Spirits: Understanding alcohol proof

Alcohol is more dangerous than illegal drugs like heroin and crack cocaine, according to a new study. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Proof is an equation that even someone like me, who earned a C- in remedial math, can do: Double the number listed as the alcohol by volume on the bottle. A spirit with 40 percent alcohol by volume, therefore, is 80 proof.

But as easy as the number is to calculate, the concept of proof is more challenging. Most people have a shaky grasp of the alcohol content in their beverages. We've all seen someone who scarfs down several five-ounce glasses of a big Zinfandel at 15 percent alcohol (30 proof) or several Belgian-style beers at 10 percent (20 proof) and then wonders how he got so tipsy.

That confusion only mounts as we step into the realm of spirits. For instance, you'll often hear people say they avoid tequila (80 proof) because of "this bad night in college" while they sip a drink from a gigantic "martini" glass, made with a vodka that is the exact same proof as the tequila. Or consider Jagermeister and Captain Morgan (70 proof), both of which have a certain hard-partying, rock-and-roll reputation. Perhaps to Metallica's chagrin, however, those two are much lower in alcohol than, say, cask-strength single-malt scotches that can hover around 120 proof. Tiki drinks seem cute and harmless when they are served in those decorative mugs, but watch out for the 151-proof rum they're often topped with.

I witnessed that confusion in action a few weeks ago when my sister-in-law visited from California. Kaisey asked if she could join me in a tasting of bourbons and ryes ranging from 100 to 108 proof, in order to learn more about whiskey. I was happy to have her taste with me but warned her: This isn't like a wine tasting, so you have to be careful as you sip.

She really liked the Wild Turkey Rare Breed (108 proof), and I don't blame her. It's a beautiful whiskey. But as she refilled the glass, I warned her further: You'd better add some ice and water.

Later in the evening, I was surprised to see the glass of 108-proof bourbon drained. I was not, however, surprised to see that Kaisey didn't feel very good the next morning.

These days, most drinkers don't have much experience with high-proof spirits. In the 18th century, proof was much more straightforward. Liquor was "proofed" at the distillery by adding gunpowder and lighting it on fire. If it didn't light, the alcohol content was too weak. If it burned yellow, too strong. If it burned blue, the proof was just right (that was around 57 percent, or 114 proof). A century ago, our federal government established a standard that quality spirits were "bonded" at 100 proof, or 50 percent alcohol. You still see the word bonded on certain 100-proof bottles of old brands such as Rittenhouse Rye or Laird's Straight Apple Brandy, but the term doesn't really carry much weigh any longer. Over time, federal and state excise taxes on higher-proof spirits drove down the average proof, as did health concerns and consumer preference. Jack Daniel's whiskey, for instance, dropped from 90 proof to 80 proof in 2004.

Now, as part of a classic-cocktail renaissance, bartenders are seeking out the higher-proof spirits. You see a lot more 110-proof green Chartreuse on cocktail menus these days, for instance, or "overproof" rums, such as Demerara, a dark spirit from Guyana that can be as high as 151 proof. Then, of course, there's absinthe, which was reintroduced to the American market in 2007 and is historically bottled at more than 120 proof.

I recently tasted several new absinthes with Ted Breaux: chemist, master distiller of Lucid and the guy who paved the way for absinthe to be legally sold in the United States. His Nouvelle-Orleans (which will be available in the Washington area in September) is bottled at an extremely high 136 proof, or 68 percent alcohol.

Why is absinthe always so high proof, I wanted to know; is it part of the mystique?

"No, no, no." Breaux said, with a laugh. "You have to bottle it at high proof because of the herbs. You want clarity, and if the proof isn't high enough, the compounds will deteriorate. The spirit becomes hazy with sediment, and it looks awful."

Likewise, there is a logical reason why craft bartenders seek out higher-proof spirits. Alcohol delivers flavor, just as fat does in food. It's a similar reason why alcohol levels have crept up in wine in recent years: People expect that explosion of fruit in the mouth. In mixing cocktails, bartenders want all the various ingredients to pop with flavor, and the rich mouth feel that high-proof spirits convey.

As an example, I've included the accompanying recipe for a Greenpoint cocktail, one of numerous neighborhood or borough variations on the Manhattan. Instead of using a 90-proof whiskey, the variation calls for a 100-plus-proof rye such as Wild Turkey or Rittenhouse. That's blended with high-octane green Chartreuse and Punt e Mes, which is more complex than your typical vermouth. All these flavors play together well but still also loudly announce themselves. It's a drink that will convince you once and for all that high proof is not something to steer away from.

Just be careful. As I told my sister-in-law: You're not at a wine tasting.



Follow Wilson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist. His book, "Boozehound," is to be published in September by Ten Speed Press.

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