On the surface, they seem to be the perfect gift: they let your bourbon-drinking father chill his drink without diluting it, an apparent sin in the drinking world, and they strike a perfect balance — a touch too ridiculous to buy for yourself, but welcome when disguised with wrapping paper and a bow. And thus spreads the myth of the whiskey stone.
But the simple fact is, no one needs, wants or actually uses whiskey stones. They are almost entirely useless. Whiskey stones are intended to do two things: cool your drink down and prevent dilution. In each of these pursuits the whiskey stone fails.
In regards to the claim that whiskey stones cool your drink: In this arena, the stones, typically made of soapstone to help protect your highball because for some reason you decided to put an actual rock in it, are up against a world-class cooler. Ice is and has been the predominant way to cool beverages for centuries, so much so that it seems odd to have to explain why.
Water, and ice to a lesser extent, has extremely high specific heat, which can be thought of as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of something. (Or in this case, how much heat that that something can absorb from a room-temperature drink.) Ice also benefits from the phase change. Melting ice into water takes an incredible (relatively) amount of heat. In fact, the process of melting ice absorbs the vast majority of heat in your drink. This phase change doesn’t occur with stones. They just warm up.
The second claim is that stones prevent dilution. This is true. (And is also true of reusable ice cubes, which are loads more effective than stones, provided you can bear to watch them float around at the top of your drink like a bad drink umbrella.) This is also sometimes a bad thing.
If you are a true whiskey snob, you drink your whiskey at room temperature (chilled drinks lessen the effectiveness of your taste buds and olfactory senses) and you drink it with a water dropper. You sip, you take notes, you add a drop of water, you repeat. It takes the fun out of drinking, but it illustrates a point: even experts dilute their drink. It “opens up” the whiskey, as they’ll say with a lot of hand waving.
Half the fun of throwing an ice cube into a drink is to taste the drink change as the ice melts (the other half is that you can throw a cube in your drink without shattering the glass, because it isn’t a whiskey stone). The recent trend of high-ABV bourbons hitting the market comes from bartenders demanding higher proofs that they can dilute with mixers while still maintaining high alcohol content. So dilution is sometimes good.
If you’ve given or received whiskey stones, don’t sweat it. We’ve all had them clanking around at the bottom of our drink at one point in our past. I’ve probably still got some sitting politely in my freezer; maybe enough time has passed for them to be “misplaced.” Just throw them in the garden, replace all your scratched-up tumblers and get on with your life. And if you really hate dilution but really want cold drinks, your best bet is an ice sphere. A sphere delivers the greatest cooling with the least dilution, and a press makes it denser and more efficient. Or you could just ignore this article and drink your whiskey like a Kentuckian: however the hell you want to.