Last spring I found myself in a distillery warehouse in Calgary, Alberta sipping the strongest whiskey I’ve ever tried in my many years of sipping whiskey. The location was Alberta Distillers Limited, the factory-like operation that is the go-to source for brands like WhistlePig in addition to producing its own labels. The whiskey in question (or whisky, actually) was a 23-year-old Canadian rye with a staggering, tongue-combusting, potentially life-threatening proof of 168. That’s 84 percent alcohol by volume, which is more than twice the amount that is legally required to be called whiskey here in the U.S. In other words, this was almost entirely alcohol, so why on earth would anyone want to drink something this strong?
This experience was more of a tasting experiment than anything else, a chance to see if whiskey straight from the barrel this intense could bring anything more to the palate than the force and heat of a boozy red dwarf. And to be fair, there were some discernible tasting notes, if only for a few seconds before the alcohol burn overpowered them. But, again, it begs the question: Who really wants to drink a whiskey this potent? Perhaps these are the same people who get off on drinking the hoppiest beers, the most heavily peated Scotch, and hot sauces with the highest Scoville units. Maybe it’s all just a big palate pissing contest.
OK, that’s kind of a disturbing image, and to be fair most barrel-proof whisky is not quite as strong as that Canadian flamethrower. But “hazmat” level whiskeys have entered the market with more frequency in recent years, from both large and small distilleries, so it’s reasonable to debate just how much pleasure can be derived from drinking something bottled at more than 70 percent ABV. In the same way that proofing your whiskey down to 40 percent can dull flavors, the argument could be made that an alcohol level above about 65 percent will just char your palate.
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The Argument for Going High Proof
Barrel-proof or cask-strength whiskey is incredibly popular these days, particularly in the world of bourbon. The term signifies that the liquid in the bottle has not been cut with water to lower the proof, and often is only filtered to remove any residue that might remain from its time inside a barrel. The TTB allows some legal wiggle room regarding the term, stating that barrel-proof whiskey can’t be more than “two degrees lower than the proof established at the time the spirits were gauged for tax determination.” But it’s usually as close as you can come to drinking whiskey straight from the barrel.
Kings County co-founder and distiller Colin Spoelman offers up a convincing reason for drinking high-proof whiskey: the ability to exercise control over dilution yourself. The distillery has released a couple of true hazmats over the past few years, including the 140-proof Blender’s Reserve from 2021 and a single-barrel wheat whiskey from that same year that was bottled at 88.7 percent ABV.
Yep, you read that right. That’s even closer to pure alcohol than that belligerently boozy Canadian rye.
“It’s important to remember that the only thing that separates a barrel-proof whiskey from a standard 90-proof whiskey is dilution with water,” Spoelman says. “There may also be a sense of having more authenticity by being closer to the original spirit, since nothing is added or removed after aging with barrel strength whiskeys.” He concedes that it’s highly unlikely anyone is drinking something that is three-quarters alcohol without some type of dilution, and warned that people who are prone to heartburn or have sensitive stomachs should be careful. And yet, “This makes it very experiential and deliberate,” Spoelman says. “If you just want a glass of whiskey to enjoy while you are doing something else, I don’t recommend high barrel-proof whiskey. It takes a certain amount of attention.”
Major Distilleries Going Hazmat
Barrel-proof whiskey isn’t a new concept. A couple of hundred years ago, there were no liquor stores and whiskey was literally sold from the barrel at local taverns or “ye olde shoppes” (and likely adulterated with unsavory additives prior to the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897). Thirsty customers could fill up their own jug or bottle and bring it home to water it down, or not. But the man who really made barrel proof a household name was the late, legendary Jim Beam master distiller Booker Noe, who created his namesake Booker’s Bourbon (and subsequently the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection) in the late ‘80s.
Booker’s arrives in four batches per year, and the proof generally falls somewhere in the mid-120s strong, but not hazmat level. According to Noe’s son, seventh-generation master distiller Fred Noe, this midrange strength is by design. “This is the way Dad wanted it,” he says. “He called Booker’s ‘center cut,’ which means the barrels are right out of the center of the warehouse.” Booker’s goes into barrels at 125 proof and comes out pretty close to that, which Noe credits to the specific warehouse position. Besides, he says that hazmat whiskey just isn’t the Beam style. “You can certainly drink a whiskey that high proof, but it’s just going to have a strong wood influence and the flavor might not be as balanced.”
According to Beam lore (and reiterated by the name of the last batch of Booker’s in 2022), one of Booker Noe’s favorite ways to drink bourbon was in what he called Kentucky Tea — four parts water to one part bourbon. So even if he was using Booker’s, it would be considerably diluted in that beverage. But so many hardcore whiskey fans wouldn’t dream of drinking whiskey like that because these days the consensus leans toward “the higher proof, the better.”
There’s certainly something to this, since watering down whiskey does affect the flavor, and many people quite reasonably want to drink spirits at higher than 80 proof. But recent releases from major brands like Jack Daniel’s, Frey Ranch, and A. Smith Bowman have hit stratospheric ABV levels that seem to stretch the limits of pleasure — which is, after all, what drinking whiskey should be all about.
Take Jack Daniel’s recent Coy Hill releases. The first was a single barrel expression from 2021, with some barrels reaching nearly 150 proof, and the second was a batch proof release ranging from about 143 to 155 proof. Jack Daniel’s master distiller Chris Fletcher told me that he was surprised to find barrels with proofs this high, and that some only had about 4 percent of the whiskey left inside. They were aged in the “buzzard’s roost,” or highest level of the rickhouse, which Fletcher said is the main reason for so much evaporation (a.k.a. angel’s share) and subsequently the extreme ABVs. As for why this release registered with consumers, he likes to think there’s a bit of romance to it.
“It kind of gives you this behind-the-scenes taste of our whiskey,” Fletcher says. “The only other way to taste it would be to be here at the distillery literally drilling into a barrel. To me, that’s the fun of it.” Fletcher also says that his preferred way of drinking this whiskey is with some water or a large ice cube added, something that would slowly dilute it, which seems to be the preferred method among producers.
Another recent example from a major distillery is A. Smith Bowman’s Cask Strength Bourbon Batch #2, which clocked in at 144.5 proof. Brian Prewitt, master distiller at Bowman and distillation/aging operations director at parent company Sazerac, also credits the climate and barrel placement as the factors contributing to this level of alcohol. Simply put, more water tends to evaporate than alcohol during Virginia’s humid summers and mild winters, so proof tends to go up. Place the barrels somewhere really hot, and after about six to eight years you’ll get a little bit of whiskey with a lot of alcohol in it. And people want to drink it, although Prewitt stresses that proof always comes second to flavor.
“As the appetite for American whiskey continues to expand, we will likely continue to see high-proof offerings introduced to the market,” he says. “Global consumers specifically are already familiar with cask strength offerings from other spirits categories, like Scotch, so as awareness for American whiskey extends into new international markets, intrigue in higher-proof options will likely be piqued, too.”
Barrell Craft Spirits founder Joe Beatrice, a non-distiller producer that bottles all of its whiskey at cask strength, also makes a strong case for the joys of high-proof spirits (the most recent BCS Dovetail release was bottled at 140.18 proof). “I think that oftentimes ‘strong’ might be better characterized as unbalanced, high-proof whiskey,” he says. “A truly well-balanced whiskey at a higher proof won’t drink like a firebomb. The mouthfeel from the alcohol will act as another layer of complexity as all the components work together to create the overall flavor experience.”
Is Proof the New Age Statement?
Ultimately, there is a much larger market for 80-proof whiskey than there is for barrel-proof whiskey, with the hazmat crowd making up just a small, fanatical percentage. The question remains as to whether we’ll be seeing more of these extreme-ABV expressions. Beatrice, for example, doesn’t see much reason for most major whiskey brands to join the party. “It would seem to me that those who cut whiskey to the bare minimum proof for the legal classification of a category are not concerned first and foremost with flavor,” he says. “That said, adding water to whiskey isn’t going away as there will always be those searching for balance between ‘good’ flavor and profit.”
Spoelman takes a different view, noting that this could indeed become more of a trend, albeit one that could backfire. “If other producers are seeing the enthusiasm that we are seeing, I can easily see a company wanting to capitalize on that and service that audience,” he says, before pointing out the potential downside. “Age statements have become an increasingly unreliable indicator of quality in American whiskeys as some bottlers (and it’s usually bottlers rather than distillers) find a trove of high-age-stated, middling whiskey that they want to sell for a premium,” he says. “We could see something like that happen with proof too — but don’t expect it to be any good.”