The Problem To Consider When Tasting High-Proof Bourbon, According To An Expert

A lot of high-quality bourbons are over 100 proof, with some reaching towards the dangerously saucy region of 140 proof or higher. Pair that with the tendency to judge the quality of a bourbon based on the streaks (known as legs) it makes when you swirl it around in a glencairn — which are directly correlated with how high the proof is — and you have a situation where a higher proof can be equated with higher quality. To find out if that's actually true, we reached out to Chris Blatner, an Executive Bourbon Steward. Blatner wasn't sold on high-proof bourbons.

"There certainly is potential for a really high proof to hide flaws in a bourbon," Blatner told us. Hiding flaws seems good, right? Maybe, but that's not the only thing it's doing. "If the alcohol content is so high that it overwhelms the whiskey, it not only can hide flaws but it can hide many of the aromas and flavors of the whiskey. This results in a really unpleasant experience."

The proof kings and queens out there who revel in the high octane may be shaking their heads somewhat, but that doesn't mean Blatner is wrong. There's a reason most whiskeys shy away before they enter Everclear territory. While low-proof whiskeys can sometimes lack the chutzpah whiskey lovers are looking for, high-proof whiskeys can often lose what makes the whiskey great behind the ethanol burn.

Hot, hot heat

It's the same as adding peppers to food. A little spice can make a boring dish interesting, but if you're adding so much heat that no other flavors come through, you're no longer able to appreciate anything else. Some people are looking for that singular note of ethanol — Everclear does have a market, after all. But, if you're drinking whiskey because you enjoy the flavor, reaching for a bottle that's clocking in at 130 proof may be working against you. Of course, everyone's cutoff is going to be different. Some people won't go above 100 while others are perfectly comfortable in the 120 range. Personal taste does play a factor.

There are also individual products to consider. The wild success of Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Coy Hill seems to indicate that high proof is possible in the right hands. The release came in five batches ranging from 143.6 proof to an eye-popping 155.1 proof. The brand hadn't planned on creating such a potent brew, but it was well-received.

The story of Coy Hill is particularly important because it illustrates Blatner's point. Almost everyone who got their hands on a bottle was floored by the heat. 155 proof is strong enough to peel paint. To soften the drink, adding a drop or two of water is known to open the spirit up. It buffs out the sharp edges of high-proof bourbons, allowing the more flavorful notes to peek through.