They Brew it, I sell it, You Drink it... and so do I..

Monday, 9 January 2012

Does Strength Matter?

I've been thinking a lot about whisky lately. That's most probably because I've been drinking a lot of it again. (apologies if you stopped here for beer tonight, but this post is going to be about beer's big brother...)

I've been contemplating many different aspects from; region, age, price and perceived value to chill filtering and even new countries making the stuff. Most of all though, I've been really considering strength (Cask Strength whiskies in particular) and what happens to a Single Malt, or any whisky for that matter, when the alcoholic percentage goes above and beyond the 40% mark.

Before I get into it I will point out (and it's the most important point) that whisky is all about personal taste and preference. There is no right or wrong answers when it comes to how your enjoy your whisky, these are just my thoughts. (unless you drink Single Malts with coke :- then your a heathen and should be ashamed!)

It is said that bottling a whisky at Cask Strength is capturing the true essence and nature of that individual whisky. In some people's eyes using water to get the strength down to 40% for a more commercial sale is robbing the spirit of it's... well, spirit! I'm not one of those people. I see no issue with bottling at Cask Strength or otherwise, if I do go Cask Strength, I just have to add my own water.

The thing is for me, once a whisky goes over 45% or so and gets into the 50s or even 60%ers, then I do have to add water to my drink. While I love Single Malts, I'm not a fan of the massive alcohol burn you get from the higher proofs. Don't get me wrong, I love the nice warming effect you get from a 40%er, but take the strength too high and all your left with is a throat stripping liquid which you can't really pick out many flavours because your trying to hold it down.

But add a little water to these strong beasts of fire, peat and smoke, and you dilute them enough to let the flavours come out. The drink then becomes not a test of home much of a man (or woman... or ghost) you are, and what's the strongest thing you can drink, but a pleasurable experience and a provoking drink.

This got me thinking of why distillers bottle at Cask Strength at all. After all, you get less bottles to sell, they're usually more expensive and some just add their own water once it's in their glass. But before you curse me as distiller hater and water adder, remember my first point, and know that these are just my thoughts and preferences.

Of course with all things, something new comes along and decides to throw a spanner in your soup, and completely change the way you think about your own thoughts!

Ardbeg Alligator is one of the best whiskies I've ever had. Not because it's the most expensive, or the most heavily peated or the strongest, but because it's 51.2% and it tastes nothing like that - it has the alcohol presence of a 35/40% whisky.

How many times have you had a beer and said; "it's strong but it tastes nothing like it"?? Well this is just another one of those experiences but with whisky - a 'dangerously drinkable' whisky!
    It's got all the great powerful Ardbeg flavours about it, no doubt. Burnt oak, peated vanilla, sea air and cigars and much more, but it's so perfectly balanced and so easily drinkable whilst still being complex that it's my number one whisky.

It's got the strength of a Cask Strength whisky, but it's power of proof is hidden under a mask of supreme flavour. I know there are those out there will disagree, and say that you can't experience real whisky till you've had something straight from the barrel, but while I can respect these drinks for what they are - they are still not for me, and I'll stick with my lighter Scotch. Unless you give me more like Ardbeg Alligator. I know it sounds like I just want to drink things that are really strong, but don't taste like it, but those of you who know me will know what I'm attempting to get at here.

So to go back to my first thoughts on if strength matters or not;

Strength should not be an issue if you know how to craft a drink which is perfect for the person who is drinking it.


  1. hear hear, some good musings. I often add water to whisky, not because I find it too strong but because it changes the volatiles profile. not ice though, that's the same as over-chilling a beer...kills it

  2. I find that the whisky is better off with the amount of water in it that you, the drinker, decide, rather than it being bottled to a rather arbitrary 40% ie. They've put the water in for you.
    It takes some practice to get it right, but that's part of the exploration, and so part of the fun!

  3. "unless you drink Single Malts with coke :- then your a heathen and should be ashamed!"

    Amen to that!

    I am rather partial to a good single malt, Talisker is my usual favourite, though I also love Glenlivet, Bowmore, Laphroaig and Jura.

    Regardless of what I am drinking though, I always add a single ice cube and just let it melt away as I drink.

  4. I'm with Steve. Just one or two drops from the tap is all it takes, any more and it goes down hill in my opinion. Got to hunt out that Alligator.

  5. Actually, ask a master distiller (e.g. Bruichladdich's Jim McEwan) and they will tell you adding water is just fine. They will even advocate it.
    Drinking it cask strength is just pointless machismo showing off.

  6. Keep the whisky wonderings coming ghosty, a nice addition to your blog. In my opinion Cask Strength is a connoisseurs choice, maybe even a collectors choice when it comes to the limited runs. I say connoisseurs, because the drinker can control the amount of water, or not to add water at all. I've yet to try one myself, but then I'm happy with the whiskies I know for now. Whisky is something I plan to explore when I can afford to do it properly :)

    P.s. what are your thoughts on people who dilute their whisky with Imperial Stout? ;)

  7. Gareth, Broadford - You make good points about adding and controlling the amount of water. I have got it right and wrong on many occasions before, all it takes is practise, but as not many whiskies are the same strength when bottled at Cask Strength it can be difficult to get the right balance. Plus, diluting with Imperial Stout sounds like a genius idea Dave.. ;)

    Steve, Velky - Ice is something which seems to always divide opinion with whisky. I've heard some like to add one cube and see how the whisky changes as the ice melts.

  8. Adding water drop wise to whisky at cask strength (and indeed non-cask strength) is a must - if not to reduce a burn but to see what further flavour changes are brought about by the addition of water.

    I was also reminded by an *excellent* guide at Oban that you can always add more water, but as soon as you add too much, you can't add whisky back to correct it. So, the moral is to go very slowly with water additions - and the "best" amount for one person varies from whisky to whisky.

    If you haven't tried, then non-chill filtered single cask is the way to go (eg SMWS bottlings) - it's amazing how much variation there is between casks from the same distillery.

  9. Great post! Really nice to see you talking about Whisky which I know is as big as your passion for beer. Keep it up.

    I've only had 1 cask strength Whisky so far which you kindly gave me (A wonderful Ardbeg that I have forgotten the name of) Following your recommendation at the time I added a few drops of water which certainly took away any massive burn that I had been expecting. I recieved a bottle of a'Bunadh for Christmas & I am looking forward to trying that with & without water to see how it differs. Cask Strength Whisky is certainly something that interests me & something I will seek out over time whether water is needed with it or not, I guess the good thing about cask strength is we have the choice.


  10. That's a good shout from Oban! I've heard that the same whisky can be very different in flavour just from where the barrel is placed in the distillery. I understand about oak and it makes me respect distillers so much more considering the fantastic whiskies they make.

  11. That was the Supernova Paul. All the a'Bunadh versions I've tried have all been pretty BIG, so your in for a real treat there.

  12. You could pour yourself two glasses: add water to one, gradually, tasting as you go along. You can compare it side-by-side with the undiluted version. Instant whisky tasting!

  13. Nice post Ghostie.

    My 2p worth:

    The type of glass makes a massive difference in how we perceive the aromas, taste, flavour & strength of the whisky. Worth exploring and finding what you like (diff shapes suit diff whiskies).

    How long you allow it to breath, and taking your time over it will also allow you to nose the myriad of aromas from the hundreds of the different volatiles waiting to be discovered.

    I've got no issue with adding water but ice makes no sense to me. You're gonna chill the whisky, slow down the molecules and close a lot of the aromas and flavours that you detect when closer to room temperature.

    In short choose your glass and take your time with Cask Strength whiskies. Add room temp water as you wish.

  14. Rick - tbh I've never really used different glasses for whisky, It's probably the place I'm falling down most. I usually use a crystal glass tumbler which I know will probably do absolutely nothing for the whisky. I used to have one of those Penderyn style snifters but that broke, I think that style would be more appropriate, but I am intrigued by you different shapes suit different whiskies though.

  15. Will - would you use a highball for every beer? On a wine-vibe, there's a reason why Riedel is in business. Without cluttering your comments I tend to go for larger volume balloons for cask strength to let more air in & sherry copita's for those around 46%. I have a crazy mofo of a glass that I use for subtler floral whiskies (e.g. Lowlanders) that traps more of the aromas. Maybe a post is in order ...

  16. Good advice though. Oh, and I use a stella glass for all my beers ;)