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Big, Bold & Beautiful: Cask Strength Variations Reward Spirits Lovers

Posted on  | January 3, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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In the simplest terms, the proof of a distilled spirit in the U.S. is the percentage of ethanol in the solution multiplied by two: 40% alcohol by volume = 80 proof. But beyond the basic math, proof can be an factor in flavor, a mark of value, a marketing strategy and even a defining characteristic for some spirits.

Much of the current trend of higher proof spirits can be attributed to producers of single malt Scotch and small-batch bourbon. In an effort to present the distillate in its most authentic form, producers began offering “cask strength” and “single barrel” offerings, bottled at full strength rather than customarily diluted at the distillery, just before bottling, to a tidy round number, like 80, 86 or 90 proof. These higher proofs are usually the domain of collectors  and connoisseurs.

“I don’t have market data, but everything I’ve been exposed to suggests that bourbon drinkers buy 100 proof and higher because they like more flavor—a whiskey that is stronger, richer and deeper in flavor, with more bourbon and less water,” says Harlen Wheatley, master distiller of Buffalo Trace and Sazerac.

Standing Out From a Crowd

Proof can be helpful in differentiating between similar products in a large portfolio like Sazerac’s, with standard 80 and 90 proof spirits at the entry and 93.7 proof Blanton’s and the latest release of George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 15 year (142.6 proof) as premium offerings.

Wheatley notes that most drinkers heed the distiller’s advice to dilute such spirits. “We don’t as a rule of thumb suggest drinking 145 proof whiskey. It can be consumed that strength, but it is so hot that it is an awful strong drink. We really advocate adding water or ice,” says Wheatley. His personal taste is for bourbon watered to about 90 proof, a number that Sazerac refers to as “Kentucky proof.”

In some cases, proof is so closely identified with a product that it becomes the name, as with Wild Turkey Bourbon and their core 80 proof and 101 proof iterations. In the process of reformulating the classic Wild Turkey 80 from a blend of mostly four- and five-year old bourbons to include older whiskies aged up to eight years, Wild Turkey associate distiller Eddie Russell bumped the proof from 80 to 81. “We wanted to make people understand that it is not the old 80. That means a new package and a new proof. People order the product by the proof so they will be asking for the 81,” says Russell. In addition to the standard proof blends, Wild Turkey offers Rare Breed at barrel proof (usually ranging from 108 to 110).

While drinkers won’t be ordering it by proof, Beam’s new Devil’s Cut brandishes its 90 proof strength prominently on the label, suggesting it serves as an important point of differentiation.

Foolproof Flavor?

The notion that fuller proof spirits offer bigger flavor spawned the idea that alcohol equals flavor. In a widely cited article, Jason Wilson in The Washington Post suggests that “alcohol delivers flavor, just as fat does in food.”

It’s a logical notion, but not factually correct. “I would disagree with that idea. I don’t believe that proof gives you flavor at all. I’m sure you’ve seen white whiskey off the still, but it does not give you any flavor. To get all those good flavors you have to age it in the barrel. That’s where flavor really comes from,” says Russell.

Indeed, it’s perfectly possible to have flavorful low alcohol spirits, and neutral tasting high-proof spirits, given that ethanol is essentially flavorless. It’s accurate to say that the flavors in a higher proof spirit are often less diluted, but we should be careful about telling consumers that more alcohol means more flavor.

What proof does have in common with fat in food is calories, with ethanol clocking in at 7 calories per gram, just below fat’s 9. Therefore, reducing proof is one of the single most effective ways of reducing spirit calories, a concept utilized by low-cal spirits like Voli Vodka, which conserves calories by offering a 60-70 proof product, compared to a more typical 80. (see How Low Can You Go?)

Proof Positives

While the idea of diverse proof levels may be well established in the world of whiskies, categories like Cognac and vodka are far more homogenous in their proof. Nearly all vodka is bottled at the minimum 80 proof, excepting a few 100 proof offerings from Absolut, Smirnoff and Stolichnaya and specialty products like Belvedere Intense and 160 proof Devil’s Springs Vodka. These products are often utilized for on-premise infusions.

During its recent history as a luxury sipping spirit, nearly all Cognac, including even the highest marques, has been bottled at 80 proof, diluted for sipping neat. Taking a cue from mixologists enraptured with higher-proof whiskey, like Rittenhouse Bottled-In-Bond Rye Whiskey 100 Proof and Wild Turkey 101, Cognac Ferrand 1840 Original Formula has been designed specifically for mixing, with 45% ABV or 90 proof.

“We discovered that Cognac was drunk at higher proof back in the 19th century.  We looked at many of these old bottles, which reached about 50% alcohol and we decided that the 1840 was the best representation to recreate a cocktail Cognac,” says Guillaume Lamy, vice president North America at Cognac Ferrand.

According to Lamy, proof resonates with today’s bartender’s and many are eager to mix classic cocktails using the spirits as they existed. “We did not invent the product, but dragged it out of history,” says Lamy.

Top mixologists at New Yorks destination like Employee’s Only, Daniel and Apotheke are also embracing Louis Royer “Force 53,” bottled at 106 proof, according to Estelle Ngo, brand ambassador, Louis Royer Cognac. “Not only does the spirit stand up well in a cocktail, but it represents a value. The price difference from our 80 proof VSOP to the 106 proof is only $4. Consumers are very interested in the trying the product and because the price difference is not that significant,” says Ngo.

Proof has traditionally played an important role in the rum category, where over-proof rums like Bacardi’s popular 151 are used for everything from pyrotechnic cooking to making fortifying tiki drinks, with the spirit’s ability to stand up to heaps of blended and shaved ice. The burgeoning spiced rum category seems to be taking hint from
rum’s history pages as well.

When Steven Grasse, CEO of Quaker City Mercantile in Philadelphia conceived Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, its 92 proof was one of several points of difference from category leader Captain Morgan, along with price and flavor profile. “Sailor Jerry has a really interesting unique story and all the different parts add up to the bigger picture. We were always intrigued by the story of high-proof rum and navy rum. We combined that with Sailor Jerry the person and reflected that research in a more manly, stronger proof,” says Grasse.

Avoiding Pitfalls

Now, the category seems to be bordering on an obsession of successively high proof launches: Blackheart Spiced Rum is 93 proof, The Kraken is 94 proof, while Captain Morgan offers a 100 proof Spiced Rum and Admiral Nelson has introduced a 101 proof product.

“There is an arms race with new entries in spiced rum and higher proof,’ says Grasse. “It risks becoming a gimmick and I think that is dangerous because the industry can get its arm slapped, like a Four Loko situation.”

Indeed, the proliferation of high-proof spirits carries the seeds of its own peril as some states are taking notice of extremely high-proof products and their impact. Several already have proof bans in place, including Ohio (bans 151), Minnesota (bans above 160), California (bans above 153) and Florida (bans above 153). A 2010 study the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages  Commission also looked at options for limiting high-proof alcohol sales, including eliminating alcohol sales above 151 proof or limiting sizes of high proof products.

These signs of pushback suggest that suppliers, marketers and re-sellers alike need to be mindful of image. Emphasis at all three tiers needs to be on character and craftsmanship, not strength alone. Coupled with consumer education, higher proof can mean greater flavor, more diversity, new usage and superior cocktails, provided the products rely on more than potency in their message.


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