the rocks.
You can either sip rum at room temperature or on the rocks if you wish. How to decide which way to go? Look at the alcohol by volume percentage (ABV). You can drink it neat up to 45% ABV. Above that, you can drink it like whiskey with a splash of water or ice to mellow it down.
4. Mix it up or keep it nice and simple.
Cocktails are fun, but traditional serves like the good ol’ rum and cola can be pretty satisfying, too. Remember to mix rum with just 1 other beverage to make sure you enjoy its quality. If you’re tired of the old tricks, then go for a rum cocktail with the right balance of chill, mix, and dilution. Tiki recipes are always a classic choice because it’s a good blend of rum, fruit juices, and syrups.
Common mistakes when drinking rum
- Drinking rum only during summer. When we hear rum, we think of beach parties or tropical vacations. Rum is never meant to be a summer-only spirit.
- Drinking rum cocktails in large quantities. Rum mixed with sugary beverages will almost guarantee a hangover, especially when consumed in copious amounts.
- Going for the cheapest rum in the store. Again, the only true way to enjoy rum is to drink high-quality rum, meaning you have to spend a little extra.
- Not using enough ice when needed. Most rum brands have higher proof which requires an average drinker to neutralize its power by adding ice or water.
How to drink mezcal
Mezcal is often considered to be very similar to tequila. But those who were able to properly drink it will tell you that mezcal is its own creation. For one, it certainly has a wider range of variety than tequila that makes it more volatile in terms of flavor. Here are the ways to enjoy mezcal to its fullest.
1. Take it easy at first.
Unlike our recommendation for drinking rum which is to start strong, it’s quite the opposite with mezcal. Start simple and go for the most common types, such as espadín, which will introduce you to a variety of fruity, earthy, or vegetal flavors. What you don’t want is to start with the expensive stuff without first getting used to the basic ones.
2. Get the right vessels.
With mezcal, you really only have two good options. The first is to get a copita, a vessel that looks like a wide bowl and is typically made of ceramic clay, glass, or even wood. The copita’s wide opening is great for getting your nose closer to the mezcal so you can pick up the complexities of the aroma. Or if you prefer sipping, you can always go with a copper mug.
Smell the mezcal. Set it down and pop your finger into the liquid. Put some in your palm and smell it again. You’ll notice a difference because now the alcohol has evaporated and all that’s left are the sugary flavors. Keep doing it until you feel like you’ve had a good whiff of the mezcal, then you take it from there.
4. Start sipping gradually.
Clear your palate first. Let your tongue touch the mezcal and allow a tiny amount on the roof of your mouth and behind your teeth. Then, take your first full sip and leave it on your tongue for a few seconds to prepare your palate for the next few sips. As you consume more, you’ll notice that you’re already able to truly distinguish the flavors and enjoy the drink.
Common mistakes when drinking mezcal
- Drinking a lot of strong mezcal from the start. As we’ve already established, mezcal is meant to be gradually consumed. It’s a very coordinated method designed to make you maximize the drinking experience. Chugging a large quantity from the get-go will not do you any good.
- The worm gimmick. A lot of people talk about a “worm” in a mezcal drink. These are larvae that can be found in agave, the plant where mezcal is made from. The worm is supposed to be an indication of good mezcal which is not true. If you spot a worm in the mezcal you’re holding, take a pass.
- Don’t look for the smoke. Since mezcal is made by roasting the agave in a pit, people expect a certain “smoky” quality from the drink. The truth is, there are a lot of types of mezcal and the smokiness may or may not be present nor is it an indication of quality.
How to drink whiskey
They say that for one to enjoy whiskey, you must first taste it. Tasting is different from drinking; to taste is to understand and gain a better appreciation of the whiskey.
1. Swirl and take a sniff.
Just like with mezcal, the first step in tasting whiskey is to smell it. Circulate your whiskey glass a little and sniff while keeping your mouth slightly open. Do this gently to avoid the singe of the alcohol.
2. Roll it around in your mouth and breathe through your nose.
The key is to expose the whiskey to your entire mouth as if you’re chewing it so that you can pick each unique flavor. Then swallow while breathing out through your nose.
3. Dilute if necessary.
Evaluate the feeling in your mouth and feel free to add a splash of water to reduce the burning sensation. Start with a few drops at a time. Dilution often reveals new flavors and aromas.
How to drink bourbon
Bourbon is a type of whiskey, so the proper way of drinking bourbon is no different. The two types of bourbon whiskeys are straight and blended. Straight bourbon has been aged for 2 years or more without any coloring or flavoring added. Blended bourbon can contain other flavoring or spirits, but must be at least 51% straight bourbon. Here’s how to drink both types of bourbon:
1. Neat is the way to go.
Bourbon is best served at room temperature without ice. There are people who like to add a few drops of water to open up the aroma of the bourbon. However, if you’re a bourbon newbie, you can start drinking it on the rocks.
2. Try using a brandy snifter.
A brandy snifter is a short-stemmed glass with a wide-bottom vessel and a narrow top. It’s a special type of stemware that’s designed for bourbon, brandy, and whiskey. The design serves two purposes: better evaporation and enhanced aroma.
How to drink scotch
Scotch is technically whiskey (but not all whiskey is scotch). That means the best drinking approach is practically the same, although scotch is a softer and smoother drink compared to bourbon.
1. Scotch deserves the ideal glassware.
Those tulip-shaped glasses called whiskey snifters are ideal for scotch, especially when sipping it neat. The beauty of this glass’s shape is that it traps and concentrates the aromas in the glass. If you go to a bar, though, the bartender will likely serve you scotch in a regular glass on the rocks.
2. Allow water to bring out the flavors.
Scotch has special flavors and aromas that might be obscured by pure alcohol, and water can help bring those flavors to the surface. Add a few drops until you can taste the flavors. With very old, expensive bottles, you may need to dilute even more water.
3. Play around with cocktails.
A lot of people drink scotch neat, but that doesn't mean you have to. Scotch plays well with lots of grapefruit and honey-based syrups, as well as with orange, pear nectar, and ginger ale. There are a lot of scotch cocktail recipes that may enhance your experience.
Common mistakes when drinking whiskey, bourbon, or scotch
- Shooting instead of sipping. Don’t believe what you see in the movies. Shooting whiskey, bourbon, or scotch is not a good way to enjoy it. It’s just going to give you that unpleasant shudder and the lingering fire in your throat. Sip it and enjoy.
- Believing that age matters. With whiskey, bourbon, and scotch, age is indeed just a number. The idea that the older they are, the more superior they become is not always true. Just because a whiskey is young doesn’t mean it won’t suit your taste or style. Don’t pay too much attention to age and focus on the uniqueness of each variety.
- Automatically assuming that ice will make it taste better. Ice can dampen the flavors and once you’ve mixed it with your whiskey, bourbon, or scotch, there’s no turning back. Assess your drink first. Better yet, go with chilled instead of on the rocks.
How to drink sake
Sake, which roughly translates to “Japanese liquor”, comes in many types that determine whether it’s best served chilled or at room temperature. Typically considered a ceremonial drink, sake deserves to be consumed the way it was intended to.
1. Drink it in small portions.
Sake is served in small drinking cups called ‘guinomi’ or ‘choko.’ It is not meant to be gulped down like a Kamikaze shot. Not only will you not get the desired effect of the drink, but you will also look foolish to an experienced sake drinker.
2. Either hot or cold works.
Unlike wines, sake is a versatile beverage more open to experimentation. The standard serving for sake is warm, but it’s also quite good either chilled, at room temperature, or hot.
3. Pair it with appetizers.
Sake tradition dictates that it be served during the appetizer phase of a meal. If you want to get your full Japanese on, you may even enjoy sipping sake while snacking on light sushi, white fish, or chicken. Some people make specific types of sake to pair with certain appetizers to make the meal even more delectable.
4. Make it social.
Here’s another sake ritual: Don’t serve yourself. When drinking sake with your friends, ask or wait for them to pour the drink for you. Lift your cup slightly toward your server. Of course, return the favor and pour for your fellow drinkers.
Common mistakes when drinking sake
- Pronouncing the name wrong. It’s ‘sa-keh’, not ‘sa-kee’. It’s a very dignified beverage and the least you can do is say the name right.
- Storing sake in the freezer. Sake is meant to be stored vertically and refrigerated. You don’t need to “age” it so don’t put it in the freezer. Once a bottle of sake is opened, you have about four to six weeks to consume it.
- Drinking straight from a masu. A masu is a little wooden box that is technically a measuring tool. You’re supposed to pour sake into a masu and then into a glass or cup. Sake is delicate so drinking straight out of a masu may have adverse effects on the flavor.
How to drink brandy
Brandy is made from wines or fermented mashes of other fruits. But it’s not wine, as wine is made by fermentation and brandy is distilled. The proper way of drinking both wine and brandy don’t differ much, though.
1. Use the right glassware.
A brandy snifter has a bowl and rim shape that concentrates the brandy to the right part of your tongue and directs the aromas to your nose.
2. Neat is classic.
Neat is simply a straight shot of brandy served at room temperature without ice or a mix. Hold the glass by its bowl using the palm of your hand to gently warm the brandy and release all the aromas.
3. Sniff and take small sips.
Hold the snifter in front of you, chest level, and take a nice sniff from above the rim of the glass. Don’t just dive your nose into the snifter. You can move it closer if you want, just right at your chin, and sniff again to get a different set of aroma. Take very small sips and let the brandy roll around on your tongue before you swallow.
Common mistakes when drinking brandy
- Ignoring age and quality. Brandy is one of those beverages where age matters big time. A bottle of brandy, especially the cognac type, has a quality designation that helps you determine the best way to drink it. VO means Very Od, VS means Very Special, VSOP is Very Special/Superior Old Pale, XO means Extra Old, and so on.
- Overheating the brandy. Some people like to heat their brandy over an open flame. If it becomes too hot, it may cause the alcohol to evaporate and ruin the flavor. To be safe, stick with warming the drink while you sip by keeping the palm of your hand around the bowl of the snifter.
- Not storing brandy properly. Brandy has high alcohol content and that makes it safe to drink for a long time. The quality, however, may decline because of oxidation and evaporation. Store brandy in a tightly sealed bottle in a cold place to reduce evaporation. Also, make sure there’s a small amount of air in the bottle as possible because more air means faster oxidation.
How to drink tequila
Ah yes, the classic combo of tequila, lime, and salt. You can always keep doing the college party-style tequila marathon followed by that terrible hangover or you can finally drink it with a certain level of mastery and sophistication.
1. Say goodbye to tequila ‘shots’.
In the land where tequila came from, Mexicans aren’t doing tequila shots. We’re talking about real tequila here — made from 100% agave tequila and not the “mixto” you’ve been drinking that only has 51% tequila and the rest is cane sugar alcohol and flavoring. That’s right, real tequila is made for sipping from a glass or a snifter.
2. Lime and salt are optional, not essential.
The more legit the tequila is, the more flavor it has, so there’s no need for lime or salt to mask the taste. For sipping, go for darker-colored añejo or reposado. If you really want to, you can dip a wedge of lime into a little salt and suck on it but only do it every sip or two.
3. For authenticity, try tequila with a chaser.
If you really mean business when drinking tequila, go and see if you can find any sangrita. This is the only real “chaser” that goes well with tequila as far as Mexicans are concerned. It’s sweet and spicy with a blend of citrus juices, hot sauce, and sometimes tomato juice. Pour sangrita into a small glass. In between sips of tequila, sip sangrita to cleanse your palate and bring out the tequila’s peppery and citrusy taste.
4. Cocktail lover? Try the La Paloma.
If you’d rather drink tequila in a cocktail, you can still go Mexican and mix the tequila with grapefruit soda to make a citrusy Paloma.
Common mistakes when drinking tequila
- Drinking tequila not made using 100% blue agave. Real tequila is from the fermented juice of the agave plant. Anything short of the real thing is usually of low quality and colored with caramel, which you can blame for the raging hangover the morning after.
- Serving tequila super cold. Treat tequila as you would wine and drink it at room temperature to experience the full range of flavors.
- Believing that “gold” is better. People always look for the "gold" or "brown" tequila, even though in reality, the color doesn't necessarily mean it has superior quality than the “silver” or “white” variant. As long as the tequila is pure and has aged well, the color becomes irrelevant.
There you have it — your ultimate boozing guide. Hopefully, we were able to introduce new and refreshing (not to mention correct) ways of enjoying your favorite poison. Again, there’s no universal formula to drinking because if you’re having fun, who’s to tell you otherwise? But there’s also no harm in trying the more precise approach, especially when it points to the same goal: to make the entire drinking experience more memorable.