At this point, everyone is looking to up the ante on their at-home bartending. There are plenty of small tweaks that can be borrowed from bartenders that will make a big impression, like replacing simple syrup with a more flavorful sweetener like Demerara sugar, honey, agave, or even one infused with herbs. Another great low-fuss move is to swap standard Angostura bitters for small batch ones. (Spiced cherry? Molé? Chicory Pecan?)
But the savviest home cocktail hack is to just substitute your standard spirits with ones that are, as they say, “high proof.” Whiskey distillers, connoisseurs, and bartenders have long favored overproof bourbon for its complexity in flavor and its robust, almost oily mouthfeel. If so many cocktails seem designed to cover up the base spirit, when you use overproof bourbon in drinks like the Old Fashioned, Gold Rush, and Manhattan, you will never forget that you are having a “bourbon cocktail”.
Bourbon comes off the still at around 125 proof (62.5 percent alcohol) — and, legally, never higher than 160 — before being proofed down, in other words, diluted with water and then put into barrels. In the summer, Kentucky rickhouses get extremely hot, evaporating the water from the casks. As the amount of liquid in the barrel decreases over time, the proof increases, with some bourbons eventually soaring past 140 proof.
By the time most bourbon hits the market, it will have been proof-downed yet again after aging, often close to the legally lowest minimum of 80 proof. And then there’s “high proof,” or “overproof.” While it’s not a legally recognized term, most companies will consider these bold spirits to be anything over 100 proof.
Enter Wild Turkey 101 — yes, it’s 101 proof, an icon in the industry made the same way by the same man, master distiller Jimmy Russell, for over 65 years. Aged in deeply charred American oak barrels, it offers an intense spiciness that’s hard to find in lower-proof bourbons, with intense notes of cinnamon, pepper, and allspice, leading to a long finish.
This flavor profile is perfect in an Old Fashioned, the quintessential bourbon cocktail that allows the spirit to shine like no other. Because a high proof bourbon, like Wild Turkey 101, has very little water added, it will contribute a richer, even chewier mouthfeel. Combining that with the sugar cube (or simple syrup, as the case may be) in an Old Fashioned will amplify the bourbon’s viscosity even more, making for a luscious sipping cocktail you can truly take your time with.
Same goes for the Gold Rush, a modern classic invented around the turn of the 21st century that is basically a whiskey sour made with honey syrup. It’s bright on the nose and a little bit sweet on the palate, flexing its notes of vanilla and toffee. Here, overproof bourbon gives the drink a full-bodied, luxurious texture. Whereas citrus can sometimes overwhelm lighter bourbons, that’s not the case when you employ one like Wild Turkey Rare Breed, which clocks in at 116.8 proof. With the spiciness coming from both the oak barrel and the rye in the mashbill, you never have to worry that you’ve made a cocktail too sweet and cloying.
Another great reason to use high proof bourbon is its ability to stand alongside other strong liqueurs and modifiers without being covered up. When it comes to a straightforward, three-ingredient drink like a Manhattan, everything has to be in balance. All too often, the sweet vermouth in a Manhattan tends to completely dilute what should be the star of the show. That won’t be the case if you employ something like Wild Turkey 101 bourbon, or even Wild Turkey 101 rye.
As sweet vermouth can be a bit of a bully—aggressively fruity, very sugary, and even a little bitter—it needs something that can go toe-to-toe. Wild Turkey 101 is the perfect foil, elevating the vermouth’s baking spice and citrus notes, while cutting through the sweetness. The sweet vermouth in turn adds an extra depth to the high proof bourbon, bringing its rich vanilla and barrel character to the forefront. This symphony of flavors makes for a splendid postprandial drink or even nightcap.
And that’s the key thing—opting for high proof bourbon will open a whole new world of cocktails by allowing you to use more intense liqueurs and modifiers in your drink-making, and swap in more flavorful sweeteners and bitters. Mostly, it will enable you to truly taste that bourbon in your cocktails–which is kinda the point.
This article is sponsored by Wild Turkey Bourbon.