Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Case for Bottle Strength Whisky

I can remember what originally attracted me to the brutish power of cask strength whiskies. It is exact same impulse that made me discover absinthe and even the same feeling that made me drink whisky in the first place. It is a vainglorious combination of the childish notion that the stronger the alcohol I imbibe, the more hairs that will join the disparate collection on my chest; indeed if I had pursued this policy after Uni I’m sure I would not only have a chest, but also a back to match even the scrawniest gorilla. The other facet of this combination is a desire to know what whisky at high strength tastes like; it is similar to climbing taller and taller mountains – I need to know what it’s like at the top. So armed with this alcoholic notion in mind I plunged into the world of cask strength whiskies. At first it was an exciting voyage of discovery, I can still remember my first cask strength Laphroaig like it was yesterday, it was a beautiful oxymoron that I can only liken to your first kiss followed by a punch to the face. However over time I have begun to question the growing proliferation of high strength whiskies. More and more we are seeing whiskies bottled at cask strength and fewer cruising in at a mild 46%. What concerns me is that in our quest to experience whisky in its truest form we are neglecting the art of bottling whisky at a palatable strength. I enjoy the subtle dropping of water to lower the strength whilst pretending I am a master blender as much as any whisky fan, but in doing so I am cheapening the skill of said master blender. For example Talisker 10 Year Old surfs in at 45.8% and the Fifty-Seven Degrees North at… well 57% for a very good reason; they taste best at those strengths. Naturally I am not arguing that the whisky world should forgo cask strength whiskies entirely. Indeed I wouldn’t even reduce the amount of cask strength bottlings out there but I would like to argue that some whiskies are hindered rather than enhanced by high ABV values. For example many Scottish Lowland whiskies are so light in flavour they are easily overpowered by the alcoholic content. Conversely, last year’s Auchentoshan Bordeaux Cask surprisingly integrated a whopping 58% into its flavour profile quite nicely, demonstrating how alcohol content can enhance the tasting experience. Another example would be the Diageo Special Releases 2011; for me the Knockando 25 Year Old would have benefitted from being cask strength whereas I thought the Port Dundas 20 Year Old would not have been harmed by dropping its ABV so as not to drown its syrupy texture in ethanol. What I am harping on about is that although, irrevocably, my chest and indeed my dwindling masculinity requires cask strength whisky like a plague victim needs a vaccine, whisky doesn’t necessarily have the same requirements. So pass me a Glenfiddich Solera Reserve and toast Bottle Strength whisky. Slainte!

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