I’m writing from the thin, eight-degree air of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A cold snap arrived a couple of days before I did, leaving a fresh coat of white and a cryogenic stillness in the air. This morning’s snow clouds lifted back to reveal a perfectly blue sky, framing jagged, whitewashed mountains. An inspiring sight, to be sure, though it can only be enjoyed momentarily from outside, since the temperature is dropping. It’s the kind of weather that begs for a shot of something fiery, rich, and warming—and I’m not talking about Tabasco Sauce.
To be clear, in dangerously cold weather it’s not a good idea to drink hard alcohol, Cognac-carrying Swiss St. Bernards aside. The warming effect of liquor—that burn trailing down the gullet like a jet trail, the static tingle that prickles your fingers—is only temporary. Alcohol causes capillaries to dilate, shifting blood flow to the surface of the body, just under the skin where nerve endings lie. The rush of blood makes you feel warmer for a moment, but it will lower your core temperature and, if continued, lead to hypothermia. Buzzkill indeed.
But sitting around in near-zero temperatures is not the best way to enjoy a shot anyway. It’s much better to get out of the cold, settle down next to a roaring fire, and sip on one of the high-proof, cask-strength (undiluted) whiskies recommended below. They’re becoming more popular now, and there are some inherent advantages to bottling straight from the cask. For one, these spirits are not chill-filtered, leaving all original flavors intact. Also, cask-strength whiskies allow the drinker to dilute them to preference. Some people prefer stronger sips.
Laphroaig Cask Strength. This 10-year-old hits the palate at a rip-roaring 110 proof. One of the remarkable things about this whiskey is that even at that strength, it’s still a smooth dram. Add water if you wish, but it doesn’t need it. The aromas and flavors are mighty yet perfectly balanced. That classic earthy Islay peat smoke is there in force, but it is countered with delicious notes of honeysuckle, toffee, hazelnut, and a whiff of sea brine.
Aberlour A’Bunadh. Pronounced “ah-BOON-ah,” the name of Aberlour’s cask-strength Scotch means the origin in Gaelic. At 150 proof, A’Bunadh is so smooth and round you barely sense the elevated alcohol. The dark color comes from using oloroso sherry casks, which also provide the deep toffee and molasses flavors as well as the lovely taste of ripe cherries and pears.
George T. Stagg Bourbon. A hard-to-find, high-end product of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, this one is issued once or twice a year at a cask strength even higher than the Laphroaig, usually around 140 proof. Some people drink it straight, though I take a little water in it. Either way, it’s one of the most intense and pure bourbons you’ll ever have, boasting a sweetly complex nose with brown sugar, vanilla cream, dark chocolate, and dried cherries and apricots. A little water brings out a lovely oily texture that coats the tongue and leads to an everlasting finish.