Straight from the barrel: the lowdown on high proof whiskey

When many of us experienced whiskey for the first time, we probably didn’t like it. Most likely because of the burn we felt as the whiskey flowed down our throats. It’s OK to admit that. Heck, some reading this still might not care for whiskey because of that burning sensation.

For a lot of whiskey fans, the more you drank, the more it became tolerable. Soon, 80 proof, 90 proof and maybe into the low 100s didn’t faze you. But “barrel proof” or “barrel strength” whiskey might be a different story.

What is barrel proof or barrel strength whiskey?

Barrel proof or barrel strength refers to bourbon and rye that does not have the addition of water that’s used to reduce proof. Here’s how proofing works:

Bourbon and rye legally can not enter the barrel above 125 proof. Water is added to bring the proof at or below that number. Water evaporates in the barrel, so the whiskey often comes out at a higher proof than it went in—usually between 110 to 130 proof (sometimes more). It’s then diluted to somewhere between 80–105 proof. But with barrel proof or barrel strength whiskey, it’s not diluted. It’s bottled at whatever proof it comes out of the barrel.

To me it seems like there are two camps among whiskey lovers. Camp one likes their whiskey somewhere below 100-110 proof and rarely anything above that. Camp two likes all proofs of whiskey but prefers above 110—for some, the higher the better.

Whether or not you agree, you can’t deny that more people are enjoying high proof whiskey and more distillers are bringing high proof whiskeys to the market than ever before.

Careful with high proof spirits

At this point I feel it necessary to make a public service announcement. We all know to be careful when drinking alcohol, especially straight alcohol. This is especially the case when drinking high proof spirits. It’s important to keep track of the volume of alcohol going in your body, not just the liquid. For example, a pour of Booker’s Bourbon (121-127 proof) contains 12–18% percent more alcohol than 90 proof Buffalo Trace Bourbon. It's something that easy to forget as you're drinking. 

Adding Water to Reduce Proof

Many people enjoy high proof whiskey because of the additional flavors that are present before water is added. But if you don’t care for high proof whiskey, or you’d like to experiment with unleashing different flavors and aromas, adding water is the way to go. There’s no right answer for how much water to add. Experimentation is really the key to figuring out how to best enjoy each individual whiskey.

Formulas exist for figuring out how to proof down whiskey but to be honest, they are confusing (at least to me). I prefer to use the Distillers Toolbox app to determine the amount of water I might add.

Common High Proof Bourbons and Ryes

Below are a few common high proof bourbons and ryes. This is by no means a complete list.

Jim Beam

  • Booker's
  • Knob Creek Single Barrel
  • Old Grand-Dad (114 proof)
  • Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Buffalo Trace/Sazerac

  • George T. Stagg (rare annual release)
  • Stagg Jr.
  • William Larue Weller (rare annual release)
  • Thomas Handy Rye (rare annual release)
  • EH Taylor Barrel Strength bourbon
  • Barrel strength Blanton's (export only)
  • 3 White Dog recipes

Four Roses

  • Single Barrel Private Selections
  • Limited Edition Single Barrel (rare annual release)
  • Limited Edition Small Batch (usually high proof, rare annual release)

Heaven Hill

  • Parker’s Heritage (often high proof, rare annual release)
  • Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Wild Turkey

  • Rare Breed
  • Russell's Reserve Single Barrel

Independent Bottlers

  • Angel’s Envy Cask Strength
  • Noah's Mill 
  • Willett Single Barrels (bourbon and rye from KBD)
  • Oola Distillery (Seattle)
  • Dry Fly Cask Strength Wheat Whiskey (Spokane)

Tonight at the Seattle Whiskey Collective’s monthly meeting we will sample three different high proof whiskeys. If you’d like to learn more about the subject, sign up on our email list to get an invitation for tonight’s meeting.