The Joys of Small-Batch, High Proof Spirits

A Purloined Glass of Cask Strength 10-Year-Old Laphroaig. Good thing my liquor larcenist left behind a fingerprint.
A Purloined Glass of Cask Strength 10-Year-Old Laphroaig. Good thing my liquor larcenist left behind a fingerprint.
Photo by Wyatt Dowling

Up until recently, hearing the phrase "overproof alcohol" would immediately evoke foggy memories of college parties where Everclear punch was the drink of choice. High-alcohol spirits, I thought then, were designed solely to make you piss-ass drunk and offered little else in terms of taste and quality.

Well, education, thank God, continues beyond college, and since my dorm days, I've come to understand that high-proof liquor is not necessarily something you dump into a trashcan full of Kool-Aid with the intention of getting all your guests blindingly blatto within two hours. And slowly, I'm coming to appreciate the complex flavor profiles offered by overproof alcohols, as well as why sipping one or two ounces over 60 or so minutes can be one of life's most pleasurable experiences.

Consider, for example, Laphroaig 10-year-old-"cask strength" whiskey. Before I tried this sultry single-malt, I read many online reviews and one phrase kept appearing: "not for the faint of heart." Admittedly, I disregarded this prescription. As an ardent consumer of many different spirits, I have had a wide range of experiences with booze that can knock you out of your boots if you're not careful. It's rare that I'm afraid to belly up to the bar and request the strongest firewater in the house.

Mere milliliters of the Laphroaig reminded me that humility (at least in terms of alcohol consumption) is a virtue to be practiced through your entire life, not just until you have a few solid drinking sessions under your belt. Although the exact alcohol content of the Laphroaig 10-year cask strength varies from batch to batch (each of which comprise a limited number of bottles), it's usually somewhere between 110 and 117 proof. My bottle was approximately 53 percent alcohol, stronger obviously than your standard 80-proof spirit, but not too much bolder, I predicted. What a stupid assumption. The pungent, smoky taste immediately overwhelmed my taste buds, then quickly faded as a symphony of different flavors--ginger, oak, molasses, to name a few--played upon my palate. I felt unsteady, not simply because that tingling feeling I was experiencing in my legs usually happens after multiple cocktails rather than one small swallow, but more because I knew I was encountering something unique and remarkable. To prevent sensory overload and to mete out the inevitable buzz, I diluted my miniature glass with a solitary ice cube. I might also recommend having some razor-sharp cheddar on hand with oat biscuits, which would wonderfully complement the peaty whiskey and line the stomach.

Still not (pleasantly) intimidated? If Laphroaig 10-Year Cask Strength is not for the faint of heart, then small batch, straight-from-the barrel Booker's Bourbon, "uncut and unfiltered" and clocking in at blink-worthy 121-127 proof, is for those that thrive on living a life full of blood, sweat, and tears. And, please note, this is not necessarily a bad thing: if you are an endurance athlete, active (or retired) Navy seal, hostage negotiator, bull-headed politician, or a food writer with ample temerity, Booker's Bourbon is your spirit. Its flavor its slightly sweeter than the Laphroaig, thanks probably to a micro-infusion of vanilla, but Booker's has an end-bite that reminds you are not drinking your grand-aunt's bourbon. Unless she was a Navy SEAL. Apparently, Booker Noe originally designed this spirit as a Christmas gift for his nearest and dearest and they liked it so much, he decided to manufacture it for the bourbon-loving public (hey, they're like family, anyway).

Despite my admonitions concerning the select demographics that will like Booker's, I would very much encourage any fan of fermented mash beverages to try this varietal as well as the Laphroaig cask strength. They're both wonderful reminders that enjoying alcohol need not involve organic mixers, fancy bitters, and/or large portions. A shallow glass, a friend or two, and time to spare is all you need to bask in the greatness of a small-batch high-proof spirit.


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