Monday, September 22, 2014 · 6:14 a.m.

Is the 'proof' in the product?

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The liquor industry has trended toward “overproof” spirits labeled as cask strength, navy strength or “bottled in bond.” (Photo: Brandon Short and Gypsy Wolfess)

Drinking trends come and go, but recently it seems that more and more consumers are interested in just how boozy their favorite spirit or concoction is. The liquor industry itself has trended further toward “overproof” spirits labeled as cask strength, navy strength or “bottled in bond.” This week, famed brand Maker’s Mark got a severe lashing out from its consumers because they water down their product in order to keep up with production. Their 45 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) or 90 proof product is taking a dip to 42 percent ABV in order to stretch their product further. 

Crimson and Clover

2 oz Chattanooga cask-strength Whiskey
.75 oz stout cordial
1 oz blood orange juice

Although the idea of making these high-alcohol spirits is popular, as Maker’s Mark has proved, it is not necessarily easy. Let’s break down the three main categories of overproof spirits I mentioned above and explain why.

Cask strength
This is the term that you are probably most familiar with, and it is the most popular of the three styles. So what does “cask strength” mean? The liquor is distilled, put in a barrel, taken out and bottled as is. This is different from standard procedure, where after barrel aging the product would then be cut with high-quality water to the desired proof.

A great example that hits close to home is Chattanooga’s sweetheart, Chattanooga Whiskey. Their 1816 Reserve is part of the standard process, taken down to 90 proof before bottling. However, they also offer us a cut of their whiskey straight out of the barrel at 113.6 proof, which falls right down the middle in alcohol percentage next to other cask-strength products. To shed some perspective on this, Buffalo Trace’s George T. Stagg was bottled at 142.8 proof this year, and Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 year was bottled at 107 proof.

Navy strength
We’ll move into talking about gin and rum here, the two choice spirits of the British Royal Navy. Navy-strength liquor runs about 114 proof, or 57 percent ABV. Why so specific? The declared reason is that the booze on board must be of at least 57 percent alcohol in case it were to soak the gunpowder on board. The high proof would still allow the gunpowder to light, therefore no ammunition lost.

Bottled in bond
Here lies another style with some history behind it. In 1892, the Bottled in Bond Act was passed in order to pursue a better way to protect the authenticity of the bourbon that was being produced. To be labeled “bottled in bond,” it much be at least 4 years old, bottled at exactly 100 proof and made at one distillery at one time. To ensure this process, these products were aged in federally supervised warehouses where only government officials held keys to unlock and lock the doors each morning and night. There are still some products that label themselves in this fashion, including Laird’s Bonded Applejack and Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond.

So why are these hot spirits all the rage? Many bartenders and industry professionals will argue that spirits of a higher proof lend more dimension to a drink. The concentrated spirit is more robust and flavorful, allowing it to shine through and marry with other bold flavors. I think a rising argument here will be similar to the standard that the Bottled in Bond Act brought to us, which was to keep the authenticity of the spirit. Products with these distinctions—cask strength, navy strength and bottled in bond—cannot waver or water down to keep up with demand.

I know a lot of Maker’s Mark fans in this city, and I’d love your feedback. What do you think of the brand’s choice to water down their product? As a consumer who creates demand for the product, will you continue to stay tried and true to your brand? Feel free to email me at the address below or comment on this post.

As always, happy imbibing!

Laura Kelton is a recent graduate of UTC and currently runs the bar program at Easy Bistro & Bar. Feel free to reach out to her by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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