A couple of years back, I attended a historical re-enactment at a cocktail conference in New Orleans. To demonstrate how the British navy tested liquor in the 18th century to make sure it wasn’t watered down, historian and author Wayne Curtis doused one small pile of gunpowder with 114-proof gin and another with 151-proof rum. He proceeded to proof each pile—i.e., show that it was flammable—by lowering a lighter flame into it until the gunpowder ignited in a dramatic geyser of sparks. The crowd cheered.
Setting drinks on fire is fun. Drinking firewater is not.
We no longer prove alcohol levels by seeing if spirits ignite (something they do only above about 57 percent alcohol by volume), but the term proof stuck as an indicator of how alcoholic a liquor is. Today, a spirit’s proof equals twice its alcohol by volume. Straight spirits traditionally clock in at 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume. (By comparison, wine is usually around 13 percent; most beers are well below 10 percent.) But recently, distillers have been releasing high-proof spirits at a furious clip. A recent sampling: Belvedere Intense Vodka (100 proof), Louis Royer VSOP “Force 53” Cognac (106 proof), Redbreast 12 Cask Strength Irish Whiskey (116 proof!). Producers are zooming closer to Everclear, the notorious grain alcohol used for frat-party punches, which at 190 proof is more alcoholic than rubbing alcohol.
Frankly, these spirits are too darn hot. When I say “hot,” I’m referring to that lingering sensation of heat produced by sipping a spirit straight—a sensation that’s directly correlated with its alcohol concentration. In modest amounts, that heat is saucy and grand: Think of the way brandy gently warms you all the way to your toes on a frosty evening, or the peppery tingle on your lips and tongue after you toss back a shot of good tequila. In some ways, alcohol is like hot sauce: A modest amount enlivens, while too much can be downright painful.
Many producers (and drinkers) argue that higher-proof spirits are more aromatic and flavorful. To be fair, many of them are, particularly whiskeys and other spirits that are aged in barrels. During that resting period, the evaporation of water from the barrels raises the alcohol concentration of what’s left inside. For this reason, the longer a spirit is aged, the more concentrated the alcohol levels become, and the more flavors the spirit absorbs from the barrel. But there’s a point at which a whiskey (or other spirit) becomes so alcoholic that you can’t even taste those additional flavor compounds. (To my palate, the dividing line is around 90 proof.)
Unfortunately, customers seem to be under the impression that hotter is always better. Consider the fallout after Kentucky bourbon producer Maker’s Mark announced plans earlier this year to lower the alcohol levels on its flagship product from 90 proof to 84 proof, “in response to supply constraints.” Consumers loudly booed the move, leading Maker’s Mark to swiftly reverse its decision. After that PR debacle, it seems unlikely that other whiskey makers will attempt a similar move.
Although the idea of Maker’s Mark watering down its bourbon horrified fans, the truth is that traditionally, all distillers add water to their whiskeys to bring them to palatable levels after aging. I asked Darek Bell, a hands-on distiller and co-owner of Nashville’s Corsair Artisan Distillery, how producers decide how much water to add.
“We just do it by taste,” he explained. “Flavors can pop at some proofs and [are] blunted at others.” As a small-batch distiller, he has the luxury of trying out all of his products at a range of different proofs, starting with barrel proof (also known as “cask-strength”), which is usually 125 for his products, down through 110, 102, 92, 86, all the way to 80 proof. Corsair specializes in bold, unusual whiskies (his range includes quinoa whiskey and “Triple Smoke” whiskey, for example), and he often finds 92 to be the “sweet spot” where flavors ring out.
Can you add water to a glass of cask-strength whiskey to find your own “sweet spot”? Of course, and many people do. But keep in mind that just a tablespoon of water is enough to bring a 2-ounce glass of 100-proof whiskey down to 80-proof, so you won’t have much room for error. Distillers like Bell add water to their whiskeys with a precision that’s difficult to replicate at home—and they also have palates nuanced enough to tell when a particular whiskey’s flavor is optimized. Shouldn’t consumers benefit from their expertise? Bell also notes that adding the wrong type of water can hurt a spirit: For whiskey, hard water containing calcium, but free of iron, is best. Both elements vary in tap water from place to place and in bottled water from brand to brand.
So what accounts for the recent high-alcohol craze? Bell notes that higher-proof whiskies tend to score better in competitions, and sometimes he keeps proofs on the higher side with that in mind, since awards can make or break a brand. Many whiskey judging panels value texture, aroma, and the lingering flavors known as the “finish” over drinkability. Since the addition of water weakens whiskey’s scent, lower-proof whiskeys tend to have less intense and complex aromatics than higher-proof ones—resulting in lower scores at competitions.
Part of the blame for the recent spate of high-octane spirits rests with bartenders, too. Many producers insist they are creating more “muscular” versions of spirits for the express purpose of mixing into cocktails. Some mixologists say they prefer the weight and intensity of these ultra-potent potables—even though they require dilution with juices and lower proof products like vermouth. “If you’re working with a lot of amaros and aperitifs, a high-proof rum or whiskey acts as a backbone,” claims Maksym Pazuniak, bartender at Counting Room in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Personally, I’m not convinced that high-octane spirits make much of a difference in cocktails. Once you start diluting liquor with mixers or other liquids, it’s hard to discern a difference between an 80-proof rum and a 100-proof rum. Plus, the aromatics and body that high-proof whiskeys are prized for get drowned out right away once you start adding citrus, simple syrups, or amaros.
Here’s how I know for certain the high-proof trend has gotten out of hand: Some mixologists, especially those specializing in tiki cocktails, favor higher proof spirits explicitly for their pyrotechnic qualities. For example, Lemon Hart 151 rum is sought after in large part because it’s easy to set on fire. If it’s flammable, that means it’s toeing the line between libation and party trick. I don’t want to deny anyone their fun, but if it’s sparks you’re after, why not just use a Fourth of July sparkler for a garnish, and fill your glass with something nuanced, sippable, and delicious?