About two years ago, a few editors and I flew down to Kentucky to try and understand why bourbon is booming. As sometimes happens with the simplest of questions, the answer was very complicated. But a few common threads arose. One that we kept hearing was some variation on these events: as the vodka– and cocaine-drenched ’80s died out, cocktail culture started to make a comeback nationwide and bartenders, in order to make cocktails that didn’t taste too watered down, began demanding higher-proof bourbon. (Bartenders buy a lot of alcohol, as you might imagine, and have some serious sway in the industry.) When distillers began bottling higher-proof bourbon, they were also expanding the market for “ultra premium” bourbon. This juice was rarer, sometimes marketed as “limited edition,” and came at cask strength, or something close to it.
So what was once the cheap cowboy drink had now become more refined, and then more expensive, an aspect of liquor that sometimes is all that’s required to create a market. And what’s most interesting is that the higher-proof bourbons aren’t new. In fact, the term bottled-in-bond really only meant something significant back in the early days of distillation, when ensuring production quality was vital to everyone’s health. Since then, bourbon proofs have dipped down to 80, the legal minimum, before climbing back up more recently. So while Wild Turkey 101 was once pretty in line with the rest of the whiskey shelf before it transitioned into a relatively high-alcohol, low-cost spirit, it’s now almost quaint when compared to bourbon that reaches above 120 proof.
For this Father’s Day, sit down and have a drink with your dad. Ironically, we are closer today to serving up the type of booze he would have sipped with his own father, both with our cocktail culture — especially a well-made Old Fashioned — and the popularization of high-proof bourbon, than we’ve been at any time since the turn of the century. So sit back and have a throwback whiskey on the rocks, or make it into a cocktail that can hold its fire and flavor against a heavy-handed pour of simple syrup and bitters.
Wild Turkey 101
The House Bourbon: Don’t knock the bird. Once associated with inexpensive, highly alcoholic liquor, Wild Turkey has come to be known as the best bang for your buck that you can get in a bourbon bottle, not to mention a favorite of Hunter S. Thompson and cited by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest. Bourbons that are “bottled-in-bond” — among other regulations — are bottled at 100 proof. This can be roughly considered the low end for high-proof bourbons. Wild Turkey is not bottled-in-bond, but rather, the company intentionally keeps its proof slightly higher than the rest of the market (they also sell Wild Turkey 81) for differentiation. The high-rye mash bill and deepest barrel char lend spice and oak to any cocktail for the best price, especially for a seven-year-old spirit.
Whether it’s called “cask strength” (as is Maker’s Mark Cask Strength) or “barrel proof” (as is Elijah Craig Barrel Proof), the result is still the same: bourbon bottled straight from the cask, with no dilution. These bourbons are great for making cocktails that still pack a punch — Willett sells cask-strength bourbon above 140 proof, so high you can’t even fly with it in your luggage — but they also provide a great case study in how the barrel influences flavor, and how water, which is added to dilute most bourbons to around 80 proof, does the same. Our Recommendation: $60
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
The Visiting Gift: Knob Creek was the doing of Booker Noe, the former Jim Beam Master Distiller responsible for the following small-batch bourbons: Baker’s, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek, arguably some of Jim Beam’s best. The highest-proof Knob Creek is also its most expensive (save for the recent limited-edition Knob Creek 2001 release) and it includes bourbon that is at least nine years old, coming from one particularly good barrel (referred to as a “honey barrel”) and diluted to just 120 proof. The nine years lend an oaky flavor, but also a smoothness and a little sweetness, more than the relatively younger Wild Turkey.
1792 Full Proof
The Celebration Bottle: This is a recent example of a great bourbon capitalizing on the high-proof trend. “Full Proof” is the fourth limited-edition release from 1792 Bourbon, with Sweet Wheat, Port Finish and Single Barrel coming before it. This bottle hit shelves late last month and the eight-and-a-half-year-old bourbon was bottled at 125 proof, or “full proof,” which is the same proof that the whiskey entered the barrel. So essentially, 1792 added back in the water that was lost to “angel’s share,” which is the volume loss due to evaporation from the barrel. Bottles are hard to come by, but the release will be annual, so watch out for it for special-occasion cocktails or bourbon over ice.