Saturday, May 26, 2012

Overproof Overkill

A month or so ago, I was invited to a tasting of the Abelour Scotch line. The highlight was Aberlour A’Bunadh, an overproof expression which chimes in at 59.8 percent. Shortly after, I attending a tasting of the new cask strength version of the Irish whiskey Redbreast. It was held at the New York Distilling Company, which last year introduced a new "Navy Strength" gin.

While the liqueur and flavored vodka people flood the market with enough product to ensure that the general abv of available spirits is slowly decreasing, drip by drip, there's no denying that the whiskey world is currently crushing on the idea of cask-strength spirits. And in increasing numbers, the Cognac, gin, and rum folks are getting in on the act, recognizing the category's hypnotic effect on both the mixologist and the booze collector. I predict the next year will see a small rush of cask-strength tequilas. (There's only one at present.)

In general, I applaud this trend. The good ones—the Redbreast and Abelour included, as well as the soon-to-arrive Plymouth and Hayman's Navy Strength gins—are distinct, beautiful spirits. Others are simply more-alcoholic versions of their 40% brothers, but still good. But still others are simply fire-breathing excuses for distillers to milk the customer's wallet. (DeLeón cask strength tequila is very nice, but it costs $300.) Certainly, there's room for consumer abuse here. But, for now, the view is quite lovely. 

Here is my New York Times article on the subject:

Spirits That May Be Stronger Than Their Fans
By Robert Simonson
AT Cask, a San Francisco liquor store run by the people who own that city’s high-end cocktail bars Rickhouse and Bourbon & Branch, the spirit most coveted by customers is George T. Stagg, a limited-production bourbon that can exceed 70 percent alcohol. The store’s owner, Brian Sheehy, said the waiting list for Stagg is 190 names long.
When Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky began rolling out Stagg a decade ago, the bourbon’s overpowering kick made it something of an anomaly. But today, Stagg isn’t going stag on the shelves. High-alcohol spirits — variously sailing under the terms overproof, cask-strength and barrel-strength — are becoming commonplace.
Scotches and bourbons dominate this bruising category. But recently, Redbreast, an esteemed Irish whiskey, released a cask-strength version. So-called “navy strength” gins have arrived, like Leopold Bros. of Colorado and Perry’s Tot from Brooklyn. And last year, DeLeón unveiled what it calls the first cask-strength tequila.
In general, alcohol levels have been creeping northward for a few years, as distillers aim to please bartenders and enthusiasts who thirst for a more potent dram — 50 percent has become the new 40 percent. But a goodly number of bottles are now speeding past even that mark, weighing in at anything from 51 to 70 percent, and beyond.
True to the name “cask-strength,” these liquors are bottled uncut, at the same concentration they possessed in the barrel. (Yes, most spirits are diluted to render them palatable, a fact that comes as a shock to many otherwise savvy drinkers.)
Flavien Desoblin, who owns the Brandy Library in TriBeCa, guessed that one out of every dozen new Scotches he encounters is high octane. The number of bourbons is fewer but still substantial, including barrel-strength expressions from Wild Turkey and Four Roses.
“We’ve got lots of people asking about cask-strength,” he said.
At Jack Rose, a Washington bar that stocks 1,000 different whiskeys, patrons “try the regular version of something and then try the cask-strength to compare it to,” said its beverage director, Rachel Sergi. “It does seem to be in vogue.”
The appeal of these big guns seems to be a mix of novelty and control.
“Our customers are familiar with the Bowmore line, but they’ve never been able to taste it in the cask-strength form,” said Mr. Sheehy of Cask, referring to the peaty Islay Scotch. “They want something different, something that others don’t have.”
For William Meyers, a St. Louis lawyer whose 700-bottle whiskey cellar is made up of roughly one-third cask-strength products, heavy-duty spirits bridge the gap between the drinker and the distillery.
“When you go to Kentucky or Scotland, if you’re fortunate, they’ll take you to the warehouse and pop a few bungs,” he said. “Frequently, they’ll say, ‘This is as good as it gets.’ And it is.”
Once the bottle is home, moreover, buyers can play distiller and dilute — or not — to their heart’s content. “People get to control the evolution of that spirit in their glass,” Mr. Sheehy said.
Given the steering wheel, Matthew Post of Beverly Hills, Calif., a customer at Cask, takes it easy on the water.
“There’s some I cut down with a little water, and some I don’t cut down at all,” he said. “I like the purity of them.”
Mr. Meyers said that, when sampling barrel-strength spirits, he sips small amounts, so as to both savor the complexities and blunt the impact.
“It takes time to acclimate your palate to the higher proof,” he said. “I think a lot of Scotch drinkers will start out drinking Scotch and soda or Scotch and ginger ale. Then they work up to Scotch on rocks, then Scotch neat.”
Many advocates simply think overproof spirits taste better.
“Sometimes I find things at cask strength are even smoother than comparable products at regular strength,” said Jonathan Goldstein, an owner of the Park Avenue Liquor Shop, which carries popular high-proof renditions from the Scotch makers Laphroaig and Aberlour, as well as many offerings exclusive to the store. “There is a sweet spot, where you’ve got the combination of the cask, the proof and the other elements, where it tastes just right.”
Some of that flavor punch can arguably be attributed to the absence of chill filtering, a process that dispels fatty acids that cloud the liquid but can also remove flavor, said theFour Roses master distiller, Jim Rutledge. It became common practice in the 1970s, when many distillers began lowering the standard alcohol level to 40 percent. But those acids aren’t a problem in spirits above 50 percent, so high-alcohol distillates do not require chill-filtering.
Still, Mr. Desoblin of the Brandy Library cautioned against equating “cask-strength” with “better.” A term like overproof “can also be a marketing tool, because it allows people to sell at a much higher price,” he said.
“It’s good for those who have been drinkers for a while, and can see through it,” he said. “But it’s also a bit dangerous, because it can hide bad quality.”
It’s true that consumers pay dearly for such nectar. Barrel-strength liquors cost at least $10 more a bottle than their more-watery counterparts. The price is not without justification. Unwatered whiskey means each barrel yields fewer bottles. And American distillers pay taxes based on alcohol content; higher proof brings higher fees.
“You don’t pay taxes on water,” Mr. Rutledge noted.
Price aside, Mr. Desoblin said he did not expect the trend to subside soon.
“You’ll see more,” he said, “because tequila and mezcal are beginning to follow the pattern of Scotch.”
Those liquors will find a San Francisco home when Tradition Bar, the latest tavern from Mr. Sheehy, opens in late May. A conflation of aspects of the Irish, English and Scottish pubs and the American dive bar, it will showcase overproof liquors.
“We’re going to have a variety of cask-strength whiskeys available only in this bar,” Mr. Sheehy said. Among them: that brawny new Redbreast that has rested in a Guinness-treated, used bourbon barrel. Call it barrel-aged barrel strength.

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