It sounds like something a kid would say (“Drinking spirits? Neat!”) but it’s supposedly something a very serious adult does. Of course, the truth is a lot of us are either intimidated or grossed out by the prospect of drinking spirits neat* (or all by themselves, as opposed to over ice or in a cocktail). But drinking spirits neat is just a way to appreciate what the distiller’s done and what your palate has to say about it. There’s nothing to be afraid of here. It’s just a room temp spirit in a glass.
Of course, not all spirits go well neat. Aged and dark spirits are good bets, since there’s often more “there” to taste. But clear liquors can also go down smooth on their own—many beautifully botanical gins, complex light rums, and smoky mezcals make for perfect solo sipping (whereas blanco tequilas and some, but not all, vodkas are best in mixed drinks). Just keep in mind price point is often a good measure; college parties drown cheap Popov in O.J. for a reason. So follow your wallet, your palate, and your doctor’s orders, of course, but here are a few recommendations (with room for lots more) to get you started:
- Malt Whiskey: “Malt” Whiskey basically means any whiskey made only from malted barley (which may or may not be “peated,” i.e. flavored with roasted peat). Single Malt means it’s a barley whiskey made by one distillery only. (Learn more about the slightly confusing terminology here.)
- Brandy: The stuff you see swirled around in snifters, yes, but also an incredibly rich spirit made from distilled wine or fermented fruit mash. Includes Cognac and Armagnac, as well as Italian Grappa and Pisco, a South American brandy made from Muscat wine.
- Gin: It’s clear, but don’t fear. The best stuff is complex, fragrant with juniper berry, often with bright citrus notes, possibly cucumber, and basically a garden’s worth of flavor. Genever, its older, maltier cousin, is also definitely worth sipping.
- Vodka: You can absolutely drink vodka neat, or at least by itself (cold temps or ice help dull any astringent, alcoholic heat). Historically, traditionally, the classically “neutral” spirit is best served very cold and smooth, paired with food.
- Bourbon: America’s whiskey, the lovechild of corn farming, distilling, wood-charring and barrel-aging. The best give you something to chew on, metaphorically speaking, with a lot of character that speaks to the process behind it.
- Rum: Comes in many shades and variants, from dark to light to “agricole” (made with sugar cane instead of molasses). But thanks to some serious flavor borrowed from the barrel, dark rums (and, to a lesser extent, white rum) will have flavors to trip over.
- Mezcal: Clear as a baby’s conscience, but full of rich roasted agave, with flavors that can range from green and lush to spicy and smoky.
- Aged Tequilas: Reposado (literally “rested,” for two months to a year) and Añejo (a year, plus) have a similar “green” heat as Mezcal, with added complexity from aging. Recent category Extra Añejo (or “ultra aged”) will pack even more flavorful punch.
*Neat in spirits/cocktail terminology means absolutely nothing has been done to the spirit. It hasn’t been chilled, it hasn’t been sung to, it certainly hasn’t been mixed with anything else. It’s poured directly from the bottle into a glass, room temp, high proof, ready to go. Straight up means your spirit (or cocktail) has had something done to it—it’s been chilled somehow, but it’s poured into the glass without ice. If you want a spirit or cocktail cold, but no cubes, order it straight up. Or, more accurately, “up.”