Proof Obsessed

Is Higher Proof Better?

If Bourbonr’s built their ideal bourbon at the top of almost every list (myself included) would be high proof. It seems that everyone is in love with barrel proof or high proof bourbons. Just read the comments of a TTB release that is less than 100 proof and you will see plenty of hate for the low proof swill. You may recognize this guy as your fiend  that brags to strangers about how much ghost pepper hot sauce he puts on his tacos or how he only drinks IPA’s that are more than 100 IBU’s. Maybe, but that’s for another post. Maybe this new age of “proofheads” are just gluttons for punishment. I only pose the simple question “are we proof obsessed?”


The question about proof obsessed came to me the other night while I was drinking William LaRue Weller. On a hot night I decided to drop an ice cube in to my glass of this Buffalo Trace Antique Collection heavy hitter. As soon as I did the earth began to shake and my bourbon glass exploded in my hand. Of course I’m kidding but some think this a real consequence of  watering down a barrel proof bourbon. Especially a legend like WLW. Maybe, I’m getting soft.

There’s real appeal to barrel proof bourbons. It gives flexibility to the consumer to taste the bourbon at different proofs and decide where they like it best. I’m looking more at the problem of obsessing over a release just because it’s higher proof. 2014 William LaRue Weller, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof #6 and ’06-’12 George T Stagg were all touted as “hazmat” releases. Theses are great bourbons in spite of their proof not because of it. The flavor of the bourbon begins to hide behind the alcohol burn.

High Proof Problem

Here’s the problem. As consumers begin to cry for more barrel proofs distilleries will listen. While we’ve been able to enjoy a lot of great barrel proof or high proof bourbons not every barrel qualifies for that. Some need a little more help from the master distiller in the form of filtering or proofing (watering down). With the current trend go ahead and prepare yourself for some pretty bad 140 proof bourbons. We shouldn’t hate a release just because it’s below 100 proof. You may dislike Orphan Barrel Rhetoric but at least say it’s because of the marketing or it’s too woody. Adding to the proof wouldn’t save the bourbon.

barrel proof

What’s next for high proof bourbons? Will some NDP try to take advantage of everyone’s love for higher proofs and begin to hyper proof bourbons? That sounds crazy but we’ve already seen hyper aging, which seems to be a failed experiment, gain traction. I wouldn’t be shocked to see hyper proofing become the next marketing trick. Without getting too deep into the science this wouldn’t be a hard thing to do. By controlling temperature and air flow a producer could raise the proof of a bourbon from its original barrel proof. Of course, they would market it as “Hazmat”. The TTB would have their hands full with this one.

No matter what, I still love George T Stagg, William LaRue Weller, Four Roses Barrel Proofs, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and other barrel proof releases. Yet I still challenge you not to judge a bourbon by the number on the label next to “proof”. You may be surprised at the amount of flavor a 90 proof bourbon can have. What are some of you favorite low proof bourbons?


    This is a great article, and the comparison to high IBU IPA’s is spot on. I must admit, I’m guilty of this to an extent. However, I don’t assume a bourbon is bad because it’s low proof, I just prefer my more expensive bourbons to be 100-proof plus, mainly because of the flexibility you mentioned & because it stretches your dollar a little farther when it’s higher proof.

    You made a great point about mfgs starting to control the aging to increase the proof- that’s something I never thought of, and it would definitely be an effective marketing scheme. I think proof is kind of like age- in some cases higher proof does make the whiskeys better (esp. Maker’s Cask Strength), but it’s nowhere near the end-all be-all of value. Higher proof and age both definitely do make it much easier to market the higher cost of premium releases since it is a quantifiable amount, whereas with “This came from the best spot in the warehouse” is much harder to quantify.

    I have a theory that wheated bourbons benefit from higher proof more than rye bourbons. I would love to see Buffalo Trace do an experimental release of a wheated and a rye bourbon each at 80-90 proof and at 110-120 proof .

    As far as my favorite lower-proof whiskeys, I’m a huge fan of George Dickel No. 12, Dickel Barrel Select, and Four Roses Yellow Label.

    Agree with everything you bring up. I find myself really liking the higher proof offerings not for the “hit”, but for the taste profile that comes with it…at least for me. I love WT 101, but really not all that into the WT 81 for instance. It seems to be lacking in complexity, not burn. New item out there now is the Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye. My bottle comes in around 108 (which is low for a lot of these kinds of offerings) and it may be one of the best things I’ve had at least this year, and probably in several. I think bottom line is that if the distiller/bottler knows what they want and what they are doing, it can really work.

    I will concede that it does seem that quite a few of the barrel proof/cask strength offerings (if they are done well) have a massive amount of flavor and (IMO) you just can’t beat the accompanying heat that envelopes the tongue.

    That being said, I absolutely adore the Smooth Ambler Old Scout 7 Year Straight Bourbon, which is 99 proof. That’s certainly not a low proof, by any means, but anything below 100 proof or that isn’t barrel proof these days does seem to get dismissed more easily by people chasing the high proof bottles.

    Of course, Weller 12 is an easy-going pour at 90 proof and I really enjoy Blantons at 93 proof. There are some really nice 90+ proofers (including Elmer T. Lee)!

    Higher proof is better, to a point. I find 100 proof or so to be ideal for most brands, but not too high.

    95 proof Elijah Craig is great, and would be less great at 86 proof, for example. At same time, Weller at 107 is also great, but would be less great at a higher proof.

    Evan Williams Single Barrel would be vastly better at 95-100, the 86 is just too light, but don’t go crazy. It doesn’t need the fire of barrel proof.

    Just my 2/100 of a dollar.

    I largely agree with this article. Especially that we will all suffer if distilleries try to purposefulling bring proof up in their barrels. Bringing proof up brings flavor down.

    I disagree with the statement that Orphan’s wouldn’t be better @ 100 proof. Does the marketing piss me off? Yes. Is it woody? Yes. Where they passed over countless times as being bad barrels by NDP’s? Yes. Would they have benefited from being 100 proof or even BP? Absolutely!!!

    By Steve-

    I agree with your point in this article. There are many great “low” proof bourbons. And there are some new additions to the world of bourbon in higher proofs that are fantastic. Yes, I too hope the distillers don’t lose their way and get too caught up in this “trend”.

    Elmer T. Lee is a great low proof bourbon, as is Eagle Rare 10. (Most of Buffalo Trace’s stuff is well worth the cost for their “everyday” whiskeys).

    And as commented above, I am a big fan of several of the Evan Williams Single Barrel editions.
    Elijah Craig at low proof is substantial whiskey as well.

    And I never quibble with a host that wants to serve me a Woodford Reserve with an ice ball.

    Lots of good choices from all of the major distilleries.

    Great viewpoint! Thanks!

    I also love High proof, but it should only really be on older bourbons. The point of high proof and older bourbons is that when you add water and/or ice, the bourbon taste will change, not just because it is diluted but it will open up. That Alcohol is looking to absorb the water and when it has been in the barrel for a long time, that change is what really makes it great.

    George T Stagg is better with some ice or water, it is a complex bourbon due to the age and the proof. Stagg Jr is much younger and it has not matured and the alcohol is so much more present.

    Older, high proof bourbons have a complexity that their younger lower proof bourbons do not have. Which is why I love them. If it is that hot, you should add some water or ice, and guess what, all the scotch drinkers do the same thing to their old scotches. The water opens it and that is why you want it.

    Folks can go chase their barrel-proofs. Leave’s more Elmer T. Lee for me :-). One of the finest bourbons that is usually available (having a bit of a trick with it in VA at the moment, but that shall pass), and is a 90 proof bourbon. I don’t know where proofing it up will benefit it. I’m a huge Elijah Craig fan, and I do own several bottles of their barrel proof, but I prefer the standard EC 12 yr over the barrel proof offering any day. I have bottles of barrel proof scotch and bourbon, and they are rarely the first I pull when I want snort. I tend to prefer my whisk(e)y neat, and high-proof bourbon is less enjoyable neat. If I have to proof the spirit down with water, I may have more control over the proof, but, I also lose consistency. Knowing that the bourbon you drank yesterday will be just as good tomorrow is something the distillers have mastered (refer to above master distiller Elmer T. Lee).

    Not only am I bourbonr, but, i’m a whisk(e)y enthusiast. I’ve tried to also get into rums and grain-neutral spirits, but, they just don’t jive with my pallet. Most single malt scotch distributed in the US is about 86 proof. These are wonderful spirits that amaze me with their depth and range of flavor. I do have several offerings that are at a slightly higher, but most are still at or below 100 proof. I wouldn’t want them any higher. The one tru barrel-proof scotch I have is wonderful, when you can take it with the burn. It’s a ~65% abv Aberlour. It was the third bottle of scotch I bought. It remains half-full, almost 3 years later. IMO, high-proof usually equals marketing gimmick to snare the enthusiast looking for his next bragging right.

    As Pappy says: “We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a lose if we must. But always fine bourbon.”.

    I just want fine bourbon.

    Agree with all the comments above. Basil Hayden’s is the first to come to mind. I am a big fan. While not terribly sophisticated or highbrow, you will never go wrong with Maker’s, or Maker’s 46 for that matter. As for high proof, and it’s just my opinion, it’s tough to do better than Booker’s. It’s unbelievable that a bourbon with so much alcohol can be so deceptive with respect to the punch it packs and how smooth and tasty it is.

    It seems from comments and reviews on this site and others that many people don’t get it, and are instead, as you say, trying to impress or “out-man” each other by choking down high-proof liquor and then beating their chests. You rightly pointed out that the real benefit of high-proof bourbon is that it gives us the choice to add a bit of water to find that sweet spot that we each like the best. But it is much more than that. When a whiskey is watered down and chill-filtered prior to bottling, more of the interesting flavors and oily textures are filtered out, and we get a slightly more bland whiskey. I think this is usually done to appeal to more people who don’t want a lot of interesting flavors in their whiskey–something approaching the smoothness and mass-appeal of blended whiskeys. But if the whiskey is bottled at barrel proof, the alcohol keeps more flavors and oils dissolved, which are then released somewhat when water is added. This is especially pronounced if the whiskey is non-chill-filtered, like Stagg Jr., Wild Turkey Rare Breed and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel. In some non-chill-filtered, high proof scotches, you can even see the oils start to cloud up the spirit! (It’s called “Scotch Mist”.)

    Personally I find the Barrel Proof and unfiltered bourbon to have a much fuller flavour. Its not a rule you can just apply to all though. I like the Evan Williams 23 yr and the Pappy 15, which are more in line with your standard abv bourbons, as is Weller 12yr.
    I have to say my favourites so far are WLW, THH and Parkers Wheat, all cask strength. I like them all with a dash of water too, even with a bit of water they hit the spot. Whisk(e)y is like music, everyone likes something slightly different so I would never criticise anyones tastes but I think there is something good about cask strength and being in control completely about how you want it to taste.

    Buffalo Trace at 90 proof is my daily drinker. I’ll often top it off with Weller 107 or my favorite, Rittenhouse Straight Rye, simply amazing. I still enjoy some of the “lighter” bourbons, maybe on ice with a splash of ginger ale after mowing the lawn, or a “heavier” bourbon, 90 plus proof neat, if I’m relaxing with friends and family.

    Completely agree about the flexibility higher proof bourbons offer. In my opinion, Homestead is as good as Stagg, Stagg Jr or any other high proof out there for about $40-$50 a bottle.

    Sometimes I just want a nice tasting bourbon that won’t burn the hair from my nostrils. I love the barrel proof releases too, but straight up, they are not my go to everyday drink. I prefer those when I have the time to sit down and really think about what I am drinking.

    Jefferson reserve and elmer t lee serve as good recent examples of great bourbon without high proof. There is a special bookers dots batch 2015 02 at 127.9 in my small collection when it is time to crank it up.

    After a conversation yesterday with the VP of sales for Castle Brands, they distribute jefferson’s, they will also be coming out with a cask strength in the next few months. He indicated it would probably be between 110 and 120 proof, so we will see how that turns out. I had lost a little faith in some of the Jefferson’s products lately( I have done 12 private barrels of their products including the 8yr, reserve and ocean), but after tasting the Groth Cab finish I am excited to see what’s coming up next for them.

    What would be classified higher proof? Over 100? If so I think some 90 proofs are very good. The thing about higher proof bourbon, is I can add water and open it up if needed. I have noticed the higher proof versions of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam are better tasting.

    Just found a gem of a “non-bruiser”. At 99 proof “Old Scout” by Smooth Ambler has a heavy rye profile but is balanced properly. A great value but not readily available.

    Is higher proof better? I use to think so, but found out that’s not always the case. Proof, age, mashbill, barrel proof, filtered, non filtered, single barrel, small batch, blended/vated, what goes on in the barrel during the aging process and above all the skill of the master distiller all factor in to determining the quality of a bourbon. Non filtered barrel proof GTS, PHC, WFE and WLW are exceptional bourbon not because they are barrel proof, but rather because they are finely crafted super quality products. Other barrel proofs like Bookers, ECBP, EHT, .FR and Stagg Jr are all ok with an occasional home run. Cut and filtered <114prf bourbon covers such a broad range it's difficult to pick one. Although we all have our favorites in that proof range, most will agree that the PVW line dominates that field. Anything below 90 proof is for the most part the mass produced 'bottom shelf ' stuff that is in its own right a consistent, quality and affordable product. I once thought high barrel proof was the only way to go, but soon realized that I was cheating myself from experiencing the many other quality bourbons that are available.

    If the only bottles on my shelf were EC12, Blanton’s, and ETL I’d sip happily forever. Proof is definitely not everything.

    Good stuff as always, Blake. I agree that higher proof isn’t magic. Indeed I’ve had some awful high proof whiskies. Some absolutely need a few drops to open up better, and we should be willing to do that because flavor is where it’s at. There are some things I’ll never proof down because they are just so good even with the burn (GTS, WLW, THH, ECBP, etc.). Even the Hazmat ECBP is just so tasty to me that I don’t want to change it. But I have a SAOS that’s not that high proof but the burn distracts a bit so I add water. It’s relative to the drinker for sure. I would, however, like to see some more barrel proof options. Once I had BSFTB I don’t know if I can go back, but EHTBP didn’t have the same appeal to me. I’d LOVE to see something barrel proof from Woodford, but even then I don’t just want higher proof; I want it unfiltered. Those corn lipids in the WLW, THH, and GTS are what make them so spectacular. I’d like to see some releases like that from others, even if somewhat limited or allocated.

    This is a great post. As a self proclaimed “proof-whore”, I find my personal obsession with high proof whiskeys to be less about “out-manning” anyone and more about palate acclimation. I find that the more high proof whiskeys I drink the less I flavor I can detect from lower proof whiskeys. 90 proofers used to be my go to and some of my favorites. Now that I drink so much high proof stuff regularly, I find anything under 100 proof to be boring and watered down. I would be curious to know if there is a medical explanation behind this high proof acclimation I’ve experienced over the years. Bottom line, when it comes to proof I will pay for the flexibility to set the ABV how I like it and I think that is valuable to any whiskey enthusiast whether they are a proof junkie or not.

    Great post, Blake! I’ll admit, I (like many bourbon fans) tend to have a bias toward barrel proof whiskies, but proof is just a single facet of a bourbon, or any whisk(e)y. Although I can’t think of a case where I’ve tried an 80(ish) proof bourbon and not felt that it would be better with the extra body and flavor that might come from a higher ABV, cask strength isn’t everything, and being sub-100 proof shouldn’t be considered a bad thing. Elijah Craig 12 and Eagle Rare 10 are two of my favorite everyday bourbons, and even with barrel proof variants (somewhat) available, these sub-100 proof bourbons are excellent just as they are.

    A few weeks ago we did a panel tasting of all 12 of the final release of the buffalo trace single oak project. While none of these whiskeys were bottled at exceptionally high proof, all of the ones that entered barrel at 125 proof as opposed to 105 proof were preferred by the group as a whole…..

    I’m definitely a proof snob. Anything below 90 proof is not for me. I don’t like watered down bourbon….lower proofs take away the “authenticity” of the spirit…..I feel, the higher proof, the better the taste. An uncut/unfiltered bourbon is meant to be taken as is. You will miss out on the true flavor by diluting. For bourbon cocktails (with the exception of a mint julep,the higher proofs work great with the ice) I always use a BiB or a high proof such as OGD 114/or OGD BiB, Rittenhouse rye BiB. Give me uncut/unfiltered anyday, all day.

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