Cask strength whiskey is a strange beverage. Usually bottled at 60/65% alcohol, it is the raw spirit out of distiller barrels before being watered down to the normal 40% alcohol drink that we commonly consume. The final product is sold at cask strength so that the consumer has ultimate control over what level of spirit you want to enjoy, not to mention the “extender” you prefer, such as ice, water, etc. Whiskey is not meant to be drunk at their full strength. Yet, when I sold spirits back in Minnesota, there would always be individuals who would brag about their ability to drink whiskey neat.
I say bragging, because at 120 proof, you can’t really taste much. You are drinking pure spirit which is extremely tight and concentrated, like a compressed spring. It’s not until you let it expand where you begin to see its structure. Adding water to whiskey is like stretching out the spring and allowing the flavors to become more defined, and if it’s good, more elegant.
You are not macho because you drink your whiskey neat, you are just more likely looking for the mind altering properties of the beverage rather than the actual flavors themselves. Same goes for coffee, tea, wine, beer and other liquids. Coffee can benefit from a bit of milk, more water, or a touch of sugar. It just depends on the style. These things/elements help to bring balance to the beverage. Wine, something I rather not water down, also needs a good balance, acid, sugar and tannin. Often times, poorly made Brut Nature (zero dosage) Cavas would be better off leaving a bit of sugar behind and going for Brut, so as to balance what is an otherwise austere and often awkward wine. Yet you consistently here naive people talk about how less sugar means you have a more sophisticated wine. Tell Chateau d’Yquem that.
As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, I have as of late developed a small addiction for good quality whole leaf teas. I have fallen in love with rediscovering all the amazing flavors that can exist in a well made tea. White, Green, Black, and Oolongs all of which have kept me well hydrated these past few months. In an attempt to search out different styles and learn more I came to realize that the only style that I was really not “getting” was black tea. Every time I brewed one up, I found it to be lacking in balance. It was simply awkward and clunky. When cooled down, they would slowly become more enjoyable, but they still didn’t grab me. It wasn’t until I was sipping a wine with some residual sugar that an idea hit me. I brewed up a pot of black tea and added a few grains of sugar to the glass, little by little, tasting it as I did.
I had a couple big mugs worth of tea, and I ended up adding about a half of a tea spoon to the whole lot. Almost nothing, but something happened. The resulting tea was not sweet, not in the slightest. It was balanced. The last few grains turned the corner and I was in love, or at least heavy like! Balance had been achieved. Where the overall complexity of the tea increased and the beverage came into focus.
It reminds me of a story the chef Tom Colocchio tells in his book “Think Like a Chef“. He explains how any new sous chef at this restaurant is asked to season a large pot of chicken stock 1 crystal at a time tasting the stock after each addition only stopping when the stock is “ready”. In this way, they learn that salting something does not have anything to do with making it taste like salt. It’s about helping the already present flavors to come into ‘focus’.
Sweet and dry are descriptors which you may have subjective ideas about. This is undeniable. Yet balance is the one thing I think we can say is objective when it comes to wine. All beverages have, like any school yard teeter-totter, a fulcrum which we are looking for. I agree that sometimes that fulcrum’s placement may vary a bit due to subjective preferences, but it’s there. The drinks we most laude and cherish are the ones that are so perfect we see none of the extremes and find ourselves marveling in the whole.
Sugar, alcohol, fruit, acidity, none of these are measures of a beverages greatness. These are only elements that when added up should resolve themselves to a cumulative “yes”. Perfect balance does not allow you to wonder about any one element and it’s placement in the picture, rather this balance creates a new image. One that we all long to try.