Cask Strength or Weakness?

With whisky, as a general rule, I prefer higher ABVs.

I tend to find it imbues a richer character, more punch and an overall deeper experience.

With no other spirit is this necessarily true. Vodka, gin, rum and even cider do not usually taste better with a higher alcohol content. They become strong, spirity, and often-times bitter; you lose a lot of the flavour that the producers were no doubt trying to convey.

This can also be true with whisky and, despite my love for a high ABV, I don’t believe that high strength always equals high flavour/quality.

The ‘Auchriosk 1990 25 Year Old’ that I tried as part of the 2016 Diageo Special Releases was, to me, one of the worst “good” whiskies I’ve ever tried. At 51.20% the nose was nothing but spirit, the palate was a little easier with some cereal showing and then the finish was a true flash in the pan; big hot explosion and then nothing. This to me is the definition of where high ABV goes wrong. All spirit and no flavour.

Yet, compare that to my top whisky of last year, a ‘Darkness! Bruichladdich 12 Year Old Oloroso Cask Finish’ and the result couldn’t be more different. At 60.30% there was a huge flavourful nose, with only a slight hint of spirit, a robust fruity palate and a massive yet calm finish.

How could that happen?

A whisky with higher ABV had less discernible spirit yet more flavour than a whisky with a lower ABV.

Both cask strength. Both by highly reputable distilleries.

To me, there is no better whisky than a high ABV done right: enough spirit and heat to warm you and keep you on your toes, yet a huge mouthful of flavour to make it worthwhile and make you cry out hallelujah because you’ve just discovered your new lord and saviour and their name is cask strength.

There will never be a way to identify what variable makes one whisky good and one whisky less so with ABV as the sole constant. It’s the subtle nuances of the cask, the care of the distiller, even the water that is used and a myriad of other minutiae that make each dram what it is.

There’s something that I’ve been thinking for some time without ever really articulating:
My love for and pursuit of cask strength has made retail strength bottlings seem bland, banal and barely worth my time.

I’ll look on the shelves and once I’ve seen the distillery on the bottle my eyes no longer flit between age and finish cask, no, they go straight to ABV.

I’ll look at an Aberlour 16 and although it’s a fine dram I will turn my nose up at the paltry (43%) and proceed straight to A’Bunadh.

I’ll see an Edradour 12 Caledonia, a whisky I’ve wanted to try since I turned up to the distillery in Pitlochry to do a tour, only to find it was closed (due to seasonal hours), and I’ll instead keep looking for the ever elusive 2000 14 Year Old Cask Strength Decanter.

My quest to find a pour that will match up to the best cask strengths I’ve experienced is never ceasing, but, I feel like the same as with AA or Narcotics Anonymous, the first step to recovery is accepting that it’s a problem.

So I implore you to not follow my lead.

Don’t spend months on end drinking almost exclusively cask strength whisky.

Keep it as a treat.

Something for extra cold days or a Saturday night special. Something to partake in with company or after a special meal.

I now recognise that, at least for the moment, I need to make a conscious effort to re-include lower ABV drams into my considerations when selecting new bottles or even when buying a drink in a bar.

Try not to let high ABV whisky become par for the course because the moment you go back to a 46% bottle you’ll be wondering where your whisky went and why you’d been left with this glass of amber water.


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