The Ultimate Guide To Whiskey Stones

Mar 26, 2020

Category: Gear

Father’s Day is fast approaching and, for many, that means trying to find the perfect gift to let any and all dads in your life know you appreciate them. Of course, it can sometimes be pretty difficult to figure out just what to get — which often leads people to rely on some of the go-to staple gifts, like neckties, boxes of cigars, and — perhaps most notoriously (at least over the last decade or so) — whiskey stones.

It’s that latter gift we’re concerned with here. As seemingly commonplace as whiskey stones may be, there is still plenty of confusion — even amongst whiskey fanatics — as to what they are, what purpose they serve, and (most importantly) whether they even work at all. In the following article, we’ll answer all those questions and more. This is the ultimate guide to whiskey stones.

What Are Whiskey Stones?

An Alternative To Ice

Believe it or not, there’s not a long history of people using whiskey stones. In fact, they’ve only really been around in their present form since 2007 — when they were invented by a former banker by the name of Andrew Hellman. According to Hellman, the idea was based on an old set of stones he found at his grandfather’s Swedish summer home. The stones, which were typically hung outside in the cold between uses, were apparently used to help cool off “piping hot liquids coming off the stovetop,” like soups and stews.

Originally, whiskey stones were exclusively made out of a non-porous, naturally-occurring metamorphic rock, called soapstone, and were shaped and sized roughly the same as dice — like the kind used in board games and Vegas gambling — which would take up about the same amount of space as a handful of ice. And they were actually created/intended to curb perhaps the biggest downside to real ice — that being that ice melts and, therefore, dilutes drinks. The theory behind whiskey stones was that, when stored in your freezer to chill, they could be put into your whiskey and chill it down to ice-cold temperatures without impeding or affecting the overall flavor, aroma, etc. However, whether that theory works in practice is a different story entirely.

How Do Whiskey Stones Work?

Cold But Unmelting

The physics behind whiskey stones is actually fairly sound. A frozen stone would (in theory) pass on its coldness to whatever liquid you put it in. Ice works much the same way. However, as ice offsets the warmer liquid surrounding it, it also warms up and melts — turning into a chilled liquid and mixing with the rest of the beverage. Stones, being solid rock, do not revert to a liquid state when exposed to warmth and, therefore, do not dilute your whiskey as they warm up. Furthermore, their solidity should mean that they will not alter the flavor of your whiskey, either, because that would require particles of the stone to actually mix into the whiskey itself.

Due to how solid and dense they are, whiskey stones take longer to cool down enough to put into a drink (at least four hours for standard-sized ones) — meaning you’ll have to have them in your freezer for much more time than it would take for a cube of ice of a similar volume to cool down to freezing temperatures from its liquid state. Logically, you’d think that it would also take longer for them to warm up as well and, therefore, make them the ideal way to cool down your whiskey. Unfortunately, due to the nature of thermodynamics, this is simply not true. And therein lies the biggest problem with whiskey stones: they’re not entirely effective at their one job.

The Downside Of Whiskey Stones

Do They Really Work?

As mentioned, thermodynamics is one of the reasons that ice is so good at cooling down liquids. You see, ice actually comes with two “built-in” means of chilling liquid. The first (perhaps obviously) is in passing its coldness to a beverage in its solid form. However, as the ice warms up, it turns into a liquid and mixes with said beverage. For reference: water has a freezing temperature of 32-degrees Fahrenheit. As ice warms up and reverts to a liquid state, it doesn’t suddenly become warm. Rather, the cold ice turns into a cold liquid and very gradually warms up. And, as it warms up, it mixes with the rest of the liquid surrounding it — whiskey, in this case — and continues to cool down said liquid until, eventually, the whole of the drink in your glass becomes room temperature.

It’s this second form of “built-in” cooling inherent to ice that negatively impacts the functionality of whiskey stones. Since they do not melt and mix in with the beverage, they’re limited solely to their out-of-the-freezer chilling ability and don’t have the ability to gradually bring down a liquid’s temperature. That means, once you drop your stones into your whiskey, they’re actually going to warm up quite quickly — to the point that you might not even notice that the temperature of your whiskey has changed at all. To cope with this, you’d need far more stones than you might cubes of ice for a drink of the same size, but that’s not exactly a reasonable prospect for a couple of reasons.

First, the other theoretical “benefit” of whiskey stones is that they don’t leech into your whiskey and, therefore, do not alter its flavor. However, in practice (and much like ice), putting anything into your drink has the potential to make it into your mouth. Simply tilt the glass a degree too far and whatever’s in it — stones or ice — will come tumbling toward your tongue. And if that happens, trust us, you’re going to taste it. Second (and perhaps more importantly), stone is a hard, durable material and, even with rounded edges, can scuff up more delicate materials — like crystal or glass. Toss some whiskey stones into your favorite Waterford tumbler and you could end up scratching it. And while that maybe wouldn’t be the end of the world, it is unsightly, unfortunate, and something most folks would probably like to avoid.

Alternative Materials & Formats

And What They Offer

Since their debut, people have been trying to figure out better, more effective types of whiskey stones. In fact, some aren’t stones at all. While the vast majority are made from dense, non-porous rock — like soapstone, granite, and even marble — there are others made from metal, like food-safe stainless or surgical-grade steel. Unfortunately, just like their soapstone counterparts, they suffer from the same thermodynamic issue.

The concept is not entirely without a middle ground, however. Many folks have turned to ice spheres as a fairly sound alternative. With a simple freezable mold, these spheres — which are roughly the size of a racquetball — have a much greater density than traditional ice cubes. That means they have greater cooling power and, when paired with their thermally-sound shape, will even melt much slower, reducing how much they will dilute your whiskey. Until someone comes up with a better solution, ice spheres might be the best way to chill your whiskey without just tossing the whole bottle in the freezer (which is also a viable option, so long as you recognize that the breadth of flavors in a whiskey will be limited by such cold temperatures).

Available Options

A Trio Of Picks

Even with our lengthy explanation above, you may still want to take a “see for yourself” approach to whiskey stones. As mentioned, it’s not that they completely don’t work; it’s just that they’re not as effective as we’d maybe like them to be. In that case, we’ve got a pair of options below for you to try out, as well as an icy alternative that won’t dilute your spirits quite as quickly as standard cubes.

Lithologie Granulite Whiskey Stones

If you’re going to invest in and try out a set of whiskey stones, you should at least get ones you’re proud to display, like the Lithologie Granulite Whiskey Stones you see here. Crafted from non-porous granite — with an included “Stone certificate” — these stones come with their own gorgeous walnut wood display tray where you can keep them stored between uses.

Purchase: $50

Balls Of Steel Whiskey Stones

Perhaps the best alternative to traditional whiskey stones, the Balls of Steel are actually made from steel — meaning they’re food-safe, they shouldn’t leech into your spirits, and their spherical shape will prevent scratching up your favorite whiskey glasses.

Purchase: $27

Tovolo Ice Sphere Molds

Though they’re not particularly pretty, the Tovolo Ice Sphere Molds are some of the best around. Not only can they make perfectly circular balls of ice, but they’re leak-proof, made to keep from tipping over in your freezer, and they can even stack if you’re limited on space. Oh yeah, and they’re dishwasher safe.

Purchase: $13

The 12 Best Bourbon Whiskeys You Can Buy

If you want to try out a set of whiskey stones for yourself, you’ll also need a spirit into which you can drop them. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find better options than those on our list of the best bourbons you can buy.

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