For the uninitiated – and sometimes even for the well-versed – the alcoholic strength of a whisk(e)y can set its consumer quite aback. Whereas whisk(e)y has to have an ABV percentage of 40% or more by law to be legally called whisky/whiskey, I’ve often wondered about what the difference in percentage makes to the enjoyment of whiskies. I’ve read that one of the many skills that a whisky-maker has to master alongside the flavour profiling of a whisky – by marrying influences from hundreds of samples from hundreds of casks – is that of the determining the final bottled product’s strength.
In an effort to see what the differences are and put this query to the test, I’ve paired up samples of a regular bottling of Douglas Laing’s Scallywag – bottled at 46% ABV – with a limited cask strength release Scallywag Cask Strength (Limited Edition No.2) – bottled at 54.1% ABV) – for a compare and contrast exercise. Purely for scientific research…
I thought it worthwhile to point out that there is a difference between “cask strength” and “batch strength”, as I had mistakenly used them interchangeably in the past. The former is fairly self-explanatory and means that the whisk(e)y is bottled at the strength that it is found at when released from the cask in which it has been maturing. “Batch Strength” however, is the alcoholic strength at which the entire batch has been released, i.e. the ABV that the distillery felt best to release the whisk(e)y at – whether that be 40% ABV or above – not necessarily the strength at which it has left the cask. Therefore batch releases of the same named whisky may vary in percentage form time to time too…
Nose: A good bit of sherry on the nose there. Pretty heady alcohol at first. This may be the first time that I’ve genuinely used the term “leathery” to describe a whisky’s scent, but it is the first flavour that comes to mind after that boozy blast. Some summery fruits poking through, the big flavour blasts.
Taste: There’s a battle to the taste buds here. The alcoholic burn gets there first and then the fruits come rushing in behind. That sting took me aback a bit, but when it settles there’s peaches and cherries at play. Pretty summery actually, despite the wintry sensations that the sherry influences tend to bring. A nice little spice to it too.
Finish: Its feisty but its fudgy too. It might seem like a contradiction, but the alcohol’s burn tingles all the way down, but the feel of the whisky is soft and displays that silky Speyside texture. Flavour-wise, a mix of zesty orange / clementine flavours linger.
Verdict: I’ve tried the Scallywag before as part of a Douglas Laing tasting session (notes here: A Chance Evening With Douglas Laing) but this time I got try it in the comfort of my own home at my own pace and really got to savour what it was offering. It is a solid example of the classic Speyside sherry maturation. Great to also sample the merits of a premium blend with sherry at the heart of it, but with other bourbon influences softening out the flavours and adding a lighter sweetness. A really enjoyable whisky this one.
Cask Strength Limited Edition No. 2
Nose: Bang! Straight up the nose! That’s cask strength for sure. I just happen to be listening to Kyuss when trying this and to quote one of their track titles, this has a tangy zizzle. The whisky’s strongest suit is a strong marmalade flavour here, with a good amount of spice and kick to it.
Taste: Once the booze has gone, there’s a great set of stewed fruit flavours. The most dominant is that strong marmalade flavour from the nose. In fact, it reminds me of those novelty marmalades with some form of alcohol in – which makes sense. Whilst some sherry-rich drams are all about the dark sugars though, this whisky actually brings a final white sugary flavour too, like a fruit-based dessert.
Finish: That white sugar sweetness actually develops into more of a vanilla sweetness to accompany the orangey and juicy flavours and that collection of flavours linger long after the whisky has gone.
Verdict: The initial impact is big. It certainly makes a statement. With that big cask strength percentage, the flavours play second fiddle to the alcohol at every stage BUT it is worth that first blast, because once it subsides, there is a great set of flavours hiding behind it. A winter warmer in every aspect. It did make me want to reach for some water to tame the beast, but I did resist and it made for an enjoyable experience. After the first hit, I did get used to it and can see why Douglas Laing chose to release at this strength,
Double Trouble – A Compare and Contrast
Nose: Well, the regular edition of Scallywag had quite punch to it, but the Cask Strength release’s extra ABV really knocked me back. That extra strength seems to string the fruit flavours out, and delivers more of a citrusy bite. Despite the high ABV, the Cask Strength still has a discernible fruit flavour beneath the piercing alcohol. Funny how the leathery smell from the regular version is diminished. It is still there, but it just needed seeking out.
Taste: It is very obvious to say, but the Cask Strength is very, very tingly. The regular Scallywag is actually quite tingly in the first place, but the Cask Strength‘s power really overrides the flavours and leaves them trampled beneath. It does not leave them for dead though. Rather, they turn up later a bit battered and bruised. The common theme however was the stewed fruit set of flavours – like a good old British apple or rhubarb crumble.
Finish: The regular Scallywag felt like a feisty boozy drop to begin with, but at cask strength, it was even more peppery and fiery. Going back to the regular Scallywag after having had the Cask Strength however you could really appreciate that fudgy flavour and texture in the regular edition even more. Interesting though that the flavours lingered longer on the Cask Strength which meant that you could really appreciate them for a while longer.
Verdict: Long story short, these are two lovely whiskies – if they can be referred to as separate whiskies that is – are they not just the same whisky at a different strength? Tasting them side by side did make me wonder even more about just how the master distiller/blender decides on the right percentage for what they want to release. When comparing my notes for trying them separately and together, it seems that the flavours are predominantly shared, but the experience is different. How does the whisky-maker determine where the line sits for best demonstrating what their whisky has to offer? How much does that decision come down to being a cost factor – surely a lower percentage means just adding water and therefore literally diluting your product and making you able to sell more units? When it came to actual taste and enjoyment of the whisky, the Cask Strength did make for a more intense experience and it was interesting to know what flavours to expect from the regular release, but then the attack of the alcohol meant that you had to stick around a bit longer for them to come out and play. Maybe that is a good thing though? I mean, it made me sit and wait and appreciate the flavours more with the Cask Strength because I genuinely had to take my time with it and let the alcohol subside. Which did I prefer? Hard to say really. I don’t recall ever having had a bad cask strength whisky before now… Overall, this has been a really enjoyable insight and it has given me even more respect for the teams of people determining how best to release their whiskies to the world. This is an experiment that I will just have to try again…
Sample disclosure: Both samples received via my Dram Team subscription – as always I read their tasting notes afterwards so as not to sway my decisions and it was great to see a load of overlaps between my notes and theirs, but with a few differences too. Apple and rhubarb crumble was eerie to read though, as they were the lasting flavours conjured up that image in my head.