PHILADELPHIA — There was some extra octane in the snifters this year when the research began on my annual holiday whiskey list. As my trusty panel of neighbors, friends, and spirits geeks gathered to sip and sift through the candidates, we were looking at a surprising number of new labels boasting triple-digit proofs. That’s because American whiskies bottled at “cask-strength” — uncut, straight from the barrel — have become a trend, reflecting the maturing of both our domestic craft distillers and an audience now demanding the best spirits in their purest, most flavorful form.
“You’re just paying for extra water,” says Robert Cassell of Kensington’s New Liberty Distilling, explaining the difference between a standard 90-proof whiskey diluted to 45% alcohol vs. the cask-strength spirits at my tasting that range between 110 and 126.5 proof. “Ten years ago, distributors told us cask-strength wasn’t commercially viable. But enthusiasts have driven this now, saying, ‘I’m going to water it down my way, pour it over a big ice cube, wait 30 seconds, and start sipping.’ ”
We did plenty of sipping (and sniffing and spitting) as we considered more bottles than ever — 53! — for this final list of 16 recommendations. They aren’t all high-proof. But they’re all currently available retail in Philadelphia or South Jersey, and they’re diverse in prices, styles, and origins. There are a handful of intriguing bottles from abroad. But this year’s bourbon-heavy selection also makes the case that American distilling has come into its own, with vivid corn terroirs reflected in bottles from Iowa to Pennsylvania and Texas, and exciting growth in other malt-based spirits simply characterized as “American whiskey.”
Grab a snifter, your big ice cubes, and read on.
Cedar Ridge Iowa Straight Bourbon
“This is bang-on my grandmother’s Thanksgiving corn pudding,” said one taster after a whiff of the cob-fresh flavor powering this bourbon from Iowa corn country. The Quint family winery-turned-distillery is one of several new indie makers recently brought into Pennsylvania by Andrew Auwerda’s new BOTLD company. It’s brighter and lighter than some other bourbons, but there’s also a sweetness on the palate and bright imprint of the fresh corn that’s grown and milled on the Quints’ farm.
Makers Mark Cask Strength Bourbon
A red wax-sealed bottle of Maker’s Mark has long been the summer porch sipper in my family. The cask-strength version amps the volume on all its signature wheated bourbon flavors — vanilla, orange, and spice — with enough balance heat to make it ideal for sipping by a winter fire, too.