TBoner

02-14-2007, 18:48

I've been pondering proof lately. More specifically, I've been considering what the perfect proof might be.

I know, I know, there are different proofs that are suited to different taste profiles, ages of whiskey, times of day or year, etc. And I know there have been interesting discussions of why various proofs exist in the past (though those threads are closed now). But I still think there are some interesting things to hash out here.

First, it's my understanding that our 100 proof is basically the result of a corruption and/or misinterpretation of the old Sykes system, under which 57 percent alcohol was considered 100 proof. The only common bottling I could think of that comes in at 57% is OGD114, which I consider a terrific pour at a terrific proof. That said, some truly great bourbons are never or rarely at 114-proof (specifically, it seems WT enters the barrel at about 110 most of the time), so I'd hesitate to use 114 as any kind of magic number (not to mention the fact that the Sykes system was in place mostly for tax purposes as I understand it).

Second, I will say that I tend to enjoy most of my bourbon at 100/101, and nearly every "favorite" I have (WT 101, Knob Creek, OGDBIB) is at this proof. This could be attributable to several factors, though, that are unrelated to proof. 100-proofs tend to be bonds and/or small-batch, for instance. And nearly every company that has a 101-proof has a lower-shelf bourbon at a lower proof, meaning their better whiskey's going into the 101.

Also, I will acknowledge that I love Stagg, Booker's, etc. In other words, I'm not opposed to high-barrel-proof (though I will add three drops of water to open up the nose) whiskey. I think this stuff has its place, but it's certainly not the sort of thing I'd drink as often as it's 100-proof brethren (Knob Creek for instance).

Clearly, Julian Van Winkle seems to have an affinity for 107-proof, and who am I to argue? ORVW, PVW, Weller 107, et al. are terrific at 107, as is Baker's from Beam. And there is something perfectly warming on an autumn day about nearly every 107-proof whiskey I can think of.

Now, I recognize that all of the above doesn't really account for factors such as age relative to proof (consider the superiority of Weller 107 to Weller SR at the same age) or barrel selection.

But I guess what I'm getting at is that there does seem to be some sort of common thread here. I rarely have an 80-proof bourbon I'd want to pour with regularity, occasionally an 86-proofer, but find most bourbon isn't really balanced with respect to mouthfeel or flavor profile below 90-proof. Even at 90-proof, there aren't too many whiskeys that take much age before the wood dominates, though there are more examples than maybe there used to be. Between 90 and 100 proof, there are some terrific pours. But for me, the sweet spot is about 100(/101) proof. Whether this is due to other factors besides proof or not, I obviously can't say for sure, but I'd say probably not.

There are other oddball proofs, too, such as Fighting Cock at 103 and some of the "point-proofs" (Thedford at 94.2, etc.), and clearly bottlers are choosing barrel or batch profile with a bottling proof in mind to balance the flavors, but in the end, 100-proof seems right to me: enough dancing on the tongue and complexity to balance even the sweetest whiskey, but allowing the true flavor of the bourbon to come through without being overshadowed by alcohol.

What do you guys think? Is there a perfect proof? What if you had to choose a proof at which to drink?

I know, I know, there are different proofs that are suited to different taste profiles, ages of whiskey, times of day or year, etc. And I know there have been interesting discussions of why various proofs exist in the past (though those threads are closed now). But I still think there are some interesting things to hash out here.

First, it's my understanding that our 100 proof is basically the result of a corruption and/or misinterpretation of the old Sykes system, under which 57 percent alcohol was considered 100 proof. The only common bottling I could think of that comes in at 57% is OGD114, which I consider a terrific pour at a terrific proof. That said, some truly great bourbons are never or rarely at 114-proof (specifically, it seems WT enters the barrel at about 110 most of the time), so I'd hesitate to use 114 as any kind of magic number (not to mention the fact that the Sykes system was in place mostly for tax purposes as I understand it).

Second, I will say that I tend to enjoy most of my bourbon at 100/101, and nearly every "favorite" I have (WT 101, Knob Creek, OGDBIB) is at this proof. This could be attributable to several factors, though, that are unrelated to proof. 100-proofs tend to be bonds and/or small-batch, for instance. And nearly every company that has a 101-proof has a lower-shelf bourbon at a lower proof, meaning their better whiskey's going into the 101.

Also, I will acknowledge that I love Stagg, Booker's, etc. In other words, I'm not opposed to high-barrel-proof (though I will add three drops of water to open up the nose) whiskey. I think this stuff has its place, but it's certainly not the sort of thing I'd drink as often as it's 100-proof brethren (Knob Creek for instance).

Clearly, Julian Van Winkle seems to have an affinity for 107-proof, and who am I to argue? ORVW, PVW, Weller 107, et al. are terrific at 107, as is Baker's from Beam. And there is something perfectly warming on an autumn day about nearly every 107-proof whiskey I can think of.

Now, I recognize that all of the above doesn't really account for factors such as age relative to proof (consider the superiority of Weller 107 to Weller SR at the same age) or barrel selection.

But I guess what I'm getting at is that there does seem to be some sort of common thread here. I rarely have an 80-proof bourbon I'd want to pour with regularity, occasionally an 86-proofer, but find most bourbon isn't really balanced with respect to mouthfeel or flavor profile below 90-proof. Even at 90-proof, there aren't too many whiskeys that take much age before the wood dominates, though there are more examples than maybe there used to be. Between 90 and 100 proof, there are some terrific pours. But for me, the sweet spot is about 100(/101) proof. Whether this is due to other factors besides proof or not, I obviously can't say for sure, but I'd say probably not.

There are other oddball proofs, too, such as Fighting Cock at 103 and some of the "point-proofs" (Thedford at 94.2, etc.), and clearly bottlers are choosing barrel or batch profile with a bottling proof in mind to balance the flavors, but in the end, 100-proof seems right to me: enough dancing on the tongue and complexity to balance even the sweetest whiskey, but allowing the true flavor of the bourbon to come through without being overshadowed by alcohol.

What do you guys think? Is there a perfect proof? What if you had to choose a proof at which to drink?