You can memorize long lists of cocktails, know all of the classics and be able to rattle off 10 different Margaritas, but you will never satisfy every drinkers’ taste until you know the ins and outs of neat drinks. Because after a long day, a proper pour from the bottle to the glass can be as satisfying as any drink.
The definition of a neat drink is, “a single, unmixed spirit served at room temperature without a mixer.” They’re typically served in a rocks glass or a snifter, and come in two ounce servings. Whiskey is the most common spirit served neat, although other spirits are not out of the question.
“Having a bar equipped for the ‘whiskey neat’ drinkers is vital to a successful bar program,” Brian Evans, the head bartender at Sunday in Brooklyn, tells Supercall. “No matter how much brain-work, creativity and fun you try to implement into a cocktail list, some people just don’t care to sift through the literature and they don’t want to have to overthink their drink selections.”
Any spirit that’s not considered cheap, Eric Tschudi, the head bartender and sommelier at Shuko says, can be enjoyed neat.
“If someone really wants an ice cube or two with their spirit, I won’t get too offended (unless it’s anything top shelf),” Tschudi says. “This includes any decent scotch, mezcal, whiskey, bourbon, rum (I personally prefer my tequilas, gins and vodka with a bit of a chill—but that might just be me).”
When it comes to neat drinks, it’s all about knowing and stocking easily recognizable brands. Depending on your location, it’s also about knowing which types of spirits people are looking for when they come to your bar. Here’s what you need to know about three types of liquor commonly served neat.
You probably know someone who enjoys their whiskey neat. You might even be that person. For them, Evans suggests keeping a few familiar and dependable brands that are “instantly recognizable on a back bar” and that “cater to anyone who solely sips their go-to, brand-name labels.” Those brands include Bulleit Rye, Maker’s Mark Bourbon and The Macallan 12 Year.
It’s also important to keep a few conversation starter whiskies that come with a story, like Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Bourbon, which is aged at sea. Everyone likes a good story. Tschudi adds that Japanese whisky like Yamazaki 12, Hibiki Harmony and Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt are a good choice to serve neat as well.
There’s much more to agave than tequila, and there’s much more to drinking agave spirits neat than shooting it with lime and salt.
“A good tequila is one distilled from an agave plant that has fully matured,” Oscar León Bernal, the head of the beverage program at La Loncheria, says. “Same goes for mezcal.”
Some sipping tequilas include Siete Leguas, Casamigos Reposado and Don Julio Reposado. Mezcals that people will recognize and can be sipped neat include Del Maguey, Sombra, Montelobos and Mezcales de Leyenda.
The main thing to understand, Bernal says, is that “agave spirits are about terroir rather than brands. Each agave has a different set of expressions and the same species of agave will taste different because of the region where it is grown and the experience and style of the maestro mezcalero. For all of these reasons, I recommend serving it without anything that dilutes the agave flavors—that means no ice or limes.”
Drinking aggressively bitter amaro neat isn’t for everyone, but the digestifs were originally designed to be consumed solo after a meal. For bartenders and people in the drinks industry, amaro is a go-to choice, so much so that Fernet-Branca has gained a reputation as the “bartender’s handshake.”
When finding your bitter amari sweet spot, it’s best to ease into it from least bitter to most bitter, Max Green, the head bartender at Amor y Amargo, says in an email.
“As you taste progressively more bitter amari, you will be able to pick up subtle tasting notes—notes you may have missed if starting with the most bitter, as your palate will be overwhelmed.”
A good place to start is Cardamaro, which is made from an artichoke-like thistle called cardoons. It’s a “gateway” into the world of bitter, Green says, and can be followed up by the artichoke-based Cynar and the, of course, Fernet-Branca. Once you start sipping Fernet-Branca straight, you’ll know you’ve made it to the next level.