Recently, the trend in the bourbon industry has been to make higher and higher proof whiskeys. Similar to the dreadnaught arms race leading to World War 1 with bigger and faster battleships, consumers have been attracted to higher proofs and faster whisky. But is that always a good thing? Does bourbon have to be at a higher proof to be enjoyable?
Brighter days follow Dark times
Prior to Prohibition, an 80 to 86-proof was rare. Recall that many products of the day were Bottled-in-Bond, requiring the finished product to be bottled at 100-proof. During Prohibition, bootleggers stretched existing stocks by watering down higher proof bourbons. But it was the dark times of the 1960s, when vodkas and lighter spirits grew in popularity that brought 80- and 86-proof whiskeys into the limelight. And, just like that, America’s taste and desire for Bottled-in-Bond (or even higher proof) whiskeys dropped in demand.
Today, many drinkers measure quality with proof. And, yes, for some products to hold up to a cocktail or ice, a higher proof may be warranted. But higher proof, for the sake of higher proof, doesn’t always equate to better taste.
I recall a bourbon tasting event I experienced at a major equestrian competition in Kentucky. We sampled two very traditional bourbons in a distiller’s lineup followed by a cask strength rendition. In the mid-1-teens for proof, this one left me (and a buddy) gasping. “Wow, that was some serious proof … Are my eyebrows still there? ‘Cause I know my nose hairs aren’t. [Gasp again] I’m probably not buying that one.”
I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy some lovely higher proof bourbons, including Ezra Brooks 7-Year Barrel Strength, Noah’s Mill, Old Forester 1920, Stagg Jr. Barrel Strength, and Weller 107. But there are some fine profiles that are still flavorful and tasty, albeit at a lower proof, without watering down flavor.
Take a solid favorite Four Roses Tan Label. This 80-proof blend of 10 bourbon recipes (2 mash bills married with 5 different yeast strains) yields light fruit and floral essences that is soft on the palate and would easily be lost in a higher-proof version.
Master Distiller Chris Morris indicated that when Brown-Forman introduced Coopers’ Craft, a bourbon tribute to the barrel makers, they intentionally dialed down the proof in the original 82-proof version. With higher rye and oak characteristics, these would be overpowering at a higher proof. The lower-proof rendition allows a more rounded profile, including traditional caramel and vanilla notes.
Wild Turkey’s Longbranch, which is bottled at 86-proof is packed full of flavor, though at a lower proof than the signature Wild Turkey 101. While lower 81-proof versions of their signature bourbon and rye are bottled, there are also higher proof versions, such as Rare Breed, that are still flavorful. However, Wild Turkey realized that it was missing out on a bourbon that might attract a younger clientele or those seeking an easier entry into the rising bourbon scene. Created in partnership with Creative Director Matthew McConaughey, along with Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell, Longbranch has met a gap in the Wild Turkey lineup. While it noses similar to a Wild Turkey 101, some of the wood and spicy notes are dialed down, allowing more vanilla, sweet honey, and even light citrus notes to emerge.
Just the way you like it
It was on our first tour at Buffalo Trace Distillery when we were introduced to Freddie Johnson, a 3rd-generation employee. You can catch a deep conversation with Freddie in Neat: The Story of Bourbon and how fine bourbons aren’t meant to be kept, but are meant to be shared. While on our tour, Freddie asked the group – “What’s the best way to enjoy bourbon?” And while I thought on that one hard, Freddie was quick to respond – “Just the way you like it”. “Neat. With a splash. On the rocks. In a cocktail. You can’t go wrong with America’s Native Spirit”.
It’s good to know that anyone can find an entry spot to bourbon, in a form and rendition that is diverse as the country that originated the spirit.