The Underappreciation of Overproof Spirits
One look at the rail at Gib’s in Madison, Wisconsin, where you’ll catch the label likes of Hamilton 151, Wild Turkey 101 and Rittenhouse Bonded Rye, and you might start to notice a trend. “We’re one of the few bars in town that primarily uses overproof spirits, and I think our patrons can taste a difference,” says bar manager Roger Allen, who has been calling upon high-proof spirits — anything clocking in at 100 proof or higher — for the bar’s menu since its opening nearly two years ago.
Allen’s biggest reason for reaching for the boozier bottles? Like most decisions made behind the bar, it boils down to flavor. “People spend a lot of time when they’re creating these spirits on the mash bill or grain bill they’re distilling and what kind of expression they’re hoping it’ll impart, and I think it’s important to them that it’s represented well,” says Allen. “It’s very well done with overproof spirits, in particular, because that flavor is going to cut through anything else that is mixed in with it.”
The other big motivation behind focusing on overproof spirits, Allen notes, is in their totally transparent makeup. “Bottled in bond is a Prohibition-era term for an American-made spirit, and it was the only quality of standard at the time,” he says. The term came about in 1897, and to be called as such, the spirit would have to bottled at 100 proof and never see the likes of any additional neutral grain spirit. “It means that the mash bill and grain bill are totally pure, which is good news for the consumer — it won’t give you as much of a headache the next day.”
And if you’re looking for the ideal candidate for infusions, look no further: Extra spirited spirits are the perfect foundation, notes Allen, thanks to their ability to maintain punch as they’re diluted. “You want to start with something higher proof when you’re infusing because the more things you add to it, the more you’re capable of lowering the alcohol content,” says Allen, who notes that higher proof spirits can also provide a longer shelf life for an array of craft cocktail in-house creations, including bitters, amaros and tinctures.
While there’s nothing new about very boozy booze (the concept of overproof spirits dates back to the 18th century), Allen notes an increase in their production over the past few years, in particular — an occurrence he credits to two factors: more craft distilleries and increased demand behind the bar.
“These days it seems like distributors and brand reps are really taking note of the industry interest in higher proof spirits, and so they’ll now often come to sample these expressions,” says Allen. And while it’s the whiskies and the rums of the world that are most commonly created in overproof bottles (think anything dubbed “cask strength” or “barrel proof”), Allen has seen other spirit categories play mad catch up as of late.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of overproof gin recently, and it’s because these smaller distilleries are popping up more and more, and they’re in complete control of how much they want to cook down their overproof grain spirits,” he says. “There’s a lot of these smaller distilleries now, so creating an overproof expression is a way for them to stand out and snag a spot on a bar’s rail.”
Tequila is another one. “Tequila, in general, is hitting the American market in the biggest way right now, and distillers are focusing on overproof expressions, too,” he says. “I was tasting a lineup from a distiller from Mexico about two weeks ago, and at the very end he was like, ‘Would you like to try our 110 proof one?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, most definitely.’”
It’s that kind of tequila that makes its way into a margarita served at Gib’s — but not first without a solid ritual of trial and error. “It’s absolutely vital to taste as you go because one thing that’s easy to forget about is that this kind of alcohol content will definitely shine through,” he says. “A little bit goes a long way, so I always suggest erring on the side of caution.”
That caveat is especially true when it comes to high volume establishments. “I recently asked a bartender friend of mine why they were using an 80-proof expression of a bottle instead of 100-proof, and he said, ‘Because we’re getting people drunk enough as it is,’” says Allen. “I see his point because it does depend on the business you’re running and your clientele — at Gib’s, where people are sitting and staying a while, I think it’s completely appropriate and desirable to offer a drink that packs a little bit of punch.”
And while Gib’s abstains from promoting anything high-proof about its cast of classic and signature drams — to do so would call to mind an infamous kind of Long Island Iced Tea culture for Allen — he’s happy to fill patrons in upon inquiry. “We just want people to taste a drink comparatively to another drink they’ve had elsewhere and deem our drink better — and if they ask about why that’s the case, I’ll be the first to tell them.”