Where do your eyes go when you first see a bottle of whiskey?
Personally, I tend to ignore the fancy fonts, glance past the age, and home in on the proof. Over time, I’ve learned where my zone is: I like the high proof, uncut stuff, usually 115 and up. I know that’s what I like, so I gravitate there and ignore most else. Why shouldn’t I? It’s the best value! At barrel strength, you have greater flexibility as a consumer and host. You can adjust the proof down in the glass, but you can’t take it back up. So what if it’s a little more expensive? I’d rather have the more intense flavor and punch of the full proof version of anything. If it’s not cask strength, I’m probably not looking to buy it.
As I meet more and more bourbon drinkers like myself, this concept is the norm – we have this collective idea that there is a personal preference range or “pocket” of proof that each person prefers. Maybe it’s 90-100, or 100-110, 110 and up, or something in between… but everyone seems to have an answer to this question. If you’ve drank bourbon – and I would wager, other whisk(e)y – for any extended amount of time, you may have considered this aspect of your tastes as well.
However, recently trying some different bourbons has reminded me just how good some pours are at lower proof. I tried two at 93 and 94 proof, respectively, in tastings of FEW Spirits and Widow Jane, hosted by The Bourbon Lens. I knew the proof of each ahead of tasting, so with the idea that I’ve become a barrel proof kind of guy, I half-expected both to be light in both flavor and viscosity compared to my normal drams. Frankly, I was astonished; of late, I have only used 90-95 bourbons on my bar as palate-warmers and mixers. These, however, were great enough on their own to be a pleasant pour any day of the week!
So, what’s the deal? Am I wrong about my proof preferences, or is this just a fluke? To answer that, let’s take a deeper dive on “barrel proof” and whether or not you should focus on your “ideal” ABV.
Defining “Barrel Strength”
There are a lot of synonyms for barrel strength bourbon: “barrel proof,” “uncut,” and “cask strength” are a few. Before going any further, it seems appropriate to define these terms. (Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert in any of this, just a hobbyist like many of you.)
For a better understanding of the concept, I’ll refer you to Taylor’s review on Kings County Barrel Strength Bourbon. I’ll stress a key point: bourbon can’t legally enter the barrel at higher than 125 proof (62.5% ABV). Once barreled, water evaporates and the ratio of alcohol to water increases. When the time is right for the distiller, the barrel is pulled, and the proof at the time is a product of the age and impact of the climate where the barrel is stored.
Often, barrel strength bourbon starts at around 115 proof, depending on the brand, their methods, and their entry proof. For example: Heaven Hill puts their distillate into the barrel at 125 (the maximum) and their barrel strength bourbon, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, comes out at around 140. Alternatively, Maker’s Mark enters the barrel at 110 proof and comes out somewhere between 108 and 114.
In my preparation for this article, I learned that there is actually a ruling from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms on one of these terms. In short, the ATF ruled that “barrel proof” on a label specifically requires that the proof be no more than two degrees lower than the proof when the barrels were dumped. One can surmise, then, that 1792 Full Proof and Weller Full Proof are intentionally proofed down (by adding water) and bottled at those proof points (125 for 1792, and 114 for Weller). 1792’s website indicates that 125 is the same as the entry proof, but whether that is the reason for the final bottling proof is unknown. I would imagine this is for consistency between batches more than anything, but that’s just my best guess. (I’m not complaining; both products are among my all-time favorites.) Hat tip to Mr. Cowdery over at the Whiskey Advocate for explaining the ruling.
In Support of Barrel Strength Bourbon
There’s something to be said about the draw of uncut bourbon. There’s almost a rock star quality to its reputation – loud, unapologetic, a little on the dangerous side, yet totally awesome. Drinking cask strength bourbon also tends to feel like a badge of honor, at least early on; to be able to say that you’ve tasted high proof bourbon and actually enjoyed it is a big deal to many. If you want proof (no pun intended), search the term “hazmat” in any bourbon forum or group and see for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with this, but that is part of the mentality to some degree.
From a more practical perspective, I’ll restate the benefit of adjusting the proof on your own terms. You get to try your hand at manipulating the bourbon with the addition of water with a lot more room for error than trying to do the same thing at say, 100 proof. There’s also the idea of value. Why wouldn’t you pull the trigger on a barrel strength bourbon like Maker’s Mark Cask Strength or Wild Turkey Rare Breed when there’s so much else in the same price range at lower proof? Just from a proof-per-dollar perspective, it’s hard to pass up.
Considerations Against Barrel Strength (Rather, For Lower Proof)
From a business perspective, there are certainly good reasons to not release everything at full strength. Aside from the fact that a great deal of consumers want something ready to drink at a lower proof, it is also easier to sell whiskey at a lower ABV. Higher proof bourbon means higher price. I could be missing something on my math here, but by my back-of-the-napkin calculations, a 200-bottle yield at 90 proof (45% ABV) drops to 150 bottles at a higher proof of 120 (60% ABV). That’s a loss of 50 bottles per barrel, in this example, which adds up very quickly. You can see the difference in product comparisons within the Elijah Craig line: Elijah Craig Small Batch is approximately $30 at 47% ABV ($0.09 per mL of alcohol), whereas the C921 Batch of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is roughly $70 for 60% ($0.15 per mL).
Then there’s the quality aspect as well. In the Kings County review linked above, co-founder and distiller Colin Spoelman acknowledges a greater demand for barrel strength products, but also points out that high proof doesn’t necessarily mean good, and releasing things just for the sake of being high proof isn’t a thing most distillers would do. (Note: I enjoyed everything Colin had to say, and it’s made me very interested in trying Kings County products. Go read that article, if you haven’t already!)
From a consumer perspective, I recommend caution with focusing on barrel proof bourbon as your zone of preference. In tastings, using high proof bourbon early in the flight has the possibility of burning out your palate and making you unable to taste much. Beyond a couple of high-proof pours, it quickly becomes difficult to pick up on anything other than the most prominent notes of the sample in front of you. In my experience, that can happen on a long-term scale as well. I got myself into a habit of only going for the “hot” stuff and found that I lost a good deal of sensitivity to some flavors and notes. Lower proof items also start to taste watered down, and you begin to miss out on what probably has kept you enjoying bourbon in the first place. Luckily for me, a break in drinking and/or some time with other spirits seems to have helped recover in that regard. I’m glad, otherwise I wouldn’t have enjoyed the FEW and Widow Jane bourbons as much as I did!
All in all, there’s nothing wrong with anyone’s preferences in bourbon. You should drink it however you want, regardless of the proof, amount of ice, or added ingredients. However, if you want my opinion, don’t get too caught up in the idea that you have a zone or range that you should stay in. There is too much variety out there for that concept to always hold true. I intend to keep my eyes open for lower-proof offerings and approaching them with an open mind.
That being said… I still really enjoy drinking barrel strength bourbon, so let’s review one!
In this discussion on barrel strength bourbon, it seems fitting to review a release from the first* small batch barrel strength bourbon brand: Booker’s! This is the most recent batch of Booker’s at the time of this writing. At 124.4 and 6.5 years, this is right around where recent batches have been in terms of proof and age. I don’t recall what I bought this for exactly, but knowing recent trends it was probably in the $85-$90 range, so that’s what I’ll use for this review.
Review – Booker’s Bourbon 2021-04 “Noe Strangers” Batch
On the nose: Fruit, peanuts, pine, rye, and a slightly floral note. The nuttiness is my favorite thing about Booker’s, but the pine wood and rye grain presence here is kind of nice. Neither note really seems out of place; it doesn’t seem to come from an under- or over-aged perspective, so both are there as if they were meant to be. The floral note is something I’ve picked up on more recent batches of Booker’s, and it seems to be a nice balancing factor.
In the mouth: Nutty, and viscous (my two favorite things). Bold and hot when you give it a Kentucky chew. Letting it sit, the floral note carries through and brings with it a little bit of coffee, which I’ve never personally experienced before. Neat! (again, no pun intended.) Finish is nice and long, with a great “Kentucky hug” warming sensation down into your chest.
This doesn’t resonate with me as an all-time great Booker’s batch, but it is everything I expect Booker’s to be in all regards. Because of this, I’m on the fence about the score (reminder, we’re using this scoring model). As I look to what bourbons are available at a similar price point, this stands out as one of the better options (both this batch and on the regular) for the price range. With that in mind, I’ll round up to the score below.
*I couldn’t confirm this myself, but the factoid came from a reputable source in a friend that used to work for the James B. Beam Distillery as a tour guide.