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%.