Cask strength/barrel proof bourbons

Apparently, about 25% of people in the world are something called “supertasters.”  They have more taste buds than the average person.

The first time I heard about this phenomenon, I thought I might be one.  I am pretty good at detecting subtle flavors in foods, wine, and whiskey.  But the more I read, the more confused I got.  Apparently, supertasters don’t like wine or whiskey, as a general rule.

So, um, no then.

Con: Not that many taste buds.
Pro: That means I get to drink whiskey!

There are test kits you can get to test yourself, or you can dye your tongue blue with food coloring and count taste buds.  But if you’re reading a whiskey blog and you’re not genetically related to me or otherwise personally motivated by my non-whiskey charms, chances are you’re not a supertaster.

Supertasters don’t like whiskey or strong flavors because they are sensitive to bitterness.  Things like coffee, dark chocolate, and whiskey (basically, all of the delicious things) don’t taste good to them.  I think what I must be is some kind of super-smeller, and that’s why I detect things in foods that other people don’t.

I did that blue dye test*, and it seems I’m in the “non-taster” category.  I can’t help but feel sort of sad and judged that my sense of taste is sub-par.  Except that if it weren’t, I wouldn’t like whiskey or Brussels sprouts, so I guess I’ll take it.

Perhaps my non-taster status explains my quest for more, more, more. More flavor, more intensity, more!  Many of the whiskey bloggers out there dilute any whiskeys over 80 proof with water.  I have never understood that.  Why would anyone want to take away flavor?

I know the real reason for dilution is that higher proof whiskeys can burn out taste buds and the subtle flavors get lost in alcohol burn.  But since I have no taste buds to speak of, bring on the cask strength whiskey!  Burn, baby, burn.  I’ll happily kill my last three remaining taste buds on the altar of these high proof powerhouses.

Most whiskeys on the market come out of the barrel strong, but are diluted to about 80-90 proof to make them more appealing to the average person (who probably has more taste buds than I do).  Cask strength whiskeys are bottled as they come out of the barrel, without dilution.  In general, dilution settles down the burn of alcohol, but it also brings some flavors forward, while reducing others.  Bottling at cask strength, about 130 proof, allows each person to dilute (or not) to the degree they choose.

So let’s try some strong bourbon.

Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof Bourbon

TaylorBarrelProofMy favorite go-to bourbon lately has been the Colonel E.H. Taylor Single Barrel, so when I found a bottle of the Barrel Proof version, I was excited to try it.

Unwatered, the nose is intense with cinnamon and cloves, dried fruit, and honey. There is also a floral note, almost gin-like. On the tongue, thick caramel is almost immediately subsumed by a strong alcohol burn.  This bad boy is 135.4 proof, too strong even for me.  Let’s water it a bit, shall we?

Water tones down the burn, revealing a creamy, buttery toffee accented with cherries, cloves, black pepper, and some oak.  Even watered, the mouthfeel is absolutely luscious.  The finish is fairly mild and short, but a pleasant essence of honey, wood, and hot cinnamon burn up into the nose for a moment.

I am probably only watering to about 110-120 proof, so still quite high.  My feeling is this:  If you’re gonna buy barrel proof, you want the intensity. Or at least, I do.

Overall, the Taylor is an excellent cask strength bourbon.  While the finish is a bit short and undistinguished, the buttery clinging sensation of caramel in the mouth makes up for it.

Comparing it to the Taylor Single Barrel, I can’t say which I like better.  The Single Barrel is an easier-drinking bourbon that also has a lot of the best qualities of this Barrel Proof offering.  If pushed, I would probably say to go with the Single Barrel.  But I found that when drinking the Single Barrel, I missed the stronger burn and intensity of the Barrel Proof.

If you like your booze to hurt so good, the EH Taylor Barrel Proof will not disappoint.

George T Stagg

Petite Cellars. Buy chocolates where you buy your booze! Brilliant!

I’ve been shopping in a new liquor store lately, Petite Cellars in Ellicott City.  They opened less than two months ago, but are already a force to be reckoned with.  Huge Scotch and bourbon selection.  Huge.  Excellent selection of wine and craft beer too.  Oh, and they have artisan chocolates.  So you can take care of all of your vices in one place.

The only minus is that all of the booze I like is considered “top shelf,” and Petite Cellars takes top shelf seriously.  Most $50+ bourbons require the flagging down of an employee to bring a ladder.

I don’t really mind, though.  I find that people who work in liquor stores are generally pretty interesting, and I enjoy making connections with strangers.  Also, anyone who works in my go-to booze shop is probably not going to be a stranger for long.  I’m kind of around a lot.

As the employee pulled down the bourbon I was there to get, he gestured to his right.   “Did you see that?  It came in yesterday.  One bottle left.”

George T. Stagg.  Antique collection.  Extremely hard to find.  Generally considered one of the top couple of bourbons in the world.  It was even priced at suggested retail.

George T StaggI’m not sure exactly what I said to him then, but it almost certainly contained a swear word of some kind accompanied by the word “yes.”

My recent adventures in trying to chase down some Pappy before my 40th birthday had left me a little burned out on the game.  With so many delightful whiskeys readily available, I figured I would just drink those for a while and leave the thrill of the chase to someone else.  And I thought the Antique Collection bourbons had already come and gone this year.

But my feigned indifference apparently induced Mr. Stagg to stop playing hard-to-get and come to mama.

I should really stop talking about bourbons as if they are men I’m picking up at a bar.  I’m not going to stop, but I really should.

This year’s George T. Stagg is a bit lower proof than in years past, at only 128.2.  It is typically in the 130’s or even 140’s.

Unwatered, the nose is an intense hit of toffee and chocolate with brown sugar and banana.  It’s thick and luscious and dessert in a glass.

On the tongue, first sip, plenty more toffee with cinnamon and molasses and the unexpected coolness of mint amidst all of that heat.  The taste is intense and complex, and I find that each sip tastes slightly different from the last as I notice new elements.  Chocolate cake, bananas cooked in brown sugar, pine resin, and some wood notes emerge in the next sip.  I want to keep this in my mouth longer than I am able to.

But then the finish comes in, and it’s no slouch either.  Waves of wood, vanilla, and caramel curl up and stay a while.

For me, this 2013 Daddy Stagg doesn’t need water.  Intellectually, I can recognize that the alcohol might be blunting my experience somewhat, and I just don’t care.  I can’t imagine this getting any better.  I’ll add some water for you guys, but only with an eye dropper, and only so I can tell you what I think.  There’s no way in hell I’ll be diluting this magnificent beast for my own imbibing.

OK, watered… here we go.  Water doesn’t substantially change the nose.  The wood  comes forward a bit more, but otherwise no big change.  Water also seems to bring out the wood and char tones in the mouth, while eliminating some of the chewiness and chocolate.

That is all to say, don’t do it! 

Maybe in years past, at 140+ proof, Daddy Stagg needed water.  Not this year.  It’s absolutely perfect as bottled.

Stagg Jr.

STAGG JRBecause of the popularity of George T. Stagg, Buffalo Trace released a younger version this year for the first time, Stagg Jr.

The Stagg Jr. is the same recipe as George T. Stagg, but spends only about 8 years in the barrel, compared to about 15 years for the GTS.

This first-ever release was greeted with high expectations, and disappeared from shelves quickly.  Everyone was eager to see how Stagg Jr. compared to his legendary papa.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to score a bottle when it was released.  But happily, my mom found me a bottle in a small, unlikely liquor store!  I’ve already told that story, so let’s just get to the drinking.

Stagg Jr. clocks in at 134.4 proof, a bit higher than this year’s Daddy Stagg.  Unwatered, the nose is brown sugar, citrus, cloves, and oak.  The chocolatey quality of the older GTS must come from the extended aging.  It’s not present here.

The taste is in-your-face sweet heat.  Buttery toffee, orange, and oak, with an intense cinnamon burn.  Initially, it is very hot, but as I killed another taste bud or two, and as it sat in the glass, the heat became less overpowering.  The finish is excellent, a long unexpected journey of smoky wood, brown sugar, and stone fruit.

Adding a bit of water brings out some evergreen and herbals in the nose but dilutes the other spice and citrus notes.  Water tones the burn somewhat and brings out more corn and vanilla in the sweetness, but reduces complexity and length of finish.

All things considered, I will probably skip the water, or water only very lightly.  But I have a high tolerance for burn.  Your mileage may vary.

The Stagg Jr. is intense and hot, but the complexity of the finish and the big, brash sweetness give it an undeniable charm.  Stagg Jr. is not going to displace Daddy Stagg as the king of the cask strength bad boys, but if you like your whiskey to put you in your place a little bit, Stagg Jr. is a fantastic bourbon, and the long finish is worth the youthfully exuberant burn.



*Important note: DO NOT do the blue food coloring test when you have anywhere you have to be.  Also, it’s probably not a good idea to drip the color straight onto your tongue the way they suggest in that article, because you know what happens when you do that?  When you close your mouth, your teeth, lips, and the entire inside of your mouth instantly turn blue.  Very blue.  That’s bad.  And super gross-looking.  The gel-style food coloring was easier to manage than the liquid.  (I know this because after I turned my entire mouth blue, I wasn’t happy with the photo, so I had to do it again.)


One thought on “Cask strength/barrel proof bourbons

  • April 27, 2023 at 11:45 PM

    Much like you do when you play Wordle, begin a Quordle game by typing your first 5-letter guess into the empty boxes on your screen. Each guess you make is counted in all 4 Quordle quadrants. You must correctly guess all 4 words within 9 tries, so choose wisely.

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