“Well, how do you drink it?” is a question often heard if you stand around the magnificent wall of Whisky at Beltramo’s. The question is usually put directly to me by some customer, but there are plenty of people who ask more subtly, and it is quite normal for me to hear one patron ask another. It’s funny the way people seem to have complete confidence when it comes to knowing how to drink their other Spirits: they know just what they want to mix with Vodka, understand how to savor their Brandy, and they have all sorts of weekend plans for their Rum and Tequila. But Whisky, more than other spirits it seems, precipitates the query, “How should I drink it?” This probably isn’t due to any inherently mysterious traits that Whisky possesses, but rather because there happen to be so many people out and about in this modern Whisky world of ours who have opinions on the “best” way to savor a dram, opinions that are usually quite strong and often conflict with one another. One of the biggest camps in this political arena is that one needs to drink Whisky neat and only neat.
But what happens when the Whisky in question has a proof that’s as strong as all those heated opinions being blown about?
When you buy a bottle of Whisky (or any Spirit for that matter) and the label reads “80 Proof,” it did not get that way by happenstance. Spirits are distilled at a very high proof, and then before they get bottled, the distillery adds water to reach whatever proof they want for their product, whether that’s 90, 86, 80 or any other alcohol content. By contrast, a “Cask Strength” Whisky is the rare exception where the Spirit is not being watered down at all following its time spent aging. Whatever comes out of the barrel goes right into the bottle, warts and all. This has led many Whisky enthusiasts to seek out such bottlings due to the purity of the expressions of these distilleries’ styles. But this doesn’t mean that to be a true Whisky adventurer you have to grin and bear it by drinking these drams straight while holding back coughs and sputters from the heat. Nor does it mean that these tipples have to be off-limits to the more cautious or inexperienced Whisky imbiber who might be intimidated by a drink with a proof of 120 (and sometimes higher).
A bottle of Cask Strength Whisky is not fire to be feared or conquered. Rather, it should be viewed as something warm and inviting. The answer all lies in the life-giving compound, H2O. Adding water is a good thing, my friends. A very good thing. It doesn’t just calm an overproof drink down to a reasonable ABV. The fact of the matter is that adding water alters the way a Whisky tastes. When water comes into contact with the alcohol, essential oils, esters, and other compounds that give Whisky its multifaceted flavor, there’s a reaction and new aromas and flavors are released, completely changing the way that you experience your beverage. Adding water to a Cask Strength Whisky isn’t just a good idea;, it’s good chemistry.
Next time you take a spin around the Spirits section at Beltramo’s, why not make a point of finding one of these Cask Strength Whiskies to see what they’re really all about.
- Neat: Aromas of sweet wood along with honey and toffee. On the tongue there is a sharp heat and astringency, with slight acidity, before the honey sweetness comes back into play along with fruit flavors and more woodiness.
- With Water: The honey scents and flavors are more intense, and there are notes of cooked cherries and apples. The Scotch tastes buttery and there are flavors of brown sugar, clove, and cocoa powder. The wood flavors are also much more gentle and cohesive.
Glenmorangie Astar Single Malt Scotch 57.1% ABV ($76.99)
- Neat: Notes of honey, molasses, peaches, and flavors of sharp fresh ginger and cinnamon. This Scotch is matured in American virgin oak casks which is quite noticeable when drinking it at full strength – it is quite woody and tannic, and there is a nutty quality with a lot of heat on the finish.
- With Water: The Astar gets completely friendly and now has a gentle creaminess and a more layered fruit profile including apples, pears, and peaches. The fruitiness is bold right off the start and then moves toward a dry woodiness. The spice flavors change a lot in the finish as well, with the ginger/cinnamon being replaced by clove and mint.
Springbank 12 Years Old Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch 55.3% ABV ($59.89)
- Neat: Cedar wood, raisin, fig, and notes of tobacco and peat smoke that both become more robust on the palate. Also flavors of brine and wood char.
- With Water: The nose is sweeter with scents of berries. The saltiness is more pronounced, and the peat takes on a captivating medicinality. The sweet/salty combo is even more impressive on the palate with the flavor of honey roasted nuts, and the Scotch takes on a more luscious mouthfeel. The medicinality comes through on the long finish which becomes earthy and powdery as it lingers.
Laphroaig 10 Years Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch 55.3% ABV ($74.99)
- Neat: This Scotch starts off quite sharply medicinal and smoky with chili pepper pungency as well as a bite of black pepper and some barbeque meatiness. There is a lot of peat here, people. The chili pepper is more abrasive on the tongue, while there is a hint of raspberry and vanilla, but this gets drowned out quickly by flavors of freshly dug soil, leather, and more medicinality.
- With Water: The nose is meatier and it has the aroma of hazelnut. The briny sea character comes out more boldly too, but remains in balance. The water brings out a lot of nuances from the peat: what seemed like mostly brash smoke and spice before has now become rich with flavors of dark chocolate, herbal tea, and root flavors. The Scotch takes on a liqueur-like character. The notes of leather and pepper spice are still here, but they are more subdued and you can still feel them tingling your cheeks well after the Whisky’s gone.
Those are all very interesting Whiskies, but they become absolutely enchanting with the addition of water. For each of these Scotches, water smoothed out the rough edges, but more importantly it added to the complexity of the drink by unlocking flavors and scents that were hidden before. Never did I feel the need to scorch my throat or suffer through a drink that was too abrasive for my liking. I sipped and added water back-and-forth in a bit of trial and error experimentation until I found a point that balanced both the strength of the alcohol content and the complexities of the flavor profiles. You can keep on adding water a few drops at a time until the Whisky is to your liking. The best part is, if at any point the addition of water begins to detract from the Whisky instead of improving it, all you have to do is add another splash of Whisky into your glass and you’ll get to back to that point of perfection.
Here’s a final little dirty secret: you don’t have to reserve this method for Cask Strength Whisky alone. No matter what anybody tells you about the “proper” way to drink Whisky, it’s a personal drink with an individualistic character. For myself, whenever I pick up a bottle of something new, I try it neat at room temperature first, next with a few drops of water, and then lastly with a couple cubes of ice so that they’ll melt and gradually change the amount of water in the glass. This way I can find out how each particular Whisky tastes best to me. Some I prefer neat, and others I prefer with water because it seems to truly elevate the Whisky to something exceptional. The best part is, there is no right or wrong answer. The way I drink one Whisky and the way you prefer it might be completely different. Every person, just like every Whisky, is different, and that’s a good thing. What’s really important is that we’re all having a glass of Whisky, wouldn’t you agree?
Neal F., Beltramo’s Spirits Consultant