Whisky Advocate

IRON DRAMS

January 10th, 2014

Author - Johnnie McCormick“I can’t stand the stuff” my cab driver said as we hung a left a little fast, pressing me tight into the door. “It’s so strong.” It’s a frequently heard refrain when a whisky drinker gets talking about libations with a stranger. So it got me thinking as I rattled around the backseat. You can divide whiskies up by country or by region. Sure, you can split them up by cereal or cask type. Then again, there’s another dividing line. Most whiskies sold in the world today are still bottled at 40% ABV. And they call that the hard stuff! We may clinch a small victory whenever a classic range is refreshed and comes back at 46% and non-chill filtered, but that’s just small fry really.

Let’s face facts: some drams are bigger than others. These are Iron Drams: high-strength muscle whisky which is more alcohol in the glass than anything else. These bottles brim with vigor and potency. Be careful, and approach with ritualistic trepidation. Iron Drams demand deference because who knows what apocalyptic hellfire will befall those who dare to put that glass to their lips? We’re after aroma and flavor, not some Bill Bixby transformation. Yet the mind is primed to expect a tornado of intensity, like consuming a ball of fire with cartoonish results; the eyeballs poking out on stalks amid a fiery, scarlet complexion, smoke jets emitting from both ears.

Iron Dram Stagg2_McCormickOf course, there are technical reasons for Iron Drams. Where the distiller chooses to make their cuts during distillation, the number of distillations, through to the filling strength as the spirit enters the cask all set the wheels in motion. Maturation matters too, as the evaporation of water over alcohol will depend on the type of vessel, the condition of the oak, the position in the warehouse, and the temperature fluctuations within. Alcohol strength typically falls over time in Scotland, but hotter climates promote greater evaporation of water than alcohol, as we observe in a Kentucky rickhouse or among casks of Amrut maturing in India. Cost plays a part too: producers get many more cases from their batch if they bottle down at 40%. It’s about physics, chemistry, geography, history, and economics—it’s quite an education!

You do get a great deal of alcohol for the money though. The strongest George T Stagg release—the 2007 edition—was bottled at 72.4% ABV. That bottle contained 54.3 units of alcohol (a unit is defined in the UK as 10 ml of pure alcohol); six times as much as a $45 bottle of Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut champagne. Now that’s a celebration!

It’s not just machismo for machismo’s sake. Iron Drams should still be approached responsibly, and hopefully, they encourage people to pour smaller measures. Appreciative of the production reasons, whisky connoisseurs prefer the versatility and the opportunity to drink their drams at cask strength and find their own preferred dilution. It’s the difference between playing piano using the whole keyboard or being restricted to an octave. It feels more authentic, rather than have someone else decide what strength you’ll have your drink. The scope for experimentation is greater as you can explore the full spectrum of flavor by adjusting the water you add (an aspect taken out your hands with 40% ABV). It feels better to be in the driving seat, right?

Iron Drams – a quick guide of where to go hunting for big game.

1) George T Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky. Since 2002, every one of these bourbons has been bottled at a strength over 60%, with the majority over 70%. These are so strong that they even breach the TSA regulations for carrying on board an aircraft in your checked baggage.

2) Bruichladdich X4. This quadruple distilled spirit was reduced from 92% to 50% before being sold as an unaged spirit. Bruichladdich once assisted a TV show to film a thrilling publicity stunt by using their unreduced X4 spirit to fuel a Le Mans race car to roar past the distillery. Three years later and Bruichladdich X4+3 was released at 63.5%, to date the only available quadrupled distilled single malt whisky. Mind you, their Octomore and Port Charlotte releases have been no shrinking violets either.

Iron Dram Karuizawa_McCormick3) Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Editions. The strongest bourbons from Jim Rutledge and the team at Four Roses; many of these bottlings hold an ABV in excess of 60%. It’s a great way for bourbon drinkers to gain insight into the subtleties of their ten recipes of different mashbills and yeasts.

4) Karuizawa single malt whisky. Japan is the perfect place to explore lengthy maturation and high strength. The closed Japanese distillery has attracted a cult following in Europe and Japan but it requires some effort to get hold of a bottle if you live in North America. Whether it’s a vintage release or Noh bottling from Number One Drinks Company, these long aged and heavily sherried beasts typically weigh in somewhere north of 60%.

5) Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Over the past 30 years, the SMWS have delivered thousands of single cask releases for their members, bottled at natural cask strength. Other independent bottlers produce specifIron Dram Mortlach_McCormick (1)ic cask strength lines too but this is the raison d’être for the SMWS. You will find most of the Iron Drams in the young, powerful bottlings matured for less than a decade.

6) Rare Malts Selection. One of the more collectible whisky series in their distinctive livery, you might find a Mortlach at 65.3% from 1972, a Teaninich at 64.95% from 1972, or a St Magdalene at 63.8% from 1979 if you hunt hard enough. These days, these official releases are only to be found at auction or at a premium price through specialist retailers.

7) World Whiskies. Whisky importers recognize that world whiskies are most likely to be bought by established whisky drinkers looking for new experiences beyond their regular tipple. Producers are obliging by supplying some high strength beauties such as Taiwan’s Kavalan Solist series, Amrut’s Peated Cask Strength 62.8% or Portonova 62.1%, Tasmania’s Lark Single Cask bottlings, and Overeem Cask Strength releases from the Old Hobart Distillery.

8) White Dog. The fashion for unaged whiskey and rye seems to have abated though they remain popular among some bartenders (and people who bought one of those home maturation kits). As a constituent of a mixed drink, that high bottling strength will be tamed before it’s served to the customer anyway. As an individual drink, most drinkers’ curiosity is satisfied after the first few sips.

9) Aberlour A’bunadh. This classic heavily sherried whisky is approaching its 50th batch, but it was batch 33 at 60.9% that proved to be the strongest. A classic Iron Dram.

10) Islay single malts. Some people (like my cabbie) might equate peaty, smoky whiskies with being stronger, though that’s a myth. The peating of the malted barley doesn’t automatically equate to the phenolic content of the final spirit, let alone the alcohol strength. However, if you want to check out Islay’s Iron Drams, get hold of a bottle of Ardbeg Supernova 2010 at 60.1%, Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength, or Lagavulin 12 year old which was strongest in 2002 at 58.0%.

Have you any Iron Dram recommendations? Do you find high strength is your preference or do you avoid such liquid dynamite? What’s your opinion on the relationship between more alcohol and flavor? Do you have any favorite producers who you feel could benefit from adding an Iron Dram to their range? Jump right in!

33 Responses to “IRON DRAMS”

  1. sam k says:

    Great subject, Jonny! I was just lamenting on the phone last night my disappointment with Canadian distillers’ insistence on bottling almost universally at 40%. There are VERY few 80 proof whiskeys I’ll keep in my liquor cabinet.

    Some of my very favorite American whiskeys are Bottled in Bond…tough to argue with an affordable 100 proofer, and I wish there were more of them. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say on the subject.

    • Jonny McCormick says:

      Thanks Sam. It would be good to get some Canadian Iron Drams on the list.
      We certainly don’t want more and more drams slipping to 80 proof. I kept finding more great American whiskies for the list so I’m going to be hunting out new Iron Drams as they are suggested.

  2. B.J. Reed says:

    Here are a few if my notes are correct.

    Ardbeg Committee For Discussion 58.9

    RMW Bowmore 10 YO Distilled in 1999 – 62.2

    SMWS Brora, 18 YO Distilled in 1978 60.3

    Any Bruichladdich Octomore

    Caol Ila Cadenhead 12 YO 63.2

    SMWS Convalmore14 1978 – 65.7

    Rare Malts Glenlochy 25 YO 1969 62.8

    G&M Imperial 13 YO 1997 61.6

    Binnys Kilchoman 3 YO 61.1

    SMWS Laphroaig 23 Yo 1991 – 58.8

    Chieftains Mortlach 16 YO 1995 61.4

    Rare Malts North Port 22 YO 1972 – 65.3

    G&M Port Ellen 18 YO 1980 64.7

    Rosebank 1981 16 YO 63.9

    Cadenhead Talisker 1979 17 YO 64.4

    • Jonny McCormick says:

      That’s an impressive list and some great picks. I’m pleased to see you marked out that Kilchoman as they’ve done some great single cask Iron Drams for retailers.

      • B.J. Reed says:

        Yes I just got a Kilchoman from Royal Mile Whiskies that is fantastic that runs about 60 ABV and I agree with 2-bit about all the PC’s

  3. Darren says:

    William Larue Weller is a (wheated) bourbon that actually has a higher proof than the infamous George T Stagg. You would be surprised how easy it is to drink undiluted. One of my favorites!

  4. I got a bottle of Glengoyne Cask Strength single malt for Christmas which is a bit of a bruiser at 58.7% Vol.

    A huge sherry-bomb with a white pepper finish, I found it difficult to enjoy without a splash of water. But just a few drops really opened it up.

    Hits that sweet spot just this side of fiery which is sometimes just what I fancy:

  5. two-bit cowboy says:

    Here are some more …

    Islay

    Bruichladdich PC series

    G&M Caol Ila 2000 11 yo, 59.3%

    Kilchoman Single Bourbon Cask 2007 5 yo, 59.9% (USA exclusive)

    Speyside

    Benromach 2001 Cask Strength (9yo), 59.9%

    Cadenhead Glenallachie 1990 20 yo, 59.1%

    Glenfarclas 105, 60%

    A.D. Rattray Longmorn 1992 20 yo, 58.1%

    Highland

    Glenmorangie Astar, 57.1% (a little low, but wow)

    Lowland

    Auchentoshan Valinch 2011 & 2012, 57.5% & 57.2%

    Campbeltown

    a few Hazelburn, Longrow, Springbank at CS

    Islands

    a few Arran Premium Cask series

  6. Tadas A says:

    I would add couple more that are very approchable by $$$ in US:
    Knob Creek bourbon 9yo 60% ABV
    Wild Turkey Rare Breed bourbon 54-56% ABV (proof varies)
    Booker’s bourbon 60-64% ABV (proof varies)
    Baker’s bourbon 53.5% ABV
    Elijan Craig Barrel Proof bourbon 12yo 67% ABV or so
    Old Grand Dad bourbon 114 57% aBV
    Old Weller Antique 107 bourbon 53.5% ABV

  7. Clay Risen says:

    WhistlePig’s The Boss Hog — a barrel-strength rye, about 134 proof. That’s a recent dram that really blew my hair back.

    Also, Lost Spirits Ouroboros — the peat levels are off the charts.

  8. Blake says:

    I love a dram that rules with an iron first! Which is why I was Stagg (2012) is still one of my favorite all time bourbons. \
    Great list. Still a few on there I need to try.

    Blake
    http://bourbonr.com/

  9. matt f says:

    An independent Tasmanian (Australia) bottling by Heartwood; the convict redemption; has been bottled at 72.5%! Not just an iron dram but an absolute quality drop as well.

  10. Jamie says:

    Willett Family Estate Bourbons are great and you can get a wide range of proofs and ages.

    • J. Avila says:

      Yea I agree. Single barrel bottlings of willett can be bruisers. Usually the hottest are the 9-10 yr olds and the 21. All at or above 60% abv and with what seems to be a high percentage of rye in the mashbill.

  11. J. Avila says:

    I don’t think abv alone makes an iron dram. Taste and richness is a huge factor also. A whisk(e)y can have high abv yet no taste or richness to it. For me, one whiskey that make me flinch upon trying it was Thomas H. Handy rye. Powerfully flavored, extreme rich, it’s a grenade going off in your mouth. Since it is a rye the strong spices make it a bit overwhelming and its not low on abv either since most clock in north of 60%.

  12. Louis says:

    On Friday night, I cracked open my bottles of Big Peat 2013 Christmas Edition (54.5% ABV) and Corsair Triple Smoke Binny’s Cask (65.5%). The Big Peat was just fine without water. The Triple Smoke required far less water than would have been imagined. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t getting the peat at all, but the birch and cherry wood smoke worked nicely together. I’ve seen various comments elsewhere on the internet that the Triple Smoke has a good deal of batch variation.

  13. Jay Erisman says:

    Sometimes the strongest barrels are the ones that don’t get bottled that way. In the course of selecting private barrels of a certain 12-year-old Bourbon, which is bottled at 47% abv, one distillery in particular—clearly, they are out to get me—has sent me multiple samples from the upper, hotter floors of their splendid warehouses that clocked in at over 160º proof. Doing the math, I find that is 80+ percent alcohol by volume. To put in perspective how potent that is, consider it is both higher than the maximum at which a Bourbon may be distilled (which is 160º proof; most Bourbon comes off the still around 135º before barreling at 125º), and double! the legal minimum of 80 proof.

  14. Lear says:

    If I’m not mistaken, there were never any Four Roses barrel proof bourbons that exceeded 120 proof (60% ABV). Most, if not all, were between 100 and 115 due to their barrels aging on the single, ground floor warehouses.

  15. Joe V. says:

    Just opened a bottle from 5 or 6 years ago of Willett Family Reserve 16 year old at 147proof. Even though I favor Scotch over Bourbon….I believe this to be the best whiskey I have tasted! So much flavor it’s like candy(candy you can’t carry on the plane)

  16. Richard Turner says:

    Lear; you are mostly right…. However, I do have a bottle of 4-R (OESF), a barrel pick by ‘The Party Source’ that is just a bit higher than 120-proof. It’s 121.4-proof… and Delicious! It is from Barrel # 47-4P, Whse. HW.
    So…. there are at least a few examples of Four Roses that exceed 120-proof.

  17. Jdog99 says:

    Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye. One of the few barrel proof ryes out there weighing in around 130 proof depending on the year.

  18. Tim Duckett says:

    Tasmanian Heartwood whisky release :
    Mt Wellington Release 62%
    Release the Beast 65.4%
    CONVICT RELEASE 58%
    CONVICT UNCHAINED 71.9%
    CONVICT REDEMPTION Batch 1 72.5%
    CONVICT Redemption Batch 2 71.9%
    The Beagle 66.6%
    VAT out of HELL 67.5%
    Velvet Hammer 68.8%

  19. One of the craziest malts I’ve had recently is the following from Tasmania Australia…
    Heartwood Convict Redemption 11yo 500ml 72.5%

  20. CMc says:

    Three cheers for the iron drams! All of the BTAC cask strength offerings are spectacular (if you can get them). The Parker’s Heritage Collection cask strength bourbons were especially good too–my favorite being the first release which was the rye small grain. This year’s Col. Taylor Barrel Proof, coming in at 135.4 proof, reminds me a lot of that first year PHC. I’ve got two Four Roses Binny’s special releases–an OESF that’s 123.6 and an OBSF that’s 124.2. Both are exceptional. I’ve always drank these iron drams neat, but I’ve heard that a couple drops of water “opens up” the flavors. Thoughts on this?

  21. The highest strength whiskies in my collection, is a bottle of Redbreast 12 year old Cask Strength, single pot still Irish Whiskey, a bottle of Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength single malt Scotch whisky, and a bottle of Aberlour A’Bunadh Original Cask Strength, single malt Scotch whisky. The Redbreast is from batch B1/12, and bottled at 58.6%abv. The Laphroaig is also bottled at 58.6%abv. The A’Bunadh is from batch 34, and bottled at 60.3%abv. All high strength, and all solidly good drams!

  22. C_I says:

    The following Iron Drams I have tried more than once:
    66.7 G&McP 16yo Glen Mhor
    65.9 Scott’s 28 yo Royal Brackla
    64.8 RM 23 yo Teaninich
    64.3 Intertrade 14yo Port Ellen
    64.2 RM 27 yo Teaninich

    The Port Ellen and 23yo Teaninich were most rememberable, as these offered a bit more complexity. The 27 yo I found relatively less enjoyable. In general I have the feeling that strength tends to mask the flaws.

  23. Greg says:

    I’ve been in on KY barrel purchases for quite a few years now, most all at cask strength. I’m just now getting into higher ABV Scotch, Japanese, Indian, etc. Back a few years ago, we purchased a barrel of 17 year from KBD….came in at a whopping 144 pf. Nice thing is….it’s a flavor bomb with the heat completely in check.

  24. Kpax says:

    The highest proof I’ve ever tasted was an EC18 sample at 166.8 proof, but the highest proof I’ve ever seen in an official bottling was the 147.5 proof Abraham Bowman ‘Hazmat’ release, 73.75% of bruising, iron dramming greatness.

Leave a Reply

© Copyright 2014. Whisky Advocate. All rights reserved.