Fad Focus 3 – Barrel/Cask Strength

It’s that time again. It’s time for me to highlight another growing fad or trend within the whiskey industry. We’ve discuss rampant peating levels of scotch and the explosion of wood finishes across the industry. Today I want to talk about strength. Not strength of character but rather the alcohol strength at which whiskeys are bottled.The level of alcohol content in a bottle of whiskey is measured in one of two ways. The most straightforward is using “ABV” or “alcohol by volume” measures. If a whiskey states that it is 43% ABV that means that 43% of the liquid content of that bottle at the time of bottling is alcohol. What’s the rest? Mostly water.

“Well then, what’s this ‘proof’ I see on some of the bottle?”

The term “proof” comes from 18th century Great Britain. The idea being that a “proof spirit” was the minimum level of alcohol in a particular spirit that would sustain combustion of gunpowder. The term originated when the rations of rum to sailors were “proofed” by seeing if gunpowder would still light when doused with the rum. This made sure the rum wasn’t watered down. In today’s terms the proof of particular spirits is twice the alcohol by volume. For example, a 90 proof spirit contains 45% ABV.

Originally, whiskey was sold by the barrel. You’d go to your local merchant and fill up your bottles from the barrel. The whiskey you get then was always barrel strength. (Unless the merchant water it down!) Over time distilleries and merchants began bottling the whiskey themselves. For the larger part of the 20th century whiskeys on both sides of the Atlantic were commercially bottled near 40% ABV. Mostly because this was the minimum legal alcohol content allowed if you wanted to call your product whiskey. If you’re trying to maximize your profits then you want the least amount of alcohol in the bottle as possible. That way the alcohol coming out of your barrels will go farther, thus allowing you to sell more bottles and make more money. There were some obvious exceptions to this. Wild Turkey 101 is probably the most well known.

In the last 15 years or so we’ve seen this trend change. More and more bourbon, and scotch distilleries are bottling at higher and higher strengths. They’ve determined that the flavor profile loses something in the process of watering down. This varies by whiskey. Some lend themselves more to higher strengths than others. The most prevalent example in my mind is George T. Stagg. Stagg is an uncut and unfiltered barrel proof bourbon that is part of Buffalo Trace’s annual Antique Collection releases. It’s never hit the bottle at less than 64% ABV. Despite the high alcohol content this stuff is scary smooth. Matt bought a bottle of Stagg for me a few years back and he, my wife, and I dusted off half the bottle that night. It didn’t seem like much at the time but the next morning we were all feeling it.

While Stagg is quite wonderful, if you look at the numbers, it can be pretty scary. The lowest proof release was in 2004 at 129 proof/64.5% ABV. There have been four releases that topped 70% ABV. These were referred to as “Hazmat” releases. They were called this because anything 70% ABV or higher can’t legally be brought on commercial flights and is deemed Hazardous Materials. The Hazmat releases culminated n the 2007 Hazmat IV release. It was bottled at a whopping 144.8 proof/72.4% ABV. That’ll wake you up!

Unfortunately, not all whiskey is George T. Stagg. I’ve found none that are as smooth at that strength. In my opinion, bourbon tends to hold up better at higher proofs than other whiskeys. Scotch, Irish, and Japanese seem too subtle and delicate of flavor and balance in most cases to drink above 50% ABV. So what do you do? You add water. Which really gets us back to the 40% or so ABV that the whiskey used to be bottled at. There’s nothing wrong with bottling at 40% to 43% ABV. Some of my favorite whiskeys are bottled in that range.

There are arguments both ways. On the one hand I like being able to pour something from the bottle and drink it. I don’t like having to monkey around with water to get it to an enjoyable balance. On the other hand, you get more for your money when you buy at higher strengths. The whiskey lasts longer.

Then there are those that want it at cask or barrel proof for the “purity of the spirit”. The easiest example I can think of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They buy and store their own barrels and always bottle uncut and unfiltered for their members. More power to them. It’s just not my thing.

It’s really up to you to decide what you prefer. If you like to drink it from the pour like me, then the ever escalating proof can be annoying. If you want the value or the barrel purity then it’s a boon for you. Either way, you should drink, enjoy, and proselytize.

Slainte,

Richard

Lost apostles?

Some of you may be thinking…”Aren’t there two guys that run this site?” 

Yes, you are correct.  I’ve been pretty derilict in my duties lately.  Matt has been picking up my slack admirably but I’m way overdue for some contributions.  I’ve got a few blogs on tap that I hope to post soon.

But what about the other missing apostles?  Confused?  I’m talking about all of you out there.  Matt and I run this site for the love of the dram but we’d also like to know that we’re being helpful, informative, amusing, or whatever.  To do that we need feedback from the readers.  We’ve got a few enhancements and resources in mind for Whisk(e)yApostle.com but we’re always brainstorming for new stuff.  What do you folks like?  Dislike?  What types of resources and content would you like to see added? 

Drop us a line.  Comments to the posts or emails directly to us are always welcome.  Let us know what you think.

– Richard

Knocking on Death’s Door

Last night, I had the opportunity to try a “white whiskey” from small craft distillery in Madison, WI. Death’s Door (named for the waterway that runs between Washington Island and the Door County peninsula) produces gin, vodka, and whiskey in small batches for a variety of markets here in the US. They only recently came to NYC. I did not try the vodka, the gin was passable (interesting, but still a lightweight in the world of craft gins). Since this is a whisk(e)y blog after all, let’s talk about the whiskey.

As you all know, I am huge advocate of the craft distillery movement. Craft distilleries are raising the bar for all sorts of distilled spirits and whiskey is no exception. However, innovation and experimentation do not always lead to greatness. There are always stumbling blocks.

Death’s Door has an interesting operation. All of their spirits are distilled in the same 90 gallon copper pot still using locally sourced materials (including water from Lake Michigan). The White Whiskey is double distilled, “rested” for three weeks (I assume in a stainless steel vat) and then conditioned in small oak barrels for less than 72 hours (hence the whiskey remains clear or “white”). The rep at the tasting could not tell me anything about the mash bill (she didn’t even know what that meant). When I explained, she said rye (from the taste, a lot of it), wheat, and “something else, but no corn.” The literature from the distillery just says “organic grains.”

The whiskey is interesting, but not my cup of tea. The nose is a little like tequila (I hate tequila). The palate is somewhere between a rye and a tequila. The short aging does not give the whiskey enough time to take much from the oak. On the plus side, the harsher elements of the rye are tempered by the other components of the mash bill. The mash bill may be a winner with a little more time in the barrel. It certainly shows potential.

If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I like the smoothness of aged ryes, but I don’t care for all that oak,” then check this out. If you are a tequila drinker looking for a transition into whiskey, this could be your gateway dram. For me, this is nothing more than a novelty act.

I applaud the effort, especially the terroir approach and sense of experimentation. Not my bag though. There are much better craft whiskeys out there. I hope that these guys continue to experiment with their whiskeys. Maybe they will hit on something truly sensational.

Death’s Door White Whiskey will set you back around $35 and is available in limited markets (Chicago and New York for sure). For more information on availability or just to learn more about their operation visit www.deathsdoorspirits.com.

Char No. 4 Redux

The ceiling at Char No. 4 (pic by Tamir Karta)
The ceiling at Char No. 4 (pic by Tamir Karta)

Back to Char No. 4 with some of my Brooklyn peeps. Like my last trip, I looked at the menu online to

prepare. This time, we sat at the bar and our lithe bartender, Charlotte, repeatedly broke my heart as I rattled off a litany of whiskeys from my online research only to find out that they were out of each one. Battered, but not beaten, I settled in to studying the whisk(e)y list. Although not planned this way, this trip to Char No. 4 became an exercise in inexpensive (mostly) American whiskeys.

I started with the A. H. Hirsch 16yo straight bourbon. I’ve been wanting to try this for a while. This bottling is the very last of the whiskey from the old Michter’s distillery in PA. I don’t really know the history of the distillery, but I cannot believe that they failed due to inferior product. It is always harder for an “off-the-slab” whiskey to compete against the Kentucky bourbon giants, but this whiskey really stands up on taste. The nose is complex and delicate with distinct notes of corn, nuts (cashews?), and Christmas spices. The palate delivers on the promises of the nose and adds some extra sweetness and a little salt. Overall, this is a very balanced whiskey and I encourage you to look for it (not one of the cheap ones though).

Next, we decided to do a little experiment. We ordered some Rebel Yell and some Rebel Reserve for a comparison. Rebel Yell is a wheated bourbon that smells terrible and luckily tastes like nothing. It makes me think of drinking distilled water in the desert sun (wet and tasteless that evaporates the moment it hits your tongue). However, the Rebel Reserve is very drinkable. Rebel Reserve is also a wheated bourbon, but it is made in small batches with a different recipe. The nose is like a lady’s perfume on fresh linen. The palate is smooth and sweet. You can definitely taste the wheat influence. I would not put this in the same class a some of the really high end bourbons, but is definitely stands up to some whiskeys that are twice the price. A very good every day bourbon and an unbeatable price (around $20).

We followed with the mouth numbing Old Weller Antique (107 Proof). With a little water or ice, this is very nice. Plus, it’s almost like getting two whiskeys for one (and for $20!).

Ezra Brooks Single Barrel (12yo) was next on the list. The palate is buttery and sweet with hints of rye and spice. This whiskey doesn’t stick around long, but the finish is pleasant without much burn. The price won’t burn you either (around $30).

I had intended the night to end with the Ezra Brooks, but one of my compatriots insisted on treating me to a dram of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23yo. Who would say no to that? This was a great whiskey (not cheap). However, the consensus around the table was that the 20yo is better. The extra three years smooths the edges a little too much.

I know that most people don’t have access to a place like Char No. 4 in their neighborhood, but I encourage you to seek out some of these cheaper whiskeys and let me know what you think.

BTW – I think I figured out the pricing at Char No. 4 (I have complained of gouging before). The selection was built on the owner’s personal stock. Therefore, much of the pricing is collector pricing that has little to do with the list price of the whiskey. You may find things there that you can’t find anywhere else, but you will pay dearly. But what’s money compared to a once in a lifetime dram? That’s for you to decide.

Drink well and drink responsibly.

-Matt

El Dorado Special Reserve 12 Year Old Rum

40% ABV/80 Proof
Available in the United States and Europe – $25 to $30

What the distillery says:

This fine aged Demerara Rum is produced by Demerara Distillers Ltd., master distillers since 1670. Matured for at least 12 years is oak casks, this rum is hand-blended to achieve it’s uniquely smooth, rich, award-winning character – straight or on the rocks.Honey in color.

What Matt says:

Nose: It has your typical rum notes (vanilla, caramelized sugar), but there are also some botanicals in there. It is almost like a craft gin married with a somewhat typical rum.
Palate: Vanilla, the sugar moves a little toward burnt from the nicely caramelized nose, there is also an oak component.
Finish: Here the sugar moves all the way to burnt with a long alcoholic burn.
Comments: Rum has never been my favorite alcoholic beverage. In my youth, I had too many encounters with inferior rums like Captain Morgan or Bacardi. I did not really appreciate rum until I spent some time in the Caribbean, where rum is a part of the culture. I discovered that rum can be really good. Indeed, rum is starting to become part of the craft distillation movement. This means that rum will be increasingly drinkable as a stand-alone. This rum lives up to those standards. This means that it holds up to being served neat. However, compared to other craft rums, this lacks a little nuance on the palate. The palate just does not deliver what the nose promised. This makes the rating a little difficult. By the standards of every rum on the market, I would say that it stands out, but compared to craft rums it is only average. In fact, I would recommend Appleton’s, a widely available macro-rum, above this one.
Rating: Average

What Richard says:

Nose: Burnt caramel, vanilla, candied apricots, honey-dipped oranges, a hint of mint, floral notes of lavender and…rose? Very, very sweet. You can almost taste the sugar cane through the nose.
Palate: All sugar and alcohol. As lovely as the nose was, the palate is very two dimensional.
Finish: Heavy on the alcohol. It kind of finishes like a strong cough syrup.
Comments: I am admittedly not the most well versed rum drinker. That said, this stands out against your baseline Bacardi and Captain Morgan. That palate and finish aren’t noteworthy but nose is exceptional. But we buy it to drink it not to smell it.
Rating: Average

Overall Rating: Average