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Tuesday
May172011

Cask Strength 

I was talking with Suntory's Neyah White earlier today and we were discussing our favorite spirits of the moment when the subject of cask strength whiskey came up.  We vented to one another about simply popping and pouring at home, even though our jobs include understanding the intricate ingredients and procedures of the cocktail craft.  As a master bartender, Neyah would usually finish his day with a beer and I had to laugh because I'm pretty much the same way.  Usually the people you would most expect to be drinking fancy cocktails or old, cask strength whiskies at home are guys like us, but it's really not how we roll.  We geek out on crazy stuff all day at work, so the night time seems to be more about relief and relaxation.

This brings me to the subject and name of this post - cask strength.  The move towards bottling whisky at cask strength is a fantastic one by independent bottlers and companies as a whole.  The consumer gets access to unfiltered, unadulterated juice and a chance to proof the spirit to their own specific liking.  However, there are moments when I feel like the preference for high strength booze gets a bit out of hand. Not everything needs to be at cask strength in order to taste good or represent quality, but the alcohol world is a large and overwelming presence in many peoples' lives and so they often grasp on to a few rules of thumb to guide them.  These are usually opinions and suggestions picked up from friends or magazine articles, such as "ask for something dry" or "ABC - anything but chardonnay."  With unsure whisk(e)y customers, the new word on the street is "cask strength."

In order to help illustrate the problems that can occur with this scenario, let's look at the Clynelish 27 Year Old Cask we bought from A.D. Rattray last year.  This was a delicate and mild mannered whisky that came in at a whopping 60%.  To drink it out of the bottle without water was to completely miss out on what made it great.  Only at about 46-48% did it start to reveal its splendor.  The problems began when customers started complaining to me that I had sold them a lemon and that this was not good whisky at all.  I immediately became both nervous and defensive, especially after having several regular customers tell me it was one of the best whiskies they had ever had.  After thinking about the situation, I responded to the emails by asking the customers if they had watered the whisky down.  The answers were something like: "I never add water to my whisky," "I like my whisky at cask strength," "Why would I pay $100 for a whisky just to add water to it?" 

This was the first experience that revealed to me why large companies do not bottle their whiskies at cask strength, or if they do, not exclusively.  Whisky almost never tastes best right out of the cask.  Giving the customer a chance to decide which proof is best is completely lost on many of them because most consumers expect a finished product right out of the bottle, not a raw material to work with.  Not only did the Clynelish we sold need water to balance out the heat, it also was a pain in the ass getting it just right.  It took me an hour one time to find the sweet spot, and while I enjoyed the final result immensely, I didn't look forward to that battle very often.  If anything, it was a deterrent from opening the bottle more frequently.

This type of extra work leads me back to the beginning point regarding Neyah and myself.  Cask strength whiskies are in no way relaxing or relieving.  Please let me just pour something into a glass and zone out at the end of a long day!  Last night, I took home the one remaining bottle we had of Van Winkle 10 Year old 90 proof and it was f--king great.  In all honesty, I had never tasted it before so it was a curiosity of mine.  I've had every other Van Winkle expression numerous times and I have to say that if could have my choice today from all six bourbons, I would no doubt choose the 10 year 90 proof.  It's amazingly complex and interesting in a way that the others are not.  The pleasure in the 10 is the craftmanship, not the power and not the wood.  The 15, 20, and 23 are so massive that I need to prepare for their arrival and the 12 tastes like a lot of other good bourbons I have.  The 10 year 90 proof though is exactly what I want to come home to. 

I can think of other times when I prefered a 43% single malt to the cask strength option.  I found the Port Ellen 25 year from Chieftain's to be far superior to the cask strength 30 year and I always prefer Speyside malts like Glenrothes from the distillery rather than directly from the cask.  Having now had the Scotland warehouse experience, I can also attest to the fun of cask strength sampling and the intensity of unbridled malt.  However, I want to stress that each situation and each whisky is different, so by no means should cask strength expressions always be considered superior or a better option that dilluted expression. 

There are no absolutes in the booze world. 

-David Driscoll

Reader Comments (9)

Great points. I have never met anyone--and I literally mean no one--whom pours themselves a cask strength whisk(e)y every day. There would probably be no quicker way develop a debilitating aversion to bourbon than to make William Laure Weller, George T. Stagg, or the bottled-at-cask Parker's Heritage stuff one's standard go-to pour. And yes they are all great, but they're not great all the time. Stuff like 90 proof 10yr ORVW is so much more convenient and comforting because (as you pointed out) it is tasty, low maintenance, somewhat special, and a bit of value compared to other brands in its segment. Selling it cask strength would ruin all of that. Same deal with scotch. I absolutely love some cask strength single malts--especially some of the older Glenfarclas or Highland Park--but the drink I chose for my last birthday was distillery bottled Macallan 18. That left me wondering why I predominately buy at-cask stuff when all I craved (surprisingly) for my last birthday drink was some 43% Mac 18. I suppose I'd been falling for the alluring (and false) hidden premise beneath cask strength hype; that cask strength whiskies tend to be the most flavorful. But who's to say what will taste good for another? And yet we cave to suggestion because our most instinctive desires and wishes are so easily distorted by the onslaught of a trend. Which is why it's great 'industry' folk like yourself persistently examine unexamined trends. Nice post David.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRN

Thanks RN. I'm glad I connected with someone on this topic. We did a private tasting tonight with some good K&L customers and I'm pretty sure that the favorite of the night was a Bowmore 17 at 43% despite the other cask strength bottles we tried. Easy stuff, easy pour.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid D

That's interesting. I think the appeal of cask strength stuff is that they're esoteric and make massive first impressions. Some of the most novel whiskies I've tried were bottled at cask. I suppose that's what makes them such alluring and exciting purchases. Yet I'll reach for fluffier stuff, like Scapa 16, much more frequently. As you said, there are good reasons whisky companies don't primarily bottle at cask.

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRN

Excellent post, David. I've recently purchased my first cask strength whiskey bottle after tasting it in a cocktail at Single Barrel in San Jose. In this case, the whiskey was "watered down" as it would be in a regular cocktail and the result was fantastic. The bourbon was very forward in the cocktail; and in certain cases, that's a really good thing. I like using "overproof" spirits in cocktails as they can add a bit of heat without significantly unbalancing the drink (if you're careful).

I also find the proofing process entertaining (then again, I'm a hobbyist, so I would). For a drink like an Old Fashioned or even sipping bourbon neat, there's no way I'm drinking it at cask strength so I'm definitely watering it down.

I think the problem is a marketing issue, honestly. In people's minds, cask strength = more pure = better product--but that's simply not the case. There's also always the, "there's more alcohol in this, that's a good thing" crowd. Noting the bottles of cask strength product I've seen, I've never seen one come with notes, or a companion website or SOMETHING that describes the proofing process to people; specifically the how and why of the process. I'd contend that even the most serious whiskey aficionados know nearly nothing about what cask strength really means, and why whiskey goes through the process it does before being bottled in most cases. Thanks for taking the first step in educating folks!

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Crescimanno

Brian - good points. I think my biggest problem begins when I recommend a bottle to someone and they say, "but that's not at cask strength."

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

There is one cask strength whisky that really wow'd me recently without the addition of water, and that was the 10-year-old unpeated official bottling of Caol Ila. While the heat does overwhelm, the alcohol doesn't mask the taste much. It's easy to add too much water to a 65.8% ABV whisky though, so I can definitely relate. Taking it down to 43% would leave it quite bland and boring, I think. It helped a bit that it has no complexities to uncover....so maybe simpler, younger whiskies take to higher strengths a bit better.

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEugene

Right, and older ones too. The Ladyburn cask we bought doesn't need any water at all.

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid D

I've also heard (though never tried) that cask strength whiskeys can really "open up" when allowed to breathe (as one would a red wine) in a decanter before serving.

May 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Crescimanno

Hey friends, Thank you ! usefull info, keep up the good work. I'll try to follow you more often replica cartier santos

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterC. Lurie

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