On the Rocks: Whiskey Stones vs. Ice Cubes

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ABSTRACT
Among all organoleptic pursuits there are gadgets, devices, dishes, and glassware designed to heighten, enhance or deliver the substance in question to the human sense organs. Over time, some of these inventions take root and become the preferred means by which the item is to be be consumed and enjoyed while others are seen as fads relegated to the dustbin of history. For the world of whiskey lovers, Teroforma has declared a solution to the problem of how best to chill whiskey. Assuming that you would want to do such a thing, we decided to investigate. 

teroforma2.jpg
The Whiskey Stone manufacturer claims that their stones, made in Vermont from natural non-porous soapstone, are more gentle than ice and can be used to cool down your favorite spirits just enough to take the edge off without "closing down" the flavors. Simply store the stones in the freezer for at least 4 hours before use, then add 3 stones to a glass with 2oz of whiskey and let stand 5 minutes. Moreover, the stones will not inadvertently scratch glassware and they are "particularly effective at retaining cold for extended periods of time."

While the claims that the stones impart no flavour, are non-porous, non-reactive, and won't inadvertently scratch glassware are sound, the claim that they are effective at retaining cold for extended periods did not reflect our collective experience with the stones. To resolve the matter, we set out to determine the cooling rates of ice, the traditional chilling method for whiskey, and Whiskey Stones so as to better understand the degree to which both chill a standard 2oz pour of whiskey and how long the dram stayed chilled. Running a series of measurements, ice was found to cool a dram faster and for a longer period than Whiskey Stones.

Having established the rates of cooling, we opened our discussion about the impact of Whiskey Stones on the enjoyment of a dram to our readership by means of a survey to shed light on the following: do readers chill their whiskey? How and under what circumstances do they chill whiskey and when might someone wish to use Whiskey Stones over ice? Finally, how many readers actually use them and think they're a necessary substitute to ice?

The essay below combines the empirical chilling data, analysis of the survey results and elucidation of ScotchBlog.ca's internal consensus to determine that Whiskey Stones provide little to no utility for the whiskey enthusiast. 
Methodology & Assumptions

The first experiment was to measure and compare the cooling rates of the following chilling methods on a 2oz pour of blended Scotch whisky known to be enjoyed with ice (Islay Mist) in a tumbler at room temperature against a control glass:

3 chilled Whiskey Stones
6 chilled Whiskey Stones
1 ice cube
2 ice cubes

Teroforma's instructions suggest using 3 stones, chilled for a minimum of 4 hours in the freezer, to cool 2 oz of whiskey in a glass. Our assumption was that if 3 stones were meant to replace 1 ice cube then, logically, 6 stones would replace 2 ice cubes. Due to the size of the stones we were forced to abandon our preferred Glencairn glass in favour of the tumbler. 

Using a thermometer designed for measuring the temperature of liquids, we took readings every minute for 30 minutes and then every 5 minutes thereafter. Our assumption was that people typically don't take over a half an hour to drink a chilled glass of whiskey and so the readings could be less infrequent after half an hour as they were only being used to verify warming rates that in most practical situations would not be allowed to occur.

For each experiment 2 glasses of whisky were poured. One glass was assigned as the control liquid and the other was treated to one of the cooling methods listed above. Once both glasses of whisky reached the same temperature of 19.6 degrees Celsius, a cooling agent was added to one of the glasses and the measurements began the following minute. 

One aspect of drink thermodynamics that was not factored in was the effect of a hand on the glass. Both the control glass and the glass undergoing a chill method were placed on a table and not held at any time. 

A final note before we begin the analysis of this experiment; the spikes in the 1 and 2 ice cube lines are attributed to the fluid dynamics of an ice cube melting in liquid. As the ice cube melted into the drink, it bobbed around and sometimes touched the thermometer while we were taking the reading resulting in a measurement that was temporarily colder than the rest of the drink. The effect was not observed in the tumblers with Whiskey Stones as the stones remained immobile in the liquid.

coolingratesgraphedit.gif
Quantitative Analysis

As evidenced in the graph (click on the image to enlarge), both the 3 Whiskey Stones and 6 Whiskey Stones approaches didn't cool the whiskey as much as 1 or 2 ice cubes did in the same time frame. 3 Whiskey Stones were able to cool the whiskey by just over 5 degrees Celsius and 6 Whiskey Stones, interestingly, nearly doubled the cooling effect resulting in a 9.6 degree difference from the control glass in almost half the time (2 minutes) of 3 stones. Within 2 minutes of reaching the coldest temperature, the glasses with the Whiskey Stones began to steadily warm and eventually reached 17.1 degrees and 15.8 degrees respectively by the 30 minute mark. 

The ice cubes produced a more gradual chill in the liquid and reached their coldest temperatures at the 10 minute mark of 2.1 degrees and -1 degree respectively. After half an hour, 1 cube had reduced the temperature of the liquid to 8.6 degrees whereas 2 ice cubes yielded a 19.2 degree difference from the control glass at 0.4 degrees.

If you followed the instructions on the Teroforma box, your optimal drinking time is 5 minutes after putting the stones in the glass resulting in a drink at 15 degrees Celsius for 3 stones and 12.3 degrees for 6 stones. 

Following the same instructions with 1 ice cube would result in a drink chilled to 4.9 degrees or, with 2 cubes, 2.6 degrees.

Qualitative Analysis

Firstly, we're not going to wait 5 minutes to drink chilled whiskey as Teroforma suggests. 

Secondly, the 3 stone method barely chills the whiskey which fulfills the promise of the packaging. But when you put a hand around that glass you begin to wonder "what the hell am I doing here?", as the temperature of the whiskey barely registers as cooler compared to a control glass. Putting 6 stones in a tumbler is actually ridiculous and no one should ever do it, even if you like using whiskey stones. They sit awkwardly in the glass and if you tilt the glass too much you will be met with a soapstone landslide that's liable to either chip your tooth or fall out the side of the glass onto the floor. 

Thirdly, and practically speaking, the slight temperature difference between the control glass and the glass with stones is nearly undetectable compared to the difference 1 ice cube can make on a drink.  

Finally, by sacrificing the Glencairn glass in favour of the tumbler, the use of 3 Whiskey Stones precludes the possibility of a focussed nosing experience. Conversely, sliding an ice cube into the mouth of a Glencairn can be tricky but not unheard of. Even though the whiskey will be chilled, the glass by design still provides a better way in which to nose and appreciate whiskey.

As we waited for our drams to cool, we chatted about our own chilling preferences and our collective tendency to only chill a rough whiskey. We struggled to envision a scenario in which any one of us might use stones alone or use stones and top off with water. The consensus was "if it's that rough so as to need ice, why bother with stones?" 

We are, however, an irreverent and opinionated lot by times and in the interest of pursuing a more "scientific" approach to our official position on the use of Teroforma's Whiskey Stones (or a similar product) we thought it best to open up the discussion to you, the readers, and get your feedback on when and how you chill your whiskey.

The "How do you like your whiskey?" Survey Results

Using a survey, courtesy of SurveyMonkey.com, we collected responses from our readers on who's chilling what whiskey, why, and what do they use to do so? 

Choose the sentence that best describes your approach to drinking chilled whiskey:

Echoing our internal consensus, respondent readers overwhelmingly replied that they typically don't enjoy chilling their whiskey! 65% of respondents declared: "I never chill my whiskey. At most, I add a few drops of water" while an additional 30% indicated that they'd "only chill my whiskey whenever I'm drinking rough stuff to make it palatable." One more outspoken respondent wrote in, "Ice belongs in skating rink or a mixed drink" which, as you'll see below, seems to confirm your sentiments about how best to enjoy whiskey. 

Rank the top 3 options that best describe your approach to chilling your whiskey. (Standard 2oz pour)

Phrased a bit differently to try to capture a more situation-specific occasion when chilling may become an option, a whopping majority (77%) replied "I don't chill my whiskey. At most, I add a few drops of water" as their first choice of three, with only a handful (5%) of respondents claiming  "I use Whiskey Stones or (or a similar product)" as their first choice.

The second chilling choice was a touch more fragmented in the responses with "I add 1 ice cube" clocking in at 50% and the next most popular answer at 22% was "I use Whiskey Stones or a similar product." The third choice began to reveal more idiosyncratic tendencies yet the most popular reply (41%) was "I add 2 ice cubes. Interestingly  "I use Whiskey Stones (or a similar product) and top off with water" and "I use Whiskey Stones (or a similar product)" accounted for a combined 12%, the same total as "I add 1 ice cube."

What type of whiskey are you most likely to add ice? (Select all that apply)

Adding up the number of selections for each item in the list we were able to get an overview of what whiskies folks are chilling. The most popular selections aside from "N/A" revealed that most of us are chilling Bourbon, Canadian Whiskey, Blended Scotch Whisky and very few of us are chilling any of the various single malt types.

This finding also seems to validate our initial suspicion, that most of us only chill a rougher or hotter dram of whiskey. 

Now before you get yourself worked up and fire off that comment, yes I know that there are some terrific sippin' Bourbons that you ought to drink with just a splash of water and there may be some Canadian exceptions too. We all know there are some first rate aged Blended Scotch Whiskies out there as well but, by and large, these aforementioned categories tend to be chill-worthy if not chill-demanding.

If you own Whiskey Stones, did you buy them or receive them as a gift?

whiskeystoneboughtvgift.jpg

Conclusions

Enjoying a dram of whiskey is a personal experience which can be modified by many factors: type of whiskey, setting, glassware, and taste. Ultimately our goal is to help you find the best possible personal whiskey experience you can get. Our opinion is that whiskey stones provide little benefit to the enjoyment of whiskey. 

When confronted with a dram in need of chilling we reach for ice. Why? 

Because ice is water and, chances are, that rough dram is going to need both chilling and dilution to make this drink enjoyable. If one were to use Whiskey Stones, they'd have greater control over the amount of water they added to the chilling whiskey rather than plopping in an ice cube. However if the water being added isn't the same temperature as the chilled dram after 5 minutes with Whiskey Stones, the water may warm or chill the liquid thereby potentially nullifying the effect of the stones. 

No matter how you slice the survey results, respondents typically don't chill their whiskey when they are drinking their preferred style. Inferring from the data provided in the chilling choices questions we can see that when respondents chill their whiskey, that whiskey needs to be chilled thoroughly and with ice.  

Whiskey Stones and similar products, in our opinion, are a solution in search of a problem.

6 Comments

Great article: very methodical. I bought stones for a friend's b'day present; we used them one night, looked at each other, pulled them out, and put ice in. They sound like a good idea, but are not really that practical.

IMHO comparing stones to ice is futile; they are two entirely different experiences. Adding ice should, as suggested above, only be done when the drink demands it. In which case, it is more about cooling and watering down an otherwise harsh experience.

A more valid comparison would be comparing the use of stones versus drinking it neat.

I found the greatest failure of Whisky Stones was that they imparted an unpleasant taste upon the whisky, regardless of how many times I washed them.

Just realized this article is a bit older but I just saw it so thought I would chime in.

I bought whisky stones when I first started drinking whisky because A) I like my drinks generally cold, B) I thought it was neat.

It wasn't too long before I stopped using them. Doesn't really work with a Glencairn glass, doesn't keep the drink cold long enough, and I find it detracts from the experience. For whiskies like Johnny Walker Black, etc I find I want ice so I can dilute it, I wouldn't dare put it in a single malt or quality whisky, and for other drinks (like Metaxa, Greek brandy) it does actually work okay I still prefer to use ice.

Interesting.
Were you just rinsing them or did you use a detergent? What was the taste like?
Is it only your batch of whiskey stones or did you notice the taste with other whiskey stones as well?

You're not alone in this thinking Costas!

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