The sale and marketing of whiskey sometimes includes the term “cask strength”. These words are placed on selected bottles to make them stand out to consumers who order drinks in bars or shop in physical stores or online.
As legal definitions vary (or simply don’t exist), putting the words cask strength on a bottle can be a superficial designation. In many cases, that means exclusivity or some sort of direct access to a barrel-studded whiskey tasting club. However, it can also refer to a spirit bottled directly from the barrel in which it was aged, without the addition of water to adjust the proof, also commonly referred to as “barrel proof” or “barrel Strength”.
“I think most distillers would agree that a cask strength whiskey is one where the alcohol by volume of the finished product in the bottle is exactly the same as the abv of the liquid in the casks they come from,” says Matthew Hofmann, managing director and co-founder of Westland Distillery. “Or even more simply, it’s undiluted whisky.”
Key factors that affect the whiskey’s strength, or alcohol by volume (abv), and flavor in its cask: the type of cask used, such as new oak versus an older cask, and the type of wood from which the barrel is made, such as American, European or Japanese oak (Mizunara). These factors affect how a particular wood reacts with and within alcohol.
Spending time in contact with wood also brings aromas, flavors and a slight amber tint to a spirit. The charred wood inside the barrel absorbs the rough notes left over from distillation, much like a Brita filter does with tap water. And because wood is permeable, whiskey can absorb oxygen, adapt to temperature changes, and metamorphose from a clear liquor to the familiar brown spirit that most of us know as whisky.
Most whiskeys are slightly diluted and sold at 40–45% abv (80–90 proof). Cask strength whiskey is usually bottled at 50% abv (100 proof) or higher.
Conor O’Discroll, the Master Distiller of Heaven Hill Distillery, believes that this distinction can help demonstrate the caliber of a brand or the craftsmanship of a distiller.
“With 1.9 million barrels of aging inventory, our barrel-proof offerings allow the consumer to experience our whiskey in its purest form,” he says. “Cast-proof whiskeys are an example of our expertise as distillers, as well as the consistency of quality and craftsmanship in our portfolio.”
“Barrel-proof” was defined in the United States in 1977 by a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) ruling and additional Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) rulings have since aimed to expand definitions to include cask strength. Countries like the UK also have their own regulations on certain phrases regarding proof of bottling in products like scotch, although given the extent of the world’s producers of spirits and similar phrases that may appear on a label, the details can be difficult for regular consumers to pin down. .
“In my opinion, cask strength whiskeys give you a closer look at how a master distiller has perfected his craft.” —Michael Vacheresse, Travel Bar
Michael Vacheresse, the owner of the Travel Bar in Brooklyn, New York, which serves more than 400 whiskeys, agrees. “In my opinion, cask strength whiskeys allow you to better understand how a master distiller has perfected his craft,” he says.
Vacheresse believes there are other benefits for consumers as well. “A higher potency whiskey allows the consumer to ‘prove’ their pour to the proof they appreciate.”
Still, he notes that terms such as “barrel force” can be confusing because they don’t refer to any specific abv or evidence.
Robin Robinson, author of The Complete Whiskey Coursehas a similar line of thought.
“It’s the pinnacle of current consumption fads,” Robinson says of the term “barrel strength.” “In many ways, this is part of the ‘individualisation’ of distilled spirits, effectively telling the distiller, ‘We don’t trust you to prove it to my taste.
“On the other hand, it’s excellent purchase value: if you tend to use water when you drink it, you’re essentially buying more than the 750ml you paid for,” he says. “But if you drink it straight all the time, you may need to seek professional help.”
Posted on April 19, 2022