In deep TV announcer voice-over tone: “The following article contains drug references. It is intended for mature audiences. Whisky & Wisdom advises reader discretion.”
I’m reliably informed that alcohol is a drug. People use it, abuse it, rely on it, swear by it, and at it. It alters our mental state and makes us do things we might not otherwise have done if we were sober or clear-headed. For example, the other day, with a few single malts under my belt, I found myself drinking a blend. Fortunately, there were no witnesses…
In the case of some drugs, long-time users find that the small doses or weaker concentrations they started off with no longer satisfy. We hear countless stories of addicts who started on something soft; found their experiences reached a plateau; then they upgraded to something stronger to reach a new high. I’ll leave the chemistry of it to the scientists, but in layman’s terms, our receptors grow dull and bored, and they need a stronger, more powerful hit to be stimulated again. As is the case for most substances of addiction, be it alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, or narcotics, we develop a tolerance over time.
A similar analogy exists with food. Those whose diets are high in salt find that unsalted dishes taste bland. Chillies and heat are another example – an Indian colleague I used to work with admitted that if the curry wasn’t hot enough, he simply couldn’t taste anything. See where this is going yet?
If your whisky journey is anything like mine, then you probably started off drinking blends. Ignoring the issues of blends versus single malts for a moment, the important thing to note is that the whiskies would have been bottled at 40% alcohol by volume, and the corresponding level of alcohol “burn” was what your tastebuds calibrated themselves to.
One day you did your tastebuds a favour and got into single malts. In the case of some brands and bottlings, this meant that the occasional whisky came bottled at 43% ABV. Shortly afterwards, things got even more interesting when one or two brands decided to release some expressions that were non-chillfiltered. For some fairly scientific reasons that deserve their own separate article, these whiskies were bottled at 46%.
At this stage in the game, your tastebuds were seriously indebted to you. The absence of chillfiltration left the whisky chock-full of all the oils and goodies that deliver the flavour and the mouthfeel. And at 46%, the whisky was less diluted and started to grip your mouth and nostrils.
Of course, some companies felt that another step up the rung was necessary. One well-known independent bottler released a product line that delivers the goods at 50%. Their marketing text suggests that this is the optimal strength for enjoying single malts. It supposedly strikes the perfect balance of flavour yet without excessive burn. Whilst I have no major objection to that notion, I strongly suggest that economics also played a role in their decision…you can sell far more bottles from a cask if (a) you bulk it out with water first and (b) the consumer pays less tax!
So at this stage in your journey, you’ve taken your palate from 40% whiskies to the dizzying heights of 46% or 50%, and there’s one final mountain to climb: The Cask-Strength Malt !
Wind the clock back 15 years or so, and cask strength malts were a pretty rare beast. Certainly, at least in Australia, the only commercially available official bottling expressions available on the market at that time were Glenfarclas 105 and Aberlour a’Bunadh. Those of us in whisky clubs might have had access to the odd private bottling or special import of a single cask bottling, but there’s no denying that a cask strength whisky was a rare and cherished item.
And so it was that many of us took our first sip of cask strength whisky and gave our jaded tastebuds a new high. Yes, there was a new burn to overcome and a kick that took some getting used to. And then – you’d conquered it!
Having reached the top of the mountain, two things suddenly become very apparent. First of all, you can’t go any higher! In the Scotch industry, the cut taken for the collection of spirit will be anywhere between 80% and 65%, depending on the distillery, but let’s take a crude average of 72%. Many distilleries then reduce with water to 63.5% at filling stage, and so the average 12yo Scottish single malt will come out of the cask at somewhere around 55% – 60%. So unless you start drinking new make spirit, you’ll rarely encounter a cask-strength whisky that’s stronger than 60%. (Of course, that’s not to say they don’t exist – for example, Bruichladdich have released some beasts over the years. Or, leaving Scotland and departing for other shores, Australia’s own Heartwood has released whiskies north of 70%, as has the USA’s George T Stagg).
The second thing that becomes apparent from the top of the mountain is that all the whiskies below you suddenly seem less exciting. Returning to the original analogy of the drug addict, someone who is used to experiencing the intense high of heroin probably isn’t going to get too excited by the prospect of humble marijuana. And so it is for many: Once your tastebuds are in the habit of enjoying non-chillfiltered, cask-strength whisky, it’s difficult for them to get turned on by a humble 40% malt or blend. (This theme is explored a little further in “The three stages of your attitude to Glenfiddich”). Roll out the cask strength blues.
The absolute of it all is that distillation is the art of producing flavoured alcohol. The flavour of the whisky is in the alcohol first, then tamed and expanded by the contribution of oak during maturation. And so it follows that, in reducing the strength of the whisky, we are not just diluting the alcohol, but – by definition – we are also diluting the flavour. And there, my friends, is the rub: All things being equal, a whisky at 40% alcohol has less flavour than a cask-strength whisky at, say, 58% alcohol. Ha! But, of course, things never are equal, are they?
Yes, other factors are at play, and it’s not just the lower alcohol that makes some of these OB’s seem relatively weaker in flavour. The vast majority of these lower strength bottlings will have been chillfiltered, whereas the majority of independent bottlers who bottle at cask strength leave their whiskies unchillfiltered. Furthermore, many of the commercially available OB’s have spirit caramel added – a substance that darkens the colour but can dull or mask a malt’s more subtle notes and complexities. Conversely, most of the independent bottlers make a point of not adding caramel to their cask strength malts – again, allowing the whisky’s full flavour to shine.
So for these three reasons, namely (i) more flavoured alcohol, (ii) no chillfiltering, and (iii) no caramel, the vast majority of cask strength whiskies on the market will definitely deliver a richer, fuller, and more flavoured taste experience. In the case of single cask bottlings (such as those bottled by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society), you have the added aspect of the whisky coming from one, unique cask – meaning that the cask’s intensity or individuality has not been homogenised out across a vatting of multiple casks.
So before the seasoned drinker gets a case of the cask strength blues and dismisses all 40% whiskies, it’s important to realise that you’re no longer comparing apples with apples. Yes, your palate has developed a tolerance for higher strength alcohol, but you’ve also allowed your tastebuds to become accustomed to non-chillfiltered, non-caramel-added drams. Some might even go so far as to say you’ve spoiled yourself! The trick, then, is to be alert to what is going on and to re-train your palate. In many ways, this is a good thing – your tastebuds need to learn to look harder for the subtleties and nuances of a malt, rather than have them splashed up in big capital letters. You’ll actually develop a more delicate and sensitive palate that can work at both ends of the spectrum.
Again, please – let no one interpret these musings as me shunning, dismissing, or being critical of the humble 40% whisky. We should always enjoy going back to where we started.