I might as well be sitting in a furnace. It’s that hot. Heat like this reminds us all to take it a little slower, to ease into everything, lest we overexert, dehydrate, vomit, and pass out. Maybe even die a sweaty, unflattering mess. It happens every summer, you know it’s true. Some elderly man, left to his own 87 years of devices, passes out during one of his seven daily old person siestas, and never wakes up. Still, it’s a cautionary tale we should never forget. Drink water or you’ll die. Respect the heat, or you’ll die. Especially when it’s so hot that the glare on the blacktop burns out your eyes. Seek shelter.
Much like all things hot and heavy, cask strength (or barrel-proofed or whatever) whiskies are meant to be respected. Let your attention wander too far, drink one too many, and suddenly your’e telling your father-in-law about the night you met his daughter on a trampoline at a kegger in the woods. Drink too quickly, and most likely you’ll burn your face and your taste buds right off the map. There can be elegance in something that is made up of 64% alcohol. You just have to know how to tame it, make it sit, and make it stay.
My first experience was with a George T. Stagg. I can’t recall exactly how high the alcohol content is, but I think it might be somewhere around 70% ABV. I took a slug, maybe an ounce or so, thinking myself seasoned in the ways of drankin’ whiskey. I choked a bit, started sweating, and made like nothing was wrong, though I was convinced I was in over my head.
For a long time I was wary of such bottles. I’d see cask strength written on a bottle and brush it off as gimicky, suggesting that such high alcohol was meant to attract gourmet thrill seekers, and little else. In my mind, you had to fight through the alcohol, only to get to pedestrian whiskey.
I found myself working my back into stronger whiskey with Scotch. Ardbeg makes some serious monsters, and I’m a sucker for big, heavy, salty peat and smoke. So i started working my way back up the alcohol chain. Then I met the Black Adder Raw Cask, 1996 Lochranza. They claim that their filtration serves only to ensure that splinters don’t make their way into your drink. Aside from that, it’s about as raw as it gets, right out of the cask. You can even see bits of the charred oak floating at the bottom. It’s oily and it reeks, like a sweaty summer day. I mean that as a compliment. When I took a single drop of water to it, it blossomed. All of that aggression sat down and opened up into a burst of deliciousness. It had flowers, and light citrus, and peat, and smoke, and much, much more.
Fast forward to the present, and I’m sipping on Bookers Cask Strength in 97 degrees, humidity somewhere around 10,000%, with a proof around 107. One misstep and I could be done for, spending the next few sweaty and delirious hours regretting my foolish choice to down the Bookers like a heavy handed shot. It takes a little restraint and recklessness to truly enjoy a booze beast such as Bookers in weather like this. Tips for drinking cask strength when maybe it’s not a great idea.
1) Get your nose in there. Not too deep, being that the ever-so prominent element of ethanol might burn your nose hairs, interest, or confidence.
2) Drink a spash, just a tad. Really, just barely a couple drops. Swirl it around, get a feel for what it tastes like beyond the booziness. Now wait, because you’ll probably taste it for another five minutes in your stomach, in your esophagus, on the back of your tongue, and probably on the roof of your mouth. If done correctly, all of the flavors will present themselves in time. You just have to breath it to know it.
3) Add anywhere from 1-3 drops (seriously… drops. it doesn’t take much) to the open it up a bit. Just as wine drinkers will swirl their beverage to encourage breathing, a tad of water will cut out some of the alcohol, and in the case of the Bookers, it really opens up to reveal honey and nice oats, maybe some tobacco and vanilla. At least that’s what I got. It was silky, well rounded, and plain old tasty. It’s certainly beats all the faux top-tier stuff like Makers Mark and Knobb Creek for overall ass kicking taste. Kudos to you Booker Noe (of the famous Jim Beam lineage to be sure.)
4) When you’re almost done, on a day like today (still 90 thousand degrees) it’s probably wise to ensure a bit of hydration. Drop a nice fat ice cube into your drink. Be done with it. Watch that gargantuan whiskey turn to a nice, gentle, kinda boring summer bevy. Aww, how cute, look… a whiskey and water.
Nice try Hemingway.
p.s. I can’t write about cask strength without giving a nod to the William Larue Weller. It is a second cousin to the Stagg mentioned above, as part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. If you can find it, you buy it. As far as I can tell, it is second-to-none in the category of cask strength whiskey.