It’s no secret that here at Mark Littler Ltd we like to focus on whisky investment and the long term potential of whisky as a luxury asset, that is our area of expertise after all! However, it is impossible to ignore the large, often very vocal, section of whisky fans who want to open and drink their bottles (maniacs!)
As we don’t have quite the refined palette required to talk about tasting whisky with any degree of authority, we’re introducing a new series on our blog featuring Phil Dwyer, of Whisky Wednesday. Phil is a good friend of Mark Littler Ltd and has plenty of experience tasting and reviewing all kinds of different whiskies as well as sharing his reviews on his YouTube channel, Whisky Wednesday.
In the first article of the series, Phil is taking a look at the proof system and what 100 proof really means. He also gives some expert tips for how to get the most out of your dram when tasting!
What Does Proof Even Mean?
Proof is a word that has literally conjured up nightmares for me.
The first question to ask ourselves is, what proof are we looking for? Due to taxation and pricing, we’re looking for a specific…ish percentage of alcohol to organise what should be paid and where.
Definitions of Proof in relation to whisky
From a few stints of research, we can essentially boil it down to three different definitions:
USA – Alcohol Proof is the ABV x2. So, 43% ABV is 86 Proof. Easy. It’s more of an everyday term in this part of the whisky world.
UK Version 1: A simple burn or no-burn test of the liquid. 100 Proof (burning with a steady flame) was deemed as the break point and taxation point between being either under proof or over proof, this was generally thought to be around 60% ABV alcohol at regular air temperature.
UK Version 2 (and slightly more fun): A burn or no-burn test but with gunpowder. Now, this brought many issues into the mix, such as the size of the gunpowder grains and how long they’d been left to soak in the alcohol. Nevertheless, it was deemed as more accurate than the ‘just set it on fire’ test. When set alight via this method 100 Proof was deemed 57.15% ABV, and that’s what we stuck with. If it were to explode when set alight = overproof. If the flame was weak or wouldn’t ignite at all = underproof.
Returning to America for just a minute, the labelling of ‘proof’ on whisky is going to be much bigger in this realm of delicious liquids. You are literally spoilt for choice when it comes to 100 Proof Bourbons and other American whiskies. A few choice options: Rittenhouse Rye 100, Four Roses Single Barrel, Wild Turkey 101 and almost everything from the E. H. Taylor range.
Back to the UK!
Thankfully, by January 1st, 1980 – all ‘proof’ designations were replaced by ABV%’s, in-line with the European Union changes of 1973. Now we have hydrometers which simply measure the gravity of alcohol in a solution of alcohol and water.
In Britain we stuck with 57% = 100 Proof, therefore 3% ABV was equal to 5 proof and this where we get to talk about the most famous use of proof in the modern whisky world, Glenfarclas 105.
Cask Strength and 100 Proof Whisky
Originally launched in 1968 as the first ‘barrel proof’ Scotch whisky, it has garnered attention from so many fans, and indeed has been responsible for the wealth of cask strength and sometimes sherry influenced liquids around us. I’m looking at Aberlour A’bunadh, Glenlivet Nadurra, Macallan Classic Cut, Arran Sherry Cask, literally countless option across the history of Scottish whisky. Glenfarclas 105 was classed for a very long time as one of the best ‘bang for your buck’ whiskies on the planet. Drenched in sherry and carrying no age statement, it is young, punchy, incredibly rich and a welcome throwback for most to a vintage way of releasing and marketing whisky.
Benromach 10YO 100 Proof is a sadly missed icon of this style of marketing. Their new Vintage Cask Strength offerings are still as good, but there was something fun about seeing that little red ribbon with ‘100 proof’ on it, underneath the 57% declaration. This was a much more complex offering of whisky in comparison to the 105. Heavily sherried Speyside with a little tinge of smoke creeping underneath it. When water was added it just became this coffee and toffee banana explosion. I’ve about 20cl left of a 2014 bottling and it’s gently enjoyed every now and then.
Port Askaig 100 Proof, the only Islay offering that has any remanence of that world left on its label. There is something extremely magical about high strength Islay whisky that separates them from the rest of the spirits world. Port Askaig 100 Proof has this huge hit of citrus and dry, ashy smoke, there’s always been debate of if it’s Caol Ila or Bunnahabhain given the geographical link of the name, but it doesn’t matter. They release such consistent and well put together bottlings that you should simply enjoy it for what it is, and indeed just marvel in the mystery of not knowing.
How to drink high proof whisky
For those of you that are used to higher proofs in everything: whisky, rum, gin, etc. A question that was asked of me when writing this was “How did you find drinking whisky at 57% or more?”
In all honesty, I remember disliking it. Glenfarclas 105 and Aberlour A’bunadh were my first cask strength whiskies and I just didn’t get it. Loads of heat with little flavour reward. But much time has passed since then and many bottles lay as empty as my bank account when it comes to finding new and exciting liquids. When approaching anything at 57% and above, you should approach it as you would any other whisky in the world, but with just a touch more caution, especially when it comes to your nose. Glencairn glasses are one of the greatest tools in a whisky drinker’s arsenal, use them and monitor the liquid with it.
Make sure your nose is at the top of the glass, if you move it to the bottom you will feel the tingle of high alcohol, this can massively impact how you perceive a whisky.
When it comes to tasting it, make sure you take the smallest sip and make it neat, water can always be added later. This is going to tell you more about the liquid than a huge glug will. Calm the spice by washing it around your mouth and remember what flavours and sensations are happening on your palate. Is it overly spicy? Very dry or not at all? Is it refreshing? (You’d be surprised).
When it comes to the finish, really take your time thinking about what you can taste, smell and are feeling as your body is welcoming in this huge product. They are designed to give you the ultimate experience of a vatted product or single cask, so do treat them with respect, this stuff is dangerous. Imagine how much more dangerous it was when adding gun powder and waiting for an indoor firework show. Gentle nose at the top of the glass, first sip neat, wash it around and allow yourself to experience it. After that, the world is yours.
Why should you buy high proof whisky?
A final point that has taken me a while to understand is, what exactly are these whiskies for?
There are many reasons, but the one I love is the ability of insight. Whisky is more popular than it’s ever been, ever. So many more questions and experiments are being sought out to fully understand what whisky does and how it reacts in many different processes. But with 100 Proof/57%+ ABV whiskies, they really can put you in the mind of a whisky maker. Straight out of the barrel, incredible first impressions and the ability to add water to find a sweet spot for a particular style. Try it at home, pour a glass of something high strength and take notes on the first sip. Then add a drop of water and mix in. Keep doing that and you’ll notice the huge differences in dilution. Liquid magic.