If you’ve ever unwittingly sipped an overproof whiskey, rum or tequila, you know the experience can be shocking, with the alcoholic heat almost singing your tastebuds before mellowing out into palate-coating flavors and textures. At first glance, it might be intimidating to reach for a bottle of 55 percent ABV bourbon, with the obvious assumption that more alcohol equals a harsher flavor. But, if made correctly, these higher proof bottlings can be even better tasting than their tamer brethren.
“A poor distillate at 80 proof is way harsher than a great distillate at 110 proof,” says Joaquin Simo of Pouring Ribbons in New York. “I sampled an impeccable Jamaican rum that was bottled at 134.7 proof and I was blown away by how perfectly sippable it was even without water added.”
Today, more and more distilleries are eschewing the 40 percent ABV industry standard, opting instead for boldly flavorful overproof bottlings. A few factors are driving this trend forward, including distillers enamored of their craft who are prioritizing the flavor of individual batches over the convenience of consistency and tidy tax brackets. And as consumers embrace the flavorful boost overproof spirits often provide, the demand for these bolder bottles is rising, encouraging producers to express themselves at different alcohol levels.
While there have always been overproof offerings, like Bacardi 151, which most probably remember (or maybe not) from college parties way back when, it wasn’t until the mid 2010s that craft spirits at alcohol levels higher than 40 percent started hitting shelves. Paul Pacult, the original spirits writer for The New York Times, author of The Spirits Journal and chairman of Ultimate Beverage Challenge, recognizes this trend as a response to both consumer and distiller demand. "Higher proof spirits are active across many categories of spirits at present,” he says. “This occurrence isn't an accident and has been in ascendancy for the last 10 years as both the service industry and the consumer sectors have ratcheted up their wishes for bigger flavor.”
In an age of full-blown cocktail renaissance—complete with organic rooftop-grown microgreens and homemade shrubs and syrups—bartenders, and their patrons who pay top dollar, search out unique and audacious flavors. As Pacult points out, high alcohol spirits go a long way toward satisfying passionate bartenders as well as consumers thirsty for something novel. “For bartenders, bigger alcohol degrees offer a wider latitude for more inventive cocktails since alcohol is the backbone for any successful mixed drink,” he says. “For consumers, loftier alcohol levels of 45 percent and up give the impression of greater character and more bang for their buck.”
This explains why high-alcohol spirits are successful at bars, but there’s also been an uptick in retail for overproof booze. It only makes sense that spirits and cocktail enthusiasts would get hooked on bigger flavors and then seek them out at their local shops. Relying on this, one of the most beloved producers waited for consumer demand before venturing into higher proofs and barrel-strength releases.
“High proof for us started out as a consumer idea,” says Harlan Wheatley, master distiller for Buffalo Trace. “We didn’t offer barrel strength until we had a consumer suggest it for our bourbons. We started the George T. Stagg brand with our Antique Collection. We were so pleased with the feedback that we decided to offer our other big recipes with our William L. Weller (wheated bourbon) and Thomas Handy (rye whiskey) at barrel strength. All of these brands are designed to give full-bodied flavor and everything possible from the barrel without dilution.”
It’s this desire to connect to the unadulterated process, fueled by a romantic sense of “simpler times” spirit production, that appeals to consumers. We see this theme sweeping across the food and beverage industry: traditional products that offer flavors reminiscent of what generations past may have enjoyed. Whether or not distilled-to-proof whiskies are a true taste of history, they evoke an emotional response. As Pacult points out, “When a distiller offers a high-proof or cask-strength marque, the aura is one of specialness, less human intervention and more authenticity—virtues that are uppermost in consumer consciousness in 2017."
As more consumers, bartenders and distillers continue to embrace this open approach to alcohol levels, the category continues to grow, becoming a sea of truly unique spirits, and that is a very good thing. Here, five overproof spirits to get you started.
Tequila Tapatio 110 (55 percent ABV)
While mezcal is often bottled between 45 and 55 percent ABV, tequila is most often bottled and sold at 40 percent (or lower). This overproof version of a staple from Carlos Camarena offers more pungent agave flavors to make your Margaritas sing with fresh grass and sweet citrus notes.
Farmers Organic Gin (46.7 percent ABV)
This American made craft gin is beloved for its intense flavors that range from citrusy lemongrass to sweet licorice and earthy celery.
Privateer “The Queen’s Share” Rum (57 percent ABV)
This small batch bottling from the United States taps into rum’s roots as a spirit, which was historically offered at a variety of different alcohol levels. The heightened flavors of this overproof rum make it an ideal choice for mixing into cocktails, especially tiki drinks.
Stagg Jr. Kentucky Straight Bourbon (64.85 percent ABV)
Going above and beyond the maple, vanilla and toasted oak flavors for which American bourbons are famous, the significantly increased alcohol in this whiskey adds layers of complex flavors of dried fruits and spices. The bolder body also makes this spirit more satisfying in smaller servings.
Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition Blended Scotch Whisky (50 percent ABV)
As the name suggests, the upped ABV of this classic whisky is inspired by Prohibition era spirits. The subtly smoky notes get an upgrade with supporting flavors of baked goods, roasted stone fruit and layers of savory spiciness.