Cask Curriculum: How to Enjoy Cask Strength Whisky
At The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we bottle our whisky straight from the cask. This means that while the majority of Scotch whisky sold today has been diluted, filtered and often artificially colored prior to bottling, our whisky is 100% natural and left virtually untouched from the moment it exits the cask to the moment it reaches your lips.
The most notable difference with cask strength whisky has to do with its strength. While the majority of distilleries will bottle their whisky at a commercial strength of 40-43% ABV, cask strength whisky tends to hover around the 55-60% depending on the natural evaporation (angel’s share) that took place over the course of its maturation. For new and seasoned whisky drinkers alike, learning to appreciate cask strength whisky can seem like an intimidating feat. But fear not my fellow whisky lovers! Here is a brief step-by-step guide that will get you on your way to mastering cask strength whisky as artfully as a matador taming a Spanish bull.
Step 1: Choose the right glass
It may sound crazy but the size and shape of your glass can have a major impact on what you taste. This is because much of what we taste in whisky is actually manifested by what we smell. Choosing the right glass will ensure you get the most out of your cask strength whisky tasting experience. Reach for a Glencairn, Copita or any small, tulip-shaped glass. These glasses are designed to funnel the spirit’s aromas straight toward your senses with minimal dispersion. A common tumbler is the perfect vessel for enjoying a Scotch on the rocks but its wide opening makes it difficult to pick up the complex flavours and aromas contained within the whisky itself.
An example of a whisky whose character may be lost without a proper glass is Cask 41.111 ‘Sweet, dusty and secretive’. When served in a tumbler, the subtle aromas of perfumed sweets, pineapple and spicy fruits will quickly disperse into the air. But with a nosing glass, this whisky comes alive! Bright and vibrant and unmistakably complex.
Step 2: Let it breathe
When opening a new bottle of cask strength whisky, try pouring yourself a healthy dram and letting it breathe before drinking it. The general rule of thumb is 1 minute for every year that the whisky has aged in the cask but I find that 20 minutes is more than enough time to calm the initial intensity of a cask strength spirit. Beyond the first dram, I find that a bottle of Society whisky and really all cask strength whisky in general, will taste even better after the first 2-3 days of opening the bottle.
Some whiskies, particularly whiskies matured in a sherry cask, may continue to mature over longer periods of time such as 6-12 months. I find that Cask No. 27.112 ‘A broadside cannon barrage’ is one that, when first open, is fairly but after several months evolves into a timeless spirit with a wonderful balance between the dark fruits, nutmeg and clove and the coastal flavours of the coastal spirit beneath them.
Step 3: Add water to taste
Many will argue that the only way to enjoy Scotch is “neat”. This may be the case when the whisky was diluted down to 40-43% but when it comes to cask strength whisky, the sheer intensity of the alcohol can often mask the flavours and aromas of the whisky itself. And when it comes to the ultra-strong whiskies hovering above 60%, the high alcohol content can often paralyze the taste buds.
Don’t be afraid to cut down the alcohol with a bit of room-temperature spring water. I like to start this process by first tasting the whisky neat to get a sense for how my palate will react. If I find myself blinking or choking up as a result of the whisky’s strength, chances are my mind is spending more time in survival mode than it is the art of discerning the spirit’s flavours. From there I recommend adding a dash of water and tasting it again. If the whisky still forces you to blink, keep adding more water. The goal is to achieve a point in which the whisky is still strong on the palate but not so extreme that it’s taking your mind off of what you’ve set out to accomplish: appreciating the whisky.
If you happen to be a “peat head” like me, check out Cask 53.266 ‘Sal ‘n’ vinegar kelp’. At 60.8% ABV, this whisky is about as raw and intense as one can get. But with the gradual addition of water, the peat will eventually fade from the forefront making way for a wonderful bouquet of smoked lavender, olive oil and grilled scallops.
Like anything worth having in life, the art of appreciating cask strength whisky may require a bit of practice. Understanding how flavour and alcohol content go hand-in-hand and figuring out your own desired drinking strength will not happen overnight. That said, be patient and enjoy the journey! You’ll soon come to realize that cask strength whisky is not nearly as intimidating as it once was.