While discussions about a drink's alcoholic payload typically focus on how fuzzy (or not) that drink will make you feel, the strength of spirits and liqueurs in a cocktail has another important function. As Jason Wilson writes in today's Washington Post, the alcoholic strength, or "proof," of a cocktail's ingredients plays a big role in that drink's flavor.
Wilson writes that bartenders are increasingly taking a spirit's proof into consideration when preparing a cocktail. "[T]here is a logical reason why craft bartenders seek out higher-proof spirits," Wilson writes. "Alcohol delivers flavor, just as fat does in food. It's a similar reason why alcohol levels have crept up in wine in recent years: people expect that explosion of fruit in the mouth. In mixing cocktails, bartenders want all the various ingredients to pop with flavor, and the rich mouth feel that high-proof spirits convey."
Spirits such as whiskey or gin are typically distilled and aged at a much higher percentage of alcohol than that at which they're sold (exceptions include cask-proof whiskies and other overproof spirits). For reasons related to everything from taxes to potability to profitability, most spirits are diluted with water before being bottled; while the alcohol percentage varies by style of spirit and by brand, 80 proof (or 40 percent alcohol) is the lowest strength that a distilled spirit may be sold, and many familiar brands are marketed at this minimum strength (most liqueurs and other mixers are sold at less than 80 proof). Higher-proof spirits simply have less water in the mix, and along with the higher percentage of alcohol comes a greater concentration of all those other components of a spirit that contribute to its taste.
As I wrote in February in the San Francisco Chronicle, craft bartenders across the country have a fondness for working with higher-octane spirits such as the 100-proof rye from Rittenhouse and the bonded apple brandy from Laird's (under somewhat archaic government definitions, "bonded" simply translates as "bottled at 100 proof"). Other favorites among these bartenders are spirits such as absinthe (which, at an alcoholic strength of anywhere from 100 to 144 proof, packs a wallop of both potency and flavor), liqueurs such as the 114-proof green Chartreuse, and—especially among the tiki set—rums that may range up to 151 in proof.
As Smuggler's Cove owner Martin Cate told me at the time, "A rum's proof really makes it stand up, particularly in tropical-style drinks where you have so much other stuff you're throwing at it." In the bar's signature Rum Barrel, Cate uses a base of 151-proof Lemon Hart demerara rum to give the drink the proper vavoom of flavor.
"I was using a regular (rum) and it didn't have the poppity, punchity goodness I was looking for, but a little Lemon Hart 151 really made its day. In tiki, it's about rum standing up to the other ingredients and punching their way through."
Needless to say, higher-proof spirits need to be served carefully, because along with that "pop" of flavor comes a "pow "of alcoholic potency. But a Manhattan made with 100-proof rye whiskey or a martini made with 110-proof Old Raj gin can be a surprisingly beautiful thing, and adventurous drinkers should take the base spirit's proof into consideration when working out the flavor of the drink.
These are a couple of my favorite ways to use higher proof spirits. What are some of yours?
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.