The Culture of Cask Strength Whisky

If you haven’t read Jordan Devereaux’s post, “Cask Strength: Panacea or Gimmick?” on Chemistry of the Cocktail, you should. It’s a fine piece critiquing the notion that cask strength whisky is necessarily better than whisky diluted down to 46% or lower or even that it’s a better deal per se. The kernel of what I am about to write now I actually first posted as a comment on that post on Friday but for whatever reason it hasn’t appeared. Perhaps the comment got swallowed up by the internet or perhaps I did not pass a quality control test; or perhaps he just hasn’t gotten around to his comment queue yet. But since I don’t really want to spend my time checking to see if the comment has in fact finally appeared there I thought I would (re)post my thoughts on my own blog while they’re still fresh in my mind, and in a longer form than I would want to inflict on the comments section of someone else’s blog.

I agree fully with the points in Jordan’s post but come at the issue from the direction of the “culture” of whisky geekdom. I should say at the outset that these thoughts may be annoying to some of the people who usually enjoy my blog (the few, the proud) and also to some of my friends (the few, the ashamed). It is not my intention to suggest that anyone who enjoys drinking whiskies only/predominantly at cask strength is either wrong to do so or that they are fooling themselves. I do think it is the case that many whisky geeks–especially online, on forums or on the Malt Maniacs Facebook group–propagate the notion that cask strength whisky is better and implicitly that the ability to appreciate it is a marker of status. My observations are more generally about this phenomenon.

I think there are two overlapping things going on here:

1. Authenticity: In general we are living in an era where the notion of authenticity in food and drink has moved from the margin to the center. This is generally a good thing, even if a) pushed very far the notion of local and seasonal can seem quixotic at best (I say this as a food-obsessed person who lives in Minnesota), and b) some of the claims made for the virtues of authentic food and drink are more about the sense of self-worth of the people who make them than they are about the actual benefits of that food and drink to the people who consume it or to the environment (*1).

What does all this have to do with cask strength whisky? Well, I think the notion of wanting whisky as close to its “natural” state as possible is part of what is often at stake in the valourization of cask strength whisky (and also un-coloured and un-chillfiltered whisky). Of course, there is nothing inherently “natural” about whisky at cask strength; and it should be kept in mind that whisky we think of as “cask strength” may not in fact be at the strength at which it actually emerges from the cask (how, for example, did Laphroaig keep its old CS at exactly 55.7% for all those years?). If cask strength whisky is “natural” then for the greater part of the 20th century it was unnatural whisky that made the reputation of whisky. After all, we could just as easily, and with greater weight of history, say that “natural” whisky is that which emerges from the dilution of cask matured spirit at least down to X% and that it is the notion of drinking spirit at high strengths which is odd. I’m not saying I actually believe this either; merely, that the logic can be reversed. These things do not have to do with the platonic ideal of whisky but with conventions.

And all of this is just as true, of course, of the logical extension of the above, which is the notion that it is single cask whisky at cask strength which is the best kind of whisky and that vatted whiskies are a waste–a position I’ve actually read experienced whisky drinkers espousing.

2. Status: This notion that cask strength whisky is more authentic, is whisky that is closer to its natural state, straight from the cask (and think of Blackadder’s ridiculous bottles with bits of barrel char floating in them) is, I am suggesting, a kind of virtue that transfers onto the person who drinks it; it suggests an entire rite of passage that has been completed. We start out among the unwashed masses drinking blends. Then at the moment of conversion we find Glenlivet or Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie or Macallan. These names are then rejected as too vanilla as we move on to more esoteric distilleries. Peat or extreme sherry are often the next mode of stratification. And one seems to have finally arrived at the pinnacle of geekdom when one complains about caramel coloured, chillfiltered or non-cask strength whisky. I am speaking autobiographically here, for the most part, but I think you’ll recognize this narrative.

The true adept, it emerges from this narrative, is the one who can enjoy cask strength whisky or massively peated whisky or whatever (*2); and eventually only cask strength whisky, to which they never add water. And sometimes magical claims are made for one’s abilities to tease out every nuance of a whisky without diluting it. The chemical reality, of course, is that the addition of water causes changes that are not otherwise going to happen, and some of those are very positive ones which you are otherwise just not going to experience.

Again, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with drinking or enjoying cask strength whisky. Why, some of my best friends are cask strength whisky (*3). My wish is only that we not make it seem like drinking cask strength whisky or not adding any water to whisky is the correct or best or most authentic way of drinking it. We should remember that some of the best whiskies out there are or were at 43% or 46% (and many of them are either coloured or chillfiltered or both): Lagavulin 16, Laphroaig 10/15, Macallan 18, Glenfarclas 15, Highland Park 12/15/18, Caol Ila 12, Yamazaki 18, Talisker 10/18, Springbank 15, 18, Clynelish 14, Old Pulteney 12, Ardbeg 10/Airigh Nam Beist etc. etc.–I don’t know what it means to hold to standards of whisky geekdom if those standards would disqualify such classics. And I would say that, leave alone whiskies with abv’s in the high 50s, or 60s or even low 70s, many of these lower strength whiskies themselves benefit from the addition of water.

We should not close ourselves off to a fuller experience or encourage other people to do so. Appreciating cask strength whisky should not be taken to mean “outgrowing” whisky at lower strengths: appreciating both should be part of what it means to be a whisky geek.


(*1) Think, for example, of some of the health claims made on behalf of raw food.

(*2) There are, of course, other related symptoms for all of which we can find analogous extreme situations with beer (outrageously hopped) and food (how hot, how larded with pork-fat etc.)

(*3) I am typing this while drinking a Laphroaig at 58.8%.

26 thoughts on “The Culture of Cask Strength Whisky

  1. This can extend to bourbons as well. I’ve twice been present to hear bourbon geeks poopoo the new Stagg Sr. based on ABV alone. They hadn’t actually tried it, you see, but discounted its quality because it weighed in at 64% rather than 71%. Then they spoke of flipping their bottles. Of course.

    Commentary about others aside, I didn’t really start to emerge from my blind worship of cask strength whisk(e)y until two years ago, when I started lining up cask strength stuff with its lower-ABV brethren. When I wrote that I liked the regular Redbreast better than the CS version I felt like I had to over-explain myself and in the end still felt like a weirdo.

    Also, there’s an incredible amount of skill involved in taking cask strength whiskies from 100+ different barrels then adding a considerable amount of water and ultimately winding up with the vibrant bird that is Yamazaki 18 (43% ABV). I still prefer it to much more expensive single casks from its deceased famous Japanese neighbor, but again I feel like a weirdo.

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    • Yeah–I had a feeling that this year’s “low” strength Stagg Sr. was going to cause some static. And I’m with you on the regular Redbreast over Redbreast CS too (I have a review of the latter coming up this month).

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  2. I find funny the notion that someone who can enjoy a bottle strength whisky is somehow less knowing of the finer things. Is this real or imagined? I dare someone to mock my love of 43% OBs. This simply doesn’t happen in my world –ever. If it is happening to you or anyone I recommend you hang with a different crowd. Furthermore, if someone can’t do the basic math on a purchase thinking cask strength is automatically a better deal, then they deserve to be overcharged.

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    • I’ve rarely heard/read anyone mock the idea of drinking bottle strength whisky per se; though I have seen some dismissive comments about OB bottles for that reason, among others, on the Malt Maniacs Facebook group (not from Maniacs themselves, I hasten to add). But it’s rare to come across people praising lower strength whiskies without qualifying this in some way, or explaining it, as Michael notes. But it’s quite common to see people talk about the strength of higher proof whiskies as though it is in and of itself some measure of quality.

      Then there’s the related phenomenon, which I noted towards the end of my post, in which people refuse to add water to cask strength whisky (including the 71% Staggs); as though this is something that necessarily mars a whisky rather than opens it up.

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  3. The concept of authenticity becomes murky when used to describe the experience with something. Is a CS release more or less authentic than say a bottle from same distillery at 46% with a port wine finish? Or is an OB more authentic than an IB?

    This analysis and interpretation becomes more complex by adding price into the mix plus the quality of the actual liquid. eg Should a CS release that is inferior in taste quality cost more anyway and be rated higher because it’s consider more authentic? Should cs be cheaper since less processing or is that offset since the liquid is higher in alcohol?

    Mac18 is one of “best whiskies out there” -pfffft. Glendro15 squashes that anyday. I also like the cask bits in the blackadder bottles. I think that adds character to the whisky experience but I suppose some eqyate to bones in a fish serving.

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    • The OB/IB authenticity thing is interesting too. You would think that OB’s would necessarily be considered more authentic. And certainly, at the collector’s end of the market it’s clearly the more prized segment. But among regular geeks there’s the opposite attitude: indies over OB’s. I think this is largely because drinking more esoteric indie bottles is also a sign of leveling up in the whisky geek game. And there’s also the weird notion that distilleries don’t do right by their own whisky by vatting it into alleged anonymity whereas indies give you the true whisky of a distillery by bottling single casks etc.. Vatted OB’s are seen as regression to the mean of the casks used; this may be true to some extent, but it’s also true that master blenders bring out more of the nuances of their intended “distillery character” than most single casks can do.

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  4. For this kid it’s simply about bold flavours and a much better mouthfeel. The truth of the matter is though, that the longer you spend drinking whisky with an open mind, the sooner you’ll realize that there are good drams out there in all permutations; CF and NCF, CS and reduced strength, artificially colored and natural colored. As long as it tastes good…I’m sold.

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  5. yamazaki 18, lagavulin 16, HP 18, talisker 10/18 — all excellent whiskies that can be made better if cask strength :). Yama 18 is one of favorites but would love to know what a Yama 18 CS would taste like. And can u imagine if there is a CS ANB? Yum! Sure, the CS versions could actually taste worse, but really, what are the chances? The only one listed where we don’t need our imagination is Laphroaig 10. For me, this debate really is less “Is cask strength better?” and more “I’d rather have a choice”. Therefore, for me, CS is better. I can add water myself, thank you very much :)

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  6. My approach to all this is very empirical and hedonistic – I seek whatever tastes best to me, which could also change from day to day. Based on this experience I do consider CS and single cask whiskies special, and generally more authentic, and I am prepared to pay premium for them, even above what the whisky should cost when the higher ABV is taken into account – you can dilute down but you can’t strengthen up. But I don’t consider myself a better or more special person because of it, which is what your post seems to be about. I have a mix of CS and 40-43% whiskies open at any time, since some nights I want concentrated flavor, but others I can’t deal with the high strength (nor be bothered to water my drink). Some OBs I love, like the Caol Ila 12yo, which I find better than IBs or even than CS versions of the distillery. For other OBs I prefer the CS version – like Laphroaig 10yo. And in other cases I just can’t deal with the OBs of otherwise excellent distilleries, such as Bowmore, where several IBs blew my mind but the OBs are the whisky equivalent of molasses – a sweet mess. Some CSs I don’t like – like the Macallan CS which once again I unsuccessfully attempted last night, it always tasted to me like whisky mixed with a heavy read wine, my stomach turns just writing this. I’m not averse to blending – hell, I do it all the time: I’ll add some peaty Islay if my Springbank 10yo is too sweet or the Tobermory 10yo is too funky.

    So I guess I’m saying that I don’t see your point (or Jordan’s). CS has more concentrated flavor than 40-43% ABV; adding caramel is a bad idea; single cask whiskies are more authentic and revealing than large vatted OBs; single malts are better than blended whisky – these are all useful rules of thumb, applying generally but not true in all cases; in other words they work statistically, not mathematically. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Well, except for adding caramel, which is always a bad idea.

    Is this the article about letting people put ice in their whisky if they so choose to (as long as they don’t add Coke to the Brora you generously offered them)? I thought Driscoll and Hansell already mined that out.

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  7. Florin: I don’t think my post has much relevance to people who have reasonable pragmatic attitudes such as the one you describe (and which I would say is very close to mine–though I like OB Bowmores more than you do). I’m arguing against a “cask strength über alles” kind of attitude and trying to account for what produces it. If you haven’t encountered it much my post will seem like a strawman argument; but I’ve encountered it quite consistently, online and off.

    Gimmeadram: I’m not sure that the Laga 16, Yamazaki 18, Talisker 10 et al would necessarily be better whiskies at cask strength. They would probably be different but there’s no guarantee that they would be better. There’s a great deal of the blender’s art that goes into making them taste that good at 43% and I don’t know that I would be able to replicate it myself. Case in point: Laphroaig 10. I do prefer the CS version as well, but I really love the regular 10 yo at 43% (in the US) and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to dilute the CS 10 down in such a way as to replicate it.

    And I’ve had plenty of cask strength, single cask whiskies that didn’t have much to recommend them over lower proof whiskies, not even better mouthfeel. I want to drink good whisky, not whisky produced in a particular way, and I think some fraction of whisky geek culture assumes the former necessarily comes from the latter and this hardens into a kind of common sense. It is this that I am arguing against.

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  8. I’m still bothered by this post because I don’t see clearly what you are for or against. So let me put forth a set of statements that can be evaluated on their own right:

    1. Enjoying whisky is not about finding the strongest, peatiest, highest rated bottle. This is not a competition. – Agreed (easy). The beer comparison is very adroit: how much hops can you take in your beer before you spit it out in disgust?

    2. Adding water to CS whisky – or in fact whisky at any proof – is often a good idea, as it opens up the whisky. – So everyone says, although it hasn’t really been borne by my experience. I usually prefer my CS whiskies without water, unless I’m tired or out of practice.

    3. CS whiskies are a better $deal$ since you’re not buying water. – Not true, given the prices we pay for premium whisky these days. The time of $50 CS Glenlivet and Laphroaig is sadly gone.

    4. a) On average/ b) Always, a CS whisky will be more flavorful than a 43% whisky from the same distillery. – a) I agree/ b) Not true, obviously. Water takes away flavor, doesn’t add it. Duh.

    5. They shouldn’t add any caramel to Scotch. It messes up the appearance and often the flavor, and it makes for a less authentic experience. – Fully agree, I hate drinking orange, vaguely bitter whisky. Once you have a bottle of clear, clean malt it’s impossible to go back. Call me a snob.

    6. Chill filtering is a terrible idea, it should be forbidden. – I have no strong opinion on this one, but I prefer NCF on account of authenticity. The less you mess with my drink the better.

    7. Single cask, CS whisky is more authentic, therefore better. – Well, generally, I agree. Your point of x% whisky being the definition of authentic obviously doesn’t hold water (oops!), since by diluting you manipulate the product without contributing positively to its flavor. Yes, Socrates, aging in barrels is also a manipulation – like finishing in Balsamico or even Pedro Ximenez casks. But if the point of aging is simply to let the wood and time do their job, and not add flavoring, then that’s contributing positively to the whisky, in a way that is authentic, consistent with traditional practice. There is a mini-discussion regarding ex-sherry cask aging, that I’m not going to go into (personally I’m not a fan of ex-sherry casks).

    8. An IB is always better than an OB of same distillery. – Clearly not true, plenty of IB duds out there.

    9. You’ll always find an IB that’s a more authentic version of a distillery than its OB. – I can live with this statement. You are bringing an interesting point that old OBs keep their value better in auctions, but that’s probably true of smaller distilleries/batches, like Springbank or even Bowmore. Do you think that a Glenlivet 12yo or a Glenfiddich 12yo of today will be worth a fortune in 50 years? I doubt it, since there are so many of them. However, it’s not at all paradoxical that OBs are less representative than IBs. With an OB, like with a blend, the focus has to be on mass appeal, sales, and on consistency. They just need to move a lot of reliable product! There is no serious selection going on, the honey casks (Bourbon terms) get mixed in with the lesser ones. IBs are small issue, and often, but clearly not always, somebody tasted and selected that cask, like the Davids on their trip to Scotland.

    Moreover, if it’s say a single ex-bourbon cask then I am tasting something much closer to the character of the distillery, than an OB where they have a recipe (40% first fill ex-bourbon, 30% refill, 30% ex-sherry), or I get something drowned in sweetness, like with Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, or Knockando 12yo, or the Blair Athol 12yo you had some time back.

    10. a) On average/ b) Always, single malts are better than blended whiskies. – a) I agree; b) I disagree – again, this is obvious.

    11. Better to be pragmatic than dogmatic. – I agree, and maybe this is your main point.

    12. Plenty of good 40-46% OB whiskies out there. – I agree, once I factor in the price. I’ll always want to have on hand a Glenfiddich 12yo, Old Pulteney 12yo, Caol Ila 12yo, Glenmorangie Original, Speyburn 10yo, Dalwhinnie 15yo, Highland Park 12yo, and sometimes a Tomatin 12yo, Clynelish 14yo, Bunnahabhain 12yo, Macallan 10yo Fine Oak, Cardhu 12yo, Glen Moray 12yo, Ledaig 10yo, or even a blended whisky.

    So yes, my experience, like yours, has followed the predictable path, from hating some random blended whisky to discovering a nice OB, then CS whisky, then IB single casks. And yes this has been a progression in terms of quality and enjoyment. And I don’t think this makes me a whisky snob, or that I’m being deluded. Not too long ago i thought Serge was such a snob for not tasting standard expressions, since he wants to have fun – then I realized he has a point. We are all acting based on our personal experience, is all.

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  9. Hi Florin,

    The crux of my post is indeed contained in your point #11. It seems to me that among some segment of whisky geeks there are some problematic dogmatic positions taken on cask strength whisky. Perhaps we disagree on how representative, or widespread, or worth combating, these positions are but reading Jordan’s post reminded me of how they always bother me a little when I come across them and so I made my post. Perhaps this is a storm in a Glencairn (and I probably shouldn’t post about how I find Glencairns to be another overrated phenomenon) but there you have it.

    And since you made a number of propositions let me list the disagreements I have:

    “4. a) On average/ b) Always, a CS whisky will be more flavorful than a 43% whisky from the same distillery. – a) I agree/ b) Not true, obviously. Water takes away flavor, doesn’t add it. Duh.”

    I disagree with part of this. Water often adds flavour in the sense that it makes available flavour and aroma that was not present/as palpable before water was added. This is an important part of the whisky sensory experience that gets obscured by the “cask strength über alles” crowd, and especially the faction who refuse to add any water to cask strength (or any other) whisky.

    “5. They shouldn’t add any caramel to Scotch. It messes up the appearance and often the flavor, and it makes for a less authentic experience. – Fully agree, I hate drinking orange, vaguely bitter whisky. Once you have a bottle of clear, clean malt it’s impossible to go back. Call me a snob.”

    I do not have a religious/principled position against caramel colouring. There are too many coloured whiskies I love above uncoloured whiskies for me to take this position.

    “7. Single cask, CS whisky is more authentic, therefore better. – Well, generally, I agree. ” etc.

    Adding water is also consistent with traditional practice; indeed, it is traditional practice. As is producing whisky by vatting casks together.

    “9. …However, it’s not at all paradoxical that OBs are less representative than IBs. With an OB, like with a blend, the focus has to be on mass appeal, sales, and on consistency.”

    I am not sure if we agree or disagree here. This is its own can of worms but I would suggest that distillery character is produced by the master blenders at distilleries who are vatting casks together for OB release and is not something intrinsic to every cask. You may find individual casks that might express this character very powerfully but by and large what is attractive about the indie experience to me is that it allows me to see the deviations from the official norm, not the “authentic” character of the distillate. This does not, of course, mean that the contents of every single cask are more pleasurable than the official releases–this is often an intellectual pleasure.

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  10. More flavors and better mouthfeel can be derived from certain bottle-strength whiskies (after being blended by yes, master blenders, and with the addition of water) but these nuances in flavors are sometimes secondary to the overall oomph or impact that a cask strength whisky, even one that has less flavors and more rough edges, can provide.

    For me, examples would be the yamazaki 18 and yoichi 15, two whiskies masterfully blended by the Japanese to give a superb nose, smooth but nuanced flavors, and a wonderful mouthfeel. These two whiskies are two of my favorite “low” ABV whiskies. With that said, I don’t think I’ve had any cask-strength yamazaki or yoichi, even a lot younger ones, that cannot kick their butts. It’s a combination of nose, flavors, mouthfeel, finish, and overall “oomph” that I often get with higher ABV. For some, maybe most, flavors trump all else. For me, this oomph is just as important (ok ok, sometimes a lot more important) than the other components.

    (No need to force feed me new make whisky though. When I’m very tired, this oomph factor becomes less important, and that’s when the nose and the flavors come to the fore.)

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    • I don’t think we’re really in much actual disagreement here. If I’m reading you correctly, you’re acknowledging that bottle strength and cask strength whiskies each have their own virtues and there’s no terminal choice to be made between them.

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  11. To continue your narrative:

    After becoming part of the ‘cask strength is best’ religion for a length of time, a mellowing process kicks in and you start become open to all forms of whisky, at whatever strength, as long as it tastes nice. Stage one of this step of the whisky journey is to evangelise; stage two is become bitter and snipe on the blogs of people who are still happily at stage one.

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  12. I think Jordan made a very good point when he said “additionally, the casks going into a cask strength whisky are likely to be different than those going into a bottle that has been proofed down”. It’s not just a contrast in drinkers, their preferences, or even in ABVs, but in bottle contents – the casks, even in the case of older CSs, won’t be the same as those selected for lower-strength OBs. This could well explain why Laphroaig CS can’t be diluted down to match the 10.

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  13. I’m afraid that despite saying that it’s “not just about machismo for machismo’s sake”, Jonny McCormick’s piece, “IRON DRAMS” on the Whisky Advocate blog pretty much makes that the crux of the appeal of cask strength whisky with talk of “muscle whisky” and well, the notion of “iron drams”. And once again there’s the explicit call to authenticity:

    It feels more authentic, rather than have someone else decide what strength you’ll have your drink. The scope for experimentation is greater as you can explore the full spectrum of flavor by adjusting the water you add (an aspect taken out your hands with 40% ABV). It feels better to be in the driving seat, right?

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  14. For the most part don’t agree that many OBs at bottle strength would be better at natural cask strength. And lets not forget that for many of older whiskies natural cask strength is typically much less than 50% due to the angel’s share. Some of the best drams I have ever tasted were between 40 and 45% ABV. I still think that Bowmore 15 Year Old Darkest and Highland Park 18 Year Old are great whiskies at 43%, and they wouldn’t be improved with a higher bottling strength…nor would they be the same.

    IMO the thing that many whisky geeks often gloss over is that while higher ABV makes the experience more intense, it also makes it much more difficult to nose, taste, and get the full enjoyment that a whisky has to offer. I can sip and enjoy a George T. Stagg neat. At 70+% ABV. It is surprisingly drinkable at full strength. But it is much more enjoyable (and a better bourbon) when diluted, to between 50 and 60%. You can pick out many more aromas and flavors without all of that alcohol getting in the way.

    I agree that choice is a good thing. But even with a lot of cask strength whisky I first experience them neat, and then add a bit of water to get them down to below 50% in order to pick out the aromas and flavors that you just can’t experience at high ABV. There are a few whiskies that are just too hot for my taste buds when taken neat, such as Aberlour A’Bunadh. If you aren’t at least trying some of your cask strength whisky with a touch of water, you may be leaving a lot of enjoyment on the table without even realizing it. Given the high cost of whisky these days that strikes me as something of a shame.

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  15. Interesting that while everyone picked up on the authenticity aspect of the discussion, the whole “status” and the idea that cask strength whiskies represented a ‘rite of passage’ of sorts and/or ‘noble trappings’ was left in the dust. I direct you to Chip Dykstra’s discussions on “Monumental Spirits”, here: http://therumhowlerblog.wordpress.com/extras/other-reviews/appleton-50-year-old-rum-a-monumental-spirit/ & here: http://therumhowlerblog.wordpress.com/whisky-reviews/scotch-whisky/highland-park-40-year-old-whisky/

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    • Chip’s talking about “Monumental Spirits” in the sense that I have talked about “whisky trophies” – bottles that mostly sit around to impress passers-by with how much one’s willing to spend on a bottle. It’s a valid point, but not one necessarily linked to cask strengths, where I would argue the attempt to gain “status” is based on how much of a “purist” one is perceived to be by drinking “unadulterated” whisky at strengths that some shy away from (and sometimes with good reason – I can see the argument that, at full strength, Octomore is as much dare as dram, numbing the tongue and the nose).

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