Looking at my blog stats gives the impression that a fair few people aren’t sure what to do with cask strength spirits. Since my original, well-visited foray into that world I’ve made it my business to investigate cask strength expressions wherever possible, so I thought now would be a good time to revisit the subject, look at some examples and draw some conclusions. Onward…
Caol Ila 61.3%
This of course was the original cask expression that I got so excited about. I was quite precise about ratios whenever I drank this one, figuring I didn’t want to waste one drop of enjoyment. Enjoy it I did, but not as much as the standard 12 year old which has its optimum strength already worked out for you.
To be fair, the cask strength isn’t just the 12 year old with less water in it – judging by its even paler hue and lighter, less luxurious body, it is also a good deal younger. That is only idle speculation on my part (feel free to correct me if you know better), though if it is fairly young spirit, it does quite well.
Berry Bros and Rudd Bunnahanhain 1979 51.8%
This has probably been the best cask strength expression so far. Dark of colour, fruity and tart of flavour, it never seemed to overstep the mark when it came to the line between strength and flavour. I only have one small taste of a non-cask strength Bunnahabhain to compare it with, but I don’t think we need to go down that route. This was superb – perhaps its 32 years in a cask helped it to mellow somewhat. You can read more of my impressions of this one here.
Glen Garioch Founders Reserve 48%
48% is quite low to be cask strength, and I would also have thought quite low for such a young cask strength expression. Come to that, 48% is just a weird strength. Nevertheless, this was an average to below average expression, and as such it isn’t something to judge cask strength expressions by. You can read more of my impressions of this one here.
Bladnoch 12 - Sheep Label 55%
In spite of, or possibly because of high expectations, this one never quite achieved the greatness that the 46% 10 year old did. The line between too much and too little water was a little too fine. I took it to a cottage-share with some friends in Gloucestershire and while it was good for demonstrating how addition of water is essential for cask strength whiskies, it was not the excellent example of scotch that I was hoping it was going to be. You'll be able to read more of my impressions of this one in the coming months.
Aberlour A’bunadh 60.7%
A good example – and beautifully presented, but it cemented to an extent my general indifference to Speyside malts. One that would certainly be drinkable at full strength, but for optimum enjoyment a good deal of water was required. In the end, this one just didn’t demand I pull it out of the cupboard often enough. You can read more about this one in the coming months.
Four Roses Single Barrel 50%
Sadly I could never quite get the the flavour to burn ratio correct with this one when adding water – you could reduce the burn, but if you added enough water to take care of the burn properly, the flavour was ruined, and it always made me want to keep adding water until that inevitably happened. I’m no expert on bourbon as yet, but given the big flavours that are out there for reasonable prices, I’d suggest you’d be better going for one of those than you would this. Again, check back over the coming months to read more about this one.
Arran 1997 Single Cask 56.3%
I haven’t quite finished this one yet, but it has been setting a good example so far. A few small drops of water are usually enough. Perhaps not quite as impressive as the Bunnahabain, but gentle and sweet in equal measure. It is also better presented than even the Aberlour A’bunadh – though admittedly about twice the cost. You can read more about this one sometime in the future.
I do like the extra strength, but in general I’d probably rather do without the chaos element that having to add your own water brings. You’re never quite sure you’re getting the most out of it and that blurs the line between the effect your dilution is having on it and the possibility that maybe sometimes the product may not be as good as some others.
You should probably even get cask strength editions at a cheaper rate than others because the distillery hasn’t bothered taking the time to figure out what the right level of dilution is. I suppose you are getting more of the overall product, but every time you pour a glass you have to have one or two tastes before you’re certain you’ve added about the right amount of water – then there’s always that point where you know you’re close, but wonder if you should add a little more, while also being aware that you might end up adding a drop too much and ruining it.
It’s probably only me who worries to this extent, though harking back to that original post, I have seen from looking at my blog stats that a lot of the people who are directed to my first ever post about cask strength scotch, have asked Dr Google, how to drink cask strength scotch, so there’s clearly a lot of uncertainty. They don’t want to waste it by doing it incorrectly either.
All in all, cask strength whisky just seems a bit too much hard work sometimes. So what I find is that a lot of the time I just elect to keep the cask strength stuff in the cupboard. And anyway, shouldn’t I be able to trust the distillery to add the optimum amount of water? And come to that, isn’t it the case that the water they add at the distillery is going to be from the same source as what made the whisky in the first place and therefore better able to complement the spirit than the cheapest bottled water I can buy in a local supermarket? Or does that depend whether the water is added at a bottling plant, potentially far away from the source?
So I suppose, as with all whisky, the cask strength variety is another genre to be explored – there’s going to be good and… less good in it as you would expect with anything. It’s just that there’s something exciting about those extra ABVs, and that may or may not be a good thing – depending on the particular variety you’ve gone for.
Try some out and let me know your thoughts.