Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Whisky Review: Macallan Cask Strength and the Effects of Dilution

After drinking a dram of Macallan Cask Strength back in January, I decided to pick up a full bottle as it was on sale for only $55 in Oregon, roughly the same price as the much weaker Macallan 12 Year. While I think it's a good whisky at full strength, I was also interested to see what could be found if it was diluted down to a more standard proof. Ryan over at Value Whisky and Josh at The Coopered Tot have both run experiments with cask strength whiskies, which found that letting a diluted whisky 'integrate' with water produces a much more enjoyable dram. So I decided to take that path instead of diluting the whisky and drinking it immediately. I made dilutions of Macallan CS to 55%, 50% and 45% ABV and bottled them to let them sit for a few days before tasting them.

45% ABV Dilution

Nose: very nice balance between bourbon-y notes of sweet grain, vanilla and wood, with gentle sherry, jammy raspberries and raisins - very fruit-forward

Taste: slightly sweet and fruity up front, but not particularly rich, sherry is relatively subdued - rides underneath and grows towards the back of the mouth, pepper is still there - comes in strong then fades into mild bitterness

Finish: sweet, bright fruit, slightly bitter wood, noticeable residual alcohol, lingering pepper - still very much a sherried whisky in the end

I think this would be the perfect way to entice a die-hard bourbon or rye drinker into the world of single malts. The nose reminds me very much of a well-aged American whiskey, with strong grain-derived elements and the sherry taking a back seat. Overall I think I would describe this as the most pleasant strength to drink Macallan CS at - not the most interesting, but an easy sipper that should please quite a lot of palates.

50% ABV Dilution

Nose: more wood, dry sherry underneath, some sweeter, round fruit, vanilla, oatmeal

Taste: sugary sweetness up front, then muddled sweet fruits, big pepper, bitter chocolate or mocha near the back

Finish: wood, sweet sherry, chocolate/mocha, lingering pepper.

This is one of my favorite strengths for this whisky. All of the key flavor elements are present and assert themselves very nicely. The nose is strong without being overpowering, the palate is rich without singeing the taste buds, and the finish lingers with delicious bittersweetness. This is essentially what I wanted Macallan 12 Year to be and expect that it could be if the distiller was willing to offer it at a higher bottling strength.

The only downside here is that the relative youth of this whisky starts to manifest itself at this strength, with a bit more heat than I would hope for. I'd be interested to compare the No Age Statement version I have with the 10 year old cask strength Macallan that is sold in other markets. I've heard that the NAS version is made up of whiskies that are roughly 8-12 years old and I think it shows. A greater proportion of older whiskies would help to round it out a bit.

55% ABV Dilution

Nose: alcohol becomes more noticeable, more closed, poorly defined vanilla and sherry, light oatmeal and brown sugar

Taste: less sweet, but sugar remains as an undercurrent, bigger pepper, sherry becomes much stronger further back, bittersweet chocolate near the back

Finish: pepper, sherry, less wood, still distinctly bittersweet

There's nothing particularly wrong with this strength, I just feel like it doesn't offer anything that the 50% version doesn't, but there's also a stronger burn that detracts a bit from the experience. By the same token, it's not as full-throated as the undiluted cask strength whisky, so 55% is just an uncomfortable middle ground.

58.2% ABV - Full Strength

Nose: heavy Oloroso sherry with a hint of PX sweet raisins, bourbon undertones of sweet, malty grain and vanilla, sugar, bittersweet chocolate, general fruitiness, some nice floral notes after airing out

Taste: rich but not too sweet up front, fruit and sherry expand from the tip of the tongue, growing sweeter as the spirit spreads across the mouth, a huge burst of pepper blooms mid-palate and extends into the finish, drying towards the back of the mouth with a healthy dose of wood

Finish: lingering pepper and sherry, a touch of bitter wood and mocha, vanilla

The Real Deal. There's a reason they bottle it at this strength. Completely in your face whisky. Everything is big and it holds nothing back. There's a fairly strong amount of burn, which is somewhat unsurprising given the bottling proof and age, but it's a bit hard to pick out from the big pepper flavors on the palate and finish. As I mentioned above, I think this could be an even better whisky if there were a greater proportion of older malt in this whisky as it could do with just a bit more refinement.

There are comparisons to be made with Arran's Sherry Single Cask, as they both have similar flavor profiles, but the Macallan CS is younger and brasher. The Arran is big and bold with lots of pepper, but feels like a more integrated whole, whereas the Macallan jerks you around a bit. The Macallan also shows a much stronger sherry influence, which I'm guessing comes from first-fill casks. At the moment I'd have to give the nod to Arran as they're the same price here in Oregon, but eleswhere the Macallan would be a slightly better value.

As you can see, there are basically the same elements at each strength, but the manner and degree to which they present themselves can vary significantly. Personally, I'm most fond of the 50% and full strength versions. The 50% is probably the most balanced, with some of the harsher edges rounded out without becoming quite as subdued as the 45% version. However, there are times that the full-blast cask strength is what I want and it offers quite a ride. I'd highly suggest experimenting with dilutions at different strengths when you get a cask strength whisky. There are other perspectives to be found within when it's not running at full bore.


  1. Brilliant experimental post on a topic near and dear to my heart. I'm going to tweet about this right away. Full praise for bottling and allowing time for integration - it's key. I'd like to do this with other cask strength expressions. Very useful info - again.

  2. FYI - I put this out on Twitter twice - once as follows:

    "Wondering how much water to put in that Cask Strength dram? Fantastic empirical experiment on Chemistry of the Cocktail"

    So far it has been retweeted by Jessamine McLellan (a wine manager at a Michelin starred restaurant in the SF Bay area), Local913 (the liquor service worker's union) and SMWSAmerica (the Single Malt Whisky Society). I hope this produces some of the excitement this kind of fascinating empirical thinking deserves.

    1. Thanks for the links, Josh. I should probably get with this whole Twitter business one of these days, though I've been a curmudgeon on that front for a while.

      I think it's really useful to consider these kinds of things, as it helps to understand why distillers bottle at different proofs. As whisky people, there's a relatively strong sense that higher strength is always better, but the character of a whisky can change fairly dramatically depending on the bottling proof, both for good and bad. Sometimes it looks to be a purely financial decision (*cough*Glenfiddich*cough*), but there are cases where higher strength makes a whisky too closed.

  3. Absolutely true, Jordan, but water takes time to properly integrate so on the spot dilution of more than a few drops can produce a watery body, loss of sweetness and intensity, and paradoxically increased sensation of heat. Allowing the water to sit for a period to integrate help ameliorate these effects but I noticed continued improvement on every time scale I tested from 30 minutes to 9 days. Folks generally don't wait that long. You pour and within 10-15 minutes want to be drinking.

    Knowing preferred dilution levels would help by letting you vat some with water in advance (as you did) with drastically better results.

    Bottom line is most whisky generally tastes best between 45-55% abv but most whisky seems to be bottled at the extremes of 40% or 60%+.

  4. Oh - and BTW - welcome to twitter @cocktailchem
    You're going to have a lot of fun (but, perhaps, be a bit less productive).