Monday, 9 January 2012
Does Strength Matter?
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.