If you’ve found yourself anywhere near a glass of whiskey in the past five years, you may have noticed a burning sensation rising in your nose and throat. This, we’re told, is a good thing: Across the whiskey world but particularly at American distillers, high-alcohol, high-intensity spirits have taken over.
These high-proof bourbons and ryes—often called cask strength or barrel proof—were once just a peripheral curiosity, but in recent years they’ve captured the attention of industry critics, writers, and connoisseurs. The 2023 list of 100 top American whiskeys from influential critic Fred Minnick is emblematic of the trend: Of 100 spirits listed, 87 are 100 proof and up, 49 are 110 or higher, and 18 are at or above 120—which, because “proof” is twice the amount of alcohol-by-volume, means a whopping 60 percent alcohol. By comparison, the standard strength in the U.S. is between 80 and 90 proof (40 to 45 percent alcohol).
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Whiskey forums now reliably feature commenters not only celebrating high-proof releases but also denigrating those with standard proofs that, until recently, were seen as perfectly desirable. Meanwhile, it seems as if every distillery is releasing something cask strength, to the frothy enthusiasm of the bourbon commentariat, and most of the splashy, limited-release unicorns that sell for many times their suggested retail price on the secondary market (King of Kentucky, Four Roses Limited Edition, Kentucky Owl, George T. Stagg, and many more) weigh in at barrel proof.
But the conception of these whiskeys as some kind of unalloyed good leaves behind much if not most of the drinking public, who don’t buy it at liquor stores and don’t order it in bars, and who likely see it as a threat to their palates, to say nothing of their livers. There are advantages to cask strength, to be sure, and championing it is certainly the fashionable opinion. There are also drawbacks, no less significant for being rarely voiced. When you’re making a decision on what to drink, it’s worth being familiar with both.
Most whiskeys in the U.S. are distilled to much higher alcohol levels than those at which they end up being bottled. After distillation, whiskey is transferred to oak barrels at no higher than 125 proof (62.5 percent alcohol), a figure mandated by law, before being rolled into warehouses to age. Oak is semi- porous, so the alcohol strength might creep up or down with evaporation depending on the ambient humidity, but when it’s time to bottle, the distiller will generally cut it with either purified water or water from some special spring, bringing the solution down from “barrel proof” to an industry standard 80 to 90 proof. (It’s worth noting that in Scotland, alcohol content tends to dissipate during the aging process, so although cask-strength Scotch does exist, it hasn’t captured consumers’ attention to the same degree.)
Undiluted, high-alcohol whiskeys had been picking up steam in aficionado circles for decades—Booker’s Bourbon, from Jim Beam, was introduced in 1988—but the category really ignited among the wider enthusiast community in 2014, when Elijah Craig Barrel Proof released a batch at 140.2 proof, which is so high that it technically constitutes a hazardous material.
“When Elijah Craig came out with their ‘hazmat’ proof, it set the enthusiast world on fire,” says Jordan Moskal, cofounder of the popular review site Breaking Bourbon. “All of a sudden everyone started chasing proof, and it was like the fuse was lit on the dynamite.”
His cofounder Nick Beiter credits an unexpected impetus for the trend catching fire: smartphones. “People were suddenly able to research and see stuff very quickly,” he says. Consumers could now google a bourbon while sitting at the bar or standing in a store aisle, and so the opinions of bloggers and critics—the most dedicated whiskey nerds out there, the kind that tend to adore the intensity of high-proof—would get reaffirmed in a positive feedback loop, which, Beiter believes, essentially shoved the category into the mainstream.
Bill Thomas, owner-operator of the Jack Rose Dining Saloon, an award-winning whiskey bar in Washington, D.C., was one of those early aficionados who have been proselytizing about high-proof spirits for 20 years. “With a cask-strength whiskey, you’re gonna get an insane amount of nuance on the palate,” he says. “You’re not immediately reaching back to the very next sip because it’s got this amazing front, mid, and finish. It’s what we call a complete whiskey.”
I believe a lot of the consumer appeal of high-proof spirits is a macho ‘who can eat the hottest pepper’ thing, which is bullshit.
– Chuck Cowdery
Thomas frequently travels to distilleries, where he samples casks to purchase for his bar. He believes that a higher proof allows you to perceive the truest nature of the distillery’s character. “Bourbon especially tends to become much more homogenous with heavy dilution,” Thomas says. He cautions that not every spirit should be released at cask strength—“some barrels just show better at lesser proof”—but all things being equal, a barrel (or blend of several) at cask strength will have a better chance of achieving this “completeness.”
Joe Beatrice is one of the people who make such blends. “The first time I ever tasted whiskey out of a barrel, I was like, ‘This is amazing! Why are we not drinking this?’ ” he recalls. In 2013, Beatrice founded Barrell Craft Spirits, a company that buys casks, blends them, and bottles the results at full strength. He adores the intensity, layering, and saturation of flavor that high proofs enable and believes that, through blending, he can suppress the heat of the alcohol. “You’ll taste a 125-proof product of ours and think it’s 110 or 105, because we intentionally temper the blend with barrels that mute some of that sharpness,” he explains. “Our focus is to create an experience that isn’t overly out of balance. Balance is the key word.”
Not every professional is so enthusiastic. Acclaimed bourbon author Chuck Cowdery has been around long enough to see fads come and go, and he has a healthy skepticism. “I believe a lot of the consumer appeal of high-proof spirits is a macho ‘who can eat the hottest pepper’ thing, which is bullshit,” he says. “Nothing kills the taste buds like high-proof spirits. I won’t criticize anyone for doing what they like, but don’t kid yourself.”
Even Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson and the creator of Booker’s, added water to his namesake whiskey, reportedly warning that drinking 126-proof neat will “blow the top of your head right off.” His recipe: one part Booker’s, two parts “branch water and some ice. Call it Kentucky Tea.”
Breaking Bourbon’s Moskal has given glowing reviews to many of these bottles but says when he’s off the clock, he reaches for the strong stuff only about 20 percent of the time. “I think the excitement wears off,” he says. “It burns out my palate, and you can only drink so much 120-plus-proof bourbon before you realize you’re not going to feel good the next day.”
Also keep in mind that inebriation isn’t just about the quantity of alcohol you ingest, but about the rate of ingestion. Considering that a two-ounce pour of 130-proof bourbon is akin to drinking 3.25 ounces of standard whiskey or 26 ounces of beer, you can see how quickly cask strength can get you into trouble.
Both Cowdery and Breaking Bourbon’s Beiter point out the difference between tasting, which is what the enthusiasts primarily involve themselves in, and drinking, which is how most people consume whiskey most of the time: “You’re not going to want to drink [135-proof ] George T. Stagg on a regular basis, right?” says Beiter. “It’s just too much.” He likens it to a sports car. “A Ferrari is a great car, but as a daily driver it will probably be a huge pain in the ass.”
What’s more, not every whiskey that’s bottled at barrel proof should be. Moskal notes that Breaking Bourbon rates many examples with average scores; in some cases, he adds, higher alcohol content can actually accentuate a whiskey’s flaws. Even George T. Stagg, one of the category leaders, has proved that a superior whiskey requires more than an extra-large dose of alcohol: In 2021, the company decided not to release any bottles, because the barrels just didn’t quite taste the way its executives wanted them to.
But not everyone can afford to be so scrupulous. The demand for cask-strength whiskeys may push some producers to release bottles that should have been cut back or not released at all. Cowdery doesn’t dismiss cask strength as a concept (he has written warmly about Barrell Craft Spirits, for instance) but says that business considerations don’t always align with aesthetic decisions. “It’s nice to say that the proof that it’s bottled at is the proof that the distiller intended you to drink it at, but that’s not really true,” he says.
Purists who insist cask strength is always better tend to have a final, fail-safe argument, their rhetorical coup de grâce: If you prefer it diluted, they say, you can simply add your own water. What this logic elides is that the process of adding water during bottling is both precise and exceptionally important.
Bourbon especially tends to become much more homogenous with heavy dilution.
– Bill Thomas
Colorado’s Old Elk Distillery, for example, produces both standard- and high-proof whiskeys. When diluting, the makers not only employ reverse osmosis and UV filtration on their mountain water, they also blend it in gradually. “When you add water to a high-proof spirit, you’re going to lose some flavors in there,” says production manager Melinda Maddox. She cites a chemical reaction that raises the temperature of the whiskey, changing the flavor, as the reason Old Elk dilutes it via a “slow cut” process that can take weeks. She suspects the same thing can happen in the glass: “More than likely, you’re going to see rougher edges in the one that you’ve proofed down fast versus the one you’ve proofed down slow,” she says. “All I can say is that we know our whiskey tastes better when we let it have this time. There’s such a difference when you let it rest.”
Given how precise whiskey-makers are with their own use of water, it’s no surprise that the typical consumer finds it hard to avoid either over- or under-diluting. Keeping our example of a two-ounce pour of 130-proof bourbon, the difference between reducing it to 90 proof versus 100 proof is just 0.28 ounces of water. “It can be very difficult without a pipette,” says Beiter. “Realistically, people aren’t sitting around with one of those.” Nor do they want the experience of casually having a drink to necessitate a calculator.
It’s too early to say, but there are signs that the high-proof wave is beginning to crest. After 10 years of exclusively cask-strength offerings, Barrel Craft Spirits recently rolled out its first reduced whiskey, Foundation, at 100 proof.
“I think there are enough people who find cask-strength products too much,” Beatrice says. His team saw the new product as a fun challenge. “We wanted to see if we could blend to a [lower] proof and make something that’s really excellent.”
Taking up a similar project for his Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Thomas will soon start tasting through a distillery’s barrels to find one that’s great at cask strength and great at some alternative proof—and release them simultaneously. “The goal is just to show that there’s no perfect answer to a particular whiskey,” he says. “We want to say, ‘Hey, enjoy this journey.’ It’s just fun.”
“If you’re tasting to taste, intending to think about and learn something from the whiskey, there are certain practices that make sense,” Cowdery says. “For drinking, do whatever you want.”
How to Drink High Proof Stuff
Generally, approach a glass of barrel-proof spirits as you might a tiger—slowly and with great care.
Keep in mind, there’s no official technique. There are things even professionals don’t agree on. Bill Thomas is adamant that the whiskey needs up to 10 minutes in the glass to “settle” before tasting. Joe Beatrice and Chuck Cowdery recommend one to two minutes and zero minutes, respectively.
Everyone seems to agree, however, that progress should be deliberate. Smell it first and, unlike wine tasting, keep your mouth ajar, to allow the ample alcohol fumes to pass by your receptors without attacking them like a swarm of wasps. Try to tease out individual notes.
For tasting, there’s a consensus that your palate needs to “wake up,” to acclimate to the significant heat. Beatrice advises taking a very small sip. Too fast or too big, he says, and your mouth will go into what he calls panic mode. Thomas even suggests drinking something non-cask strength first, to warm up. But through slow exposure, when you go back for another sip, the alcohol burn will be less salient, allowing you to appreciate the subtleties of the whiskey.
For the palate, think through the beginning, the middle, and the end—are there distinct phases or just a continuous blast of flavor? After the whiskey is long gone, are you still tasting it? This is called a long finish, something at which barrel-proof bourbons are supposed to excel, and the type of nuance that can tip a spirit, in critics’ minds, from good to great.
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