The sales line on bourbon whiskey over the last decade or so slopes downward as sharply as a ski run in the Alps. The chart on the slide in high-proof products is almost as steep. Over that period the country has shown such a decided preference for white and light beverages that the old two-fisted drinker has become a curiosity.

But not National Distillers Corp., in a move that some would equate with General Motors Corp. coming out with a 16-passenger Cadillac with fins, has decided to introduce a 114-proof bourbon whiskey. And in the midst of a recession the company is putting a $16-a-bottle price tag on it. That's for 750 milliliters, not a quart.

Why would National Distillers launch a product of apparently the wrong color, wrong strength, wrong variety and at the wrong price?

"Because it makes a lot of sense to us in the present market," says an NDC spokesman.

"After all, bourbon was down only 4 percent last year; it may be leveling off. Vodka's growth has decelerated, and there has been a surge in heartier rums and in cordials. All of this suggests the public may be returning to a desire for flavor after the tasteless vodka era."

The company says the new product, Old Grand-Dad Special Selection, qualifies under Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms regulation as "barrel proof" (114) liquor, which means it is bottled exactly as it comes from the barrel, without being cut.

Bourbon was drunk that way for decades before the government, moving to check greedy saloonkeepers from watering the product, imposed the Bottled in Bond Act in 1897. It required that bonded bourbon be from a single barrel, a single distillery, at least four years old and 100 proof.

"We didn't venture into this without considering arguments against it," says John D. Lethbridge, vice president and director of marketing for NDC. "Conventional wisdom in the liquor industry has it that the public is trending toward lower proofs."

But he contends "the taste of natural bourbon is so mellow that the proof level becomes completely acceptable."