What is Cask Strength Whiskey?
With its consistent rise in popularity on the American whiskey market over the last decade, cask strength whiskey is no longer an obscure category in the whiskey market with a small cult-like following. As the desire for products made by artesian distillers and microbreweries has grown, interest in cask strength whiskey has exploded. Still, very few people actually understand what the term “cask strength” means.
Oddly enough, cask strength whiskey is unique not because of an additional step in the distillation or fermentation process but for the omission of a traditional step in the whiskey production process. Most traditional whiskeys undergo a process of dilution during the final stages of production. As these whiskeys leave their respective aging barrels, their proof ratings, also known as “alcohol by volume” percentages, are historically very high and fairly inconsistent throughout the batch.
Distillers will add water to these whiskeys just before bottling to ensure a consistent and lower alcohol by volume percentage. This process is important for quite a few reasons. The first reason is to ensure that the distiller’s whiskey batch complies with the respective government regulations that apply to that specific type of whiskey. Many whiskeys must adhere to precise guidelines to legally qualify as specific types of whiskey.
The second main reason for this distillation process is to ensure continuity in their whiskey’s flavor profile across multiple batches and production years. For larger, more well-known commercial whiskey producers like Jack Daniels and Maker’s Mark, customers expect a similar and predictable flavor, regardless of any year or batch from which the whiskey came.
On the other hand, cask strength whiskey is unique because it does not undergo the dilution process before bottling. Each batch of whiskey is bottled right after it leaves its respective aging barrel and retains its original characteristics and flavor profiles.
As you might expect, cask strength whiskeys carry much more potent and intense flavor characteristics than non-cask strength whiskeys. This reality makes cask strength whiskey more appealing to experienced whiskey connoisseurs than to the average everyday drinker.
An important nuance within the category of cask strength whiskey is the term “barrel proof” and how that differs from simple cask strength whiskey. Given the nearly infinite whiskey types and the expenses associated with the production of each, rules have been put in place by the ATF to ensure truthful labeling practices by whiskey producers. While the term “cask strength” can be used to refer to any whiskey that has not undergone dilution prior to being bottled, “barrel proof” requires that there are no more than two degrees of variance in proof from the time a whiskey is assessed for tax determination purposes, and when it is bottled. This regulation is in place to protect the customer and ensure that they are truly getting the whiskey they are purchasing.
How to Drink Cask Strength Whiskey
Given that cask strength whiskey is an unadulterated spirit, with all of its integrity and original characteristics intact, it presents the consumer with a myriad of options on how to drink it. Regardless of how you choose to drink your cask strength whiskey, common practice is to dilute the whiskey in some way.
The reason for this is that oftentimes, a high-quality cask strength whiskey will possess wonderful flavor profiles that will not be able to be enjoyed by the consumer due to the overbearing alcohol content. Part of what makes non-cask strength whiskey enjoyable is that the dilution process mutes the intense alcohol presence and enables the whiskey’s unique flavors to come to the fore.
Cask strength whiskey, being more “unrefined” in nature, presents the end consumer with the opportunity to calibrate their own desired dilution levels to achieve a more customized tasting experience. We recommend adding room temperature water to your chosen cask strength whiskey with ice. We recommend adding water in stages, tasting the whiskey after each incremental addition of water.
Our Favorite Cask Strength Whiskeys to Drink
As with the greater whiskey market, the cask strength industry is filled with numerous excellent choices for consumers. With the constant increase in demand and interest for cask strength whiskey, we see an even brighter future ahead for this unique subcategory of spirit. With that being said, we have picked just a few of our favorite cask strength whiskey brands below to help guide you in the best direction.
- Aberlour A’bunadh – With an average proof rating of 120, this option provides extensive dilution options for the experienced whiskey drinker. It has a strong, full-bodied, and rich flavor, with delightful hints of chocolate, fruit, and brown sugar.
- Elijah Craig Barrel Proof – This brand has a bit more variance in barrel proof ratings, depending on the batch from which a bottle comes from. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof can be found with barrel proof ratings varying anywhere from 128 to 140. This whiskey is famous for its numerous awards and beautiful symphony of cinnamon vanilla, chocolate, and caramel notes. Given its higher spice profile than normal, we recommend drinking this whiskey over ice, with a bit of water added.
- Michter’s US1 Toasted Barrel Strength Rye – Unique to this spirit, Michter employs an additional step of re-casking its whiskey into toasted oak barrels instead of the more commonly used charred barrels. This process results in a more muted spice undertone, along with the addition of honey, smoke, and toasted almond notes.
- Redbreast 12 Cask Strength Irish Whiskey – A staple in the cask strength industry, Redbreast 12 Cask Strength Irish Whiskey has been around for much longer than most other choices on the market today. This option is famous for its sweet and fruity flavor profile and beloved for its unique texture. It is a much more rich and bold whiskey than the other options listed.
- Kavalan Solist Pedro Ximenez Sherry Single Cask Strength – Widely considered to be one of the best whiskeys in the entire world, this choice is made unique by the tropical climate in which it is aged. The additional heat and humidity accelerates the whiskey’s aging process and emboldens the fruity and sweet tones within the whiskey.