Thursday, 12 July 2012

Cask Strength Scotch

In the bottle... so beautiful, you want to carry it's picture in your wallet

Good afternoon. You catch me in a bit of a state of excitement this week because I have procured and come into possession of my first ever bottle of cask strength scotch. Yes, cask strength. And it’s not just any scotch either; it’s Caol Ila#, one of my absolute favourites.

“Cask strength? What’s so special about that?” you might ask. Well, at the very least, the idea of cask strength whisky is potentially awesome because I often let alcohol content determine what I’m going to buy. If it comes down to a choice between two products, and I can’t decide which to buy: both. Or, more commonly: which is the strongest? You are my winner – even if I’m buying hair conditioner.

This bottle of cask strength Caol Ila tips the scale at… more than 60% ABV – 61.3%, to be precise. That’s probably higher than that bottle of absinthe I bought from an advert in Viz back in 2000. I’d been planning to buy the cask strength Laphroaig previously, but that only scores around 55% ABV, so… Caol Ila it was.

A bottle of cask strength scotch is about as close as you can get to drinking it straight out of the barrel. Whisky is typically distilled to between 60 and 70%, and then aged for however long, and then it is most often mixed with water to reach the preferred bottling strength – typically 40-43%. Many whiskies are also chill filtered to remove the impurities that can make it appear cloudy. Some people obviously believe that as well as improving the aesthetic look of the whisky, this also removes some of the things that can make whisky so tasty.

So with cask strength whisky you should be getting something akin to straight out of the cask. I understand that it is filtered only to remove, I don’t know, lumps and things. Cask strength whisky tends to be released in batches, and the strength (and presumably the flavour) can vary from one batch to another.

2 parts water, 1 part whisky?!?
What I would like to know, and what this Caol Ila bottling doesn’t tell me is how long it has been aged and whether it has been bottled from one cask, or whether it has been blended from a number of casks. It’s not vitally important, as long as the whisky is good, but it would be nice to know, and would certainly make an interesting talking point if any of this lasts long enough to let any of my friends try it. They better get in fast.

 What the packaging does tell me is that it is recommended you should mix one part whisky with two parts still water at room temperature.

Two parts water?! I may be well out with the maths here, but doesn’t that reduce the alcohol content of the drink to 20.43%?* What’s the point in that? That’s considerably more than the couple of drops most people recommend you add to whisky – even relative to the vast increase in alcohol content. But that’s what it says on the box, and it should know, shouldn’t it? (Or is that just for the government?)

You can, of course drink cask strength whisky as it is, and if you’ve read this blog before, I’m sure you would be in absolutely no doubt that I would start off by doing just that. You will also be aware that I’m curious and I like to experiment, so you should have been able to predict that the next thing I would do would be to drink it as recommended, before experimenting with my own scotch to water ratios and then finally just drinking it at full strength. Hopefully by the end of the bottle I will feel satisfied, and not be concerned that I had wasted any of the precious liquid by drinking it at anything other than optimal strength.

The bottle arrived in the post on Monday morning (before work, which is highly unusual), and I was of course very excited… and a little tempted to call in sick that day. I determined though, that I would wait until Wednesday night, after the Regina Spektor show at the Apollo to sample the delights it contains. A few loving holds, and lascivious glances at the bottle would be all I would be allowed. Seriously, I couldn’t wait, but sometimes in life anticipation is part of the enjoyment. I was hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Everything I couldn’t resist allowing myself to read about it before the magical moment of opening suggested disappointment was not an option. One of my favourite reviews from thewhiskyexchange said,

“Very strong stuff!The oils seep out of the whiskey when you add a drop of water to your glass. It’s medicinal, carbolic, salty fume fills the room and scares my wife into the next room. It’s beyond comprehension that this whiskey was crafted by man.”

Does that sound good or what? I particularly like the bit about the wife - I figured Brenda would be able to smell this from two rooms away, and the smell would probably make me dribble like I was teething – and I originally read the part about being ‘crafted by man’ as it was obviously crafted by man… so it’s a bit disappointing on reading it again, that the reviewer is expressing incredulity that man would be able to craft this, rather than exclaiming that only a man would dream of crafting this. But it’s still quite good – and promising. It does make you sceptical though. I remember all those times when I read a review of a record by one of my favourite bands, and expected it to be amazing, only to find that the experience of actually listening to it in no way matched up to what had been promised by an over-zealous fan.

Straight out the bottle - it burns so good!
Well, Wednesday night came, and finally it was time to crack open the Ila. The tension was palpable in the kitchen of the Levenshulme mid-terrace, and Brenda gave an encouraging little cheer when the cork went “squeeeeak, pop!” for the first time. Christ, I love that sound.

I poured a small dose into a glass, and marvelled at how wonderful it looked; the pale liquid seemed to shimmer seductively. I paused to take a picture, then carried the glass, the bottle and a bottle of spring water I’d bought earlier that day into the living room.

I had decided just to have a taste at full strength, then add water as I felt it necessary, but the problem was I couldn’t really decide that it was necessary, so I happily drank the whole of the first glass as it came. It didn’t really taste of anything at first, but the experience developed as the end neared. My god, did it burn when I rolled it around my mouth, and pressed it between tongue and roof – but in a good way. It hurts so good!
In terms of effects, I don’t know if there were mitigating factors such as it being quite late, but even after a couple of sips I felt some definite distortion. In fact, when I went to the toilet before going to bed, the little lights in the ceiling of our bathroom seemed to be dancing like fire. I haven’t heard of the possibility of hallucinogenic reactions, so I have to put this down to tiredness and the usual distortions your eyes can be prone to, combined with the pleasant alcoholic buzz I was feeling from the scotch.

I enjoyed the first glass, but I was looking forward to trying it as recommended, and experiencing some of the trademark Caol Ila peatiness that I like so much, and that should develop with the addition of water. I went to get my measuring cup, and measured out one measure of whisky and two measures of water, as directed on the box. A cloudy liquid was the result, which is perfectly normal for cask strength whiskies.

I mentioned earlier that I thought it seemed odd to mix in quantities of 2:1 in favour of water, and I have to report that the result left me dissatisfied. It was nice, but I could actually taste the spring water more than I could taste the Caol Ila – you know that spring water taste. It was more like one of those lightly flavoured waters that you can buy, than a glass of whisky.

I decided next that I would reverse the ratio, in order to weight it in favour of the whisky, and if I could still taste the spring water, I would try tap water instead. If still dissatisfied, it would be a case of adding drops of water instead, and if that didn’t work, I would just have to drink it straight. Is it possible to damage your tongue/taste buds by drinking strong alcohol? It sure does burn! There’s no definitive information on that on the internet. I suspect it can, but taste buds also have the capacity to heal, so… be reight!

The concern of course for me, was ensuring all those flavours that are in there would be able to develop, and this is sure to be the greatest problem with cask strength whiskies. Whiskies at normal bottle strength are fine because it is what it is. The flavours are all there, just drink it. You can add a little water if you want (some develop further, supposedly), but there is no compulsion to. Cask strength whiskies add a whole element of trial and error that makes the whole thing so much more complicated, since the alcohol content is so high that it overpowers the subtle scents and flavours that can make a whisky great. That doesn’t mean there’s no value in it. It’s certainly a talking point, and something to bring out for guests, but would I be happier with a bottle of 12 year old Caol Ila, that I can just pour and drink?

2 parts whisky, 1 part water. That's better.
So I tried pouring two parts whisky to one part water, and that seemed to me to be the perfect solution. It was a real treat. I’m not sure it’s as well defined as the standard 12 year old, but there sure is something special about it. I couldn’t taste the spring water this time, and I could taste the pepperiness that is described on the box. Also, the alcohol isn’t totally overwhelmed by the water, so there is still a bit of burn (but not too much), especially when I press my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Fair enough if you don’t like the burn, add more water, but my feeling is that there should be some burning – that’s what lets you know you’re alive, and that you’re drinking some special strong alcohol.

As ever, it’s personal preference and while buying a bottle of cask strength whisky opens up a whole new layer of exploration that you may or may not be daunted by, it’s the ultimate facilitator of drinking it how you like it. If the whisky’s good, you can’t go too far wrong.

In general I think cask strength expressions are more for when you’re very familiar with a brand, and very fond of it. I do love Caol Ila, but I’ve only ever had two bottles of the 12 year old, and have never tried any of the other expressions. I will be making that a priority, and I’d recommend you do so with whatever whisky you like before going for the cask strength. Buying cask strength is probably comparable to getting a band’s bootlegs and demo recordings – if you’re already familiar with the albums, these things can be illuminating and provide an extra depth of understanding, but if you get the bootleg or demo stuff first, you might find it confusing, more raw, harder to get inside. But, you know, as long as the music’s good, you can’t go too far wrong.

Oh, and here's a proper review, if you want such a thing.

# An interesting fact about Caol Ila is that the different expressions are bottled in glass of different hues, which represent the light at different times of the day on the Isle of Islay. That’s nice. Here in Manchester we have the McVities factory. Maybe they could release different expressions of their chocolate biscuits to represent the light at different times of day in Manchester, and they could all be equally grey.

*If 61.3% of a 25ml measure is 15.325ml, then if you add 50ml of water, 15.325ml as a proportion of the resulting 75ml of liquid is 20.43%. So that should be the alcohol content, shouldn’t it? Is that how you work out alcohol contents, or is it more complicated than that? Because that was pretty complicated.

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