At the intersection of history, spirits, and culture, Old Forester is more than a bourbon. As the only bourbon continuously distilled before, during, and after prohibition, it has the heritage, authenticity, and quality that make for great storytelling. In this article, we talk to top bartenders to uncover why higher proof whiskey, like Old Forester, is ideal for cocktails.
Not all bourbon is created equal.
Of course, different recipes, distillation styles and yeast strains lead to a range of flavors in the finished liquor, but today we’re talking about something even more fundamental: proof. The level of alcohol content in a whiskey makes a huge difference in its flavor, but cocktail recipes rarely take this into consideration.
Well, that’s going to change starting now.
While many whiskies are bottled at the standard 80-proof, a number of top bartenders in the country are reaching for higher-proof bourbons. Why? “Higher proof drives flavor in cocktails,” says Eryn Reece, who won the 2013 edition of Speed Rack, a national competition for female bartenders that benefits breast cancer research. “It makes the flavors more alive and vibrant.”
The science behind high-proof whiskey actually bears that out, in fact. Most of the complex chemicals that give whiskey its flavor dissolve more easily in alcohol than in water, which means that a whiskey with a higher concentration of alcohol will contain more flavor chemicals in the same volume of liquid than a lower-proof spirit. Essentially, it’s more concentrated, the same as what would happen if you packed more tea into a teabag or more coffee into a Keurig pod.
Reece isn’t alone. LA bartender Ryan Wainwright loves to maximize high-proof whiskey’s powers. Wainwright is one of the West Coast’s most influential bartenders, and he uses high-proof spirits of all kinds frequently. “I’d put high-proof whiskey in everything if I could,” he says.
One of Wainwright’s high-proof secrets is to what he calls “split the jigger.” Essentially, he pairs a high-proof whiskey with a lower-proof one. This blend helps the whiskey to stand up to other ingredients in a mixed drink and not get lost. “Boom. It just rips the drink open,” Wainwright says.
So what sorts of drinks work best with high-proof whiskey? Anything that’s sweet, says Steva Casey. She has been putting out some of the country’s most creative libations at venues across her native Birmingham, Ala., for more than a decade. “You need a higher-proof whiskey to stand up to sugar in a cocktail,” she says. Take the Old Fashioned, which contains only whiskey, sugar and bitters: Casey and Wainwright both cite it as one of the best ways to use high-proof whiskey. It’s even historically appropriate: When the Old Fashioned was invented in the early 1800s, all whiskey was high-proof whiskey. “I can’t think of a classic drink that wouldn’t work well with an overproof spirit,” Wainwright says.
High-proof whiskey also goes well in very tart cocktails. “With a high-proof spirit, a cocktail can stand to have more acid,” Casey says. One of her favorite drinks is the Gold Rush, a classic mix of bourbon, honey and lemon, and when she makes it with a stronger spirit, she always adds extra lemon, creating a dryer cocktail. “You could even use less whiskey,” she says. “I’m not trying to get ‘em loaded quicker; I just want to make the best-tasting drink.”
Reece holds the same philosophy. Her Manhattans, for example, usually contain 2.5 ounces of whiskey, but with a high-proof bottling, she cuts that down to just 2 ounces, leaving the rest of her recipe unchanged.
But she does recommends bumping up the amount of sugar, simple syrup or other sweet ingredients when using stronger whiskey. “The higher-proof spirit will need a little help being softened depending on the drink,” she says.
Ready to give it a try yourself? Mix one of these delicious recipes.
Gold RushCreated by Steva Casey
2 oz High-proof bourbon.75 oz Fresh lemon juice.75 oz Honey syrup (1 part honey, 1 part water)2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a rocks glass filled with a large ice cube.
Highline Park SourCreated by Eryn Reece
1 oz High-proof bourbon1 oz Amontillado sherry.25 oz Grand Marnier.25 oz Campari.25 oz Simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water).25 oz Ginger syrup*.75 oz Lemon juiceGlass: CoupeGarnish: Orange peel
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a slice of orange peel.
In a mixing glass, add equal parts sugar, ginger juice and water. Stir to combine.