Ice in top shelf whiskey: Abomination or abomination?
Finally, something I am professionally equipped to weigh in on! I am NOT AT ALL claiming to be an expert in this field, it's just that I professionally have worked in distilled spirits for a little over 20 years. Top-shelf whiskey is an extremely broad term, and there is no way to specify what someone means when they talk about that.
A general guideline for a layman to decide wether or not to add ice (or distilled water- any form of potential dilution) to a dram would be to look at the ABV of the spirit itself. A whiskey sold in the US has a minimum ABV of 40% (80 proof) and adding any form of dilution to a 40% ABV spirit seems unnecessary for most drinkers. A spirit at 40% ABV is 60% water as is and the addition of more water (in the form of ice or otherwise) might tend to highlight some of the more acetone-like qualities in the alcohol itself rather than the sweetness of the distillate or the more herbaceous and spicy notes from the barrel.
Don't add ice! Examples of 40% ABV whiskies some might consider top shelf:
Red Breast (most mass produced Irish is 40% for tax purposes)
42-~56%- When a spirit is distilled to a higher ABV, it is often done so to highlight existing spices from either the barrel or the distillate. Whiskies in this category are usually meant to be sipped neat, but have the character and richness to stand up to any form of dilution or modification. A whiskey in this ABV range is more likely to have flavors that can shine through when paired with a bold vermouth in a Manhattan, for example. For many years, 50% ABV was considered the sweet spot for American whiskey. https://en.wikipedia...Bottled_in_bond
The beauty of this range is that it can theoretically be enjoyed in more circumstances than can the 40% expressions, as the end-user can treat it as sort of a whiskey concentrate to be diluted down to where they prefer to drink it. If you happen to be enjoying a bonded whiskey in the near future, pour a couple ounces into your preferred vessel, take a regular ice cube from your freezer and just crack it (not shatter it) with the back of a spoon. add that ice and enjoy in several smaller sips throughout the hour. You will see that you are getting not just more dilution and different (softer) drinking experience as the ice melts, but you will find competing flavors that are always present in the spirit but are willing to shine more brightly at differing levels of dilution. The Early Times blue label bottled in bond is a fantastic example of this. About 50% of your ice cube has dissolved and you are drinking Woodford Reserve, 100% is dissolved and it's like your drinking Jim Beam double oaked. It's incredibly versatile and there's way more subtlety to it than the price would indicate.
Probably don't add ice, but you won't look like an ass if you do!
Too many examples to list.
57%+ ABV- getting into cask strength distillates
These expressions of whiskey are usually more expensive and produced in more limited qualities for a few reasons. Cask Strength (or Barrel Proof) implies that after the whiskey has finished aging, no water is added to it before bottling. Not all the whiskies in this range are cask strength, but probably a safe majority of the ones that might be considered top-shelf, are. There is something masturbatory about a distillery releasing a cask-strength spirit in that it is made with the understanding that casual whiskey drinkers aren't really expected to appreciate it fully. these whiskies can really be quite lovely at times while drinking quite warmly but still showcasing some subtlety. For the most part, though, you are going to find very intense and bold flavors with an aggression dominating the tasting experience. That is why this category of whiskies begs to have dilution added. The above example of cracking the spoon with an Early Times BiB becomes even more intense here because by the time your ice has dissolved and offered all of it possible dilution, you are usually still left with a whiskey of >40% ABV. This category, in baseball term, is the high-floor, high-ceiling prospect because a distillery wouldn't produce a cask strength expression of a subpar whiskey, and you are indeed buying whiskey concentrate for the days which you dont want to have the aggressive, intense whiskey drinking experience.
Probably add ice, but make sure you try it neat first!
Examples can be: Booker's, Wathen's Barrel Proof, Laphroiag 10yr Cask Strength, etc. Usually a cask strength expression is a higher ABV edition of something that already exists. Be prepared to spend.
That's about it for ice. I never went into dilution in terms of barrel statements or raw material (malted barley, corn, rye, etc.) because I think I wrote enough words about ice vs ABV.
Everybody who drinks whiskey likes to fancy themselves an expert. I will state again, for the record, I have no expertise in whiskey outside of what is required to do my job. If I misinformed above, I apologize. I tried only to give a general guideline because I want more people drinking good whiskey. Cheers!
Did I mention cannabis is legal in Oregon and I took the day off?