The High Proof Cocktail Insurgency

After a half-century mixing drinks with watered-down booze, bartenders are rethinking their recipes.

Liquor companies spent the last half of the last century watering down booze. “The emphasis was on lowering production costs; more water was added back in to spirits to lower the proof,” explains legendary cocktail expert Dale DeGroff.  Fortunately the trend reversed over the last decade, but not until drink recipes had been profoundly affected. Today, bartenders mix outdated drinks using liquors that contain far more alcohol then they once did. The results have been mediocre enough to inspire a movement: A group of dedicated bartenders are looking to create a new genre of intentionally high-proof cocktails.

“Smart bartenders have seen this grassroots movement as a chance to utilize high proof spirits in their cocktail programs,” says Paul Pacult, editor of The Spirit Journal, adding that the new drinks provide “an avenue to capture those consumers who like bigger, more dramatic tasting flavors.”

If over-proofed cocktails supply more flavor, they also supply the same punch as drinks taken neat. Add whatever you want to 140-proof whiskey, drop in some ice, and let is sit outside on a hot day – you’ll still have a stiff drink. Complexity and strength are no longer in opposition. To the contrary, high-proof liquors sometimes need a mixer to display the complexity of their taste. It can be hard to track subtle oak sensation while being punched in the face by ethanol.

Pacult notes that we are currently in the midst of a renaissance for distilled spirits and cocktails and drinkers should be taking advantage of the unbelievable array of high-proof spirits that are available. Though most of the high-strength spirits are whiskey variants, that’s just the “cask strength” vanguard. “As a spirits critic who evaluates hundreds of spirits each year, I’m seeing higher proof vodka, tequilas, moonshine, and the occasional French brandy, such as Cognac and Armagnac,” says Pacult.

What that means for bartenders is a return to both the drawing and black board. Recipes need rewriting to ensure balance. Drinks need to be tried and tested for this new, high proof era.

For bartenders, that means there is a chance to create new drinks and put new institutions on the map. That’s no small opportunity and certainly not one a self-respecting barkeep would miss. Here are the places embracing the trend and running with it:

The Rum House: The main attraction at Manhattan’s Edison Hotel is The Rum House, a graceful first-floor bar where visitors can prepare for bed with a “Club Cocktail No. 2,” a cognac and absinthe powered sucker punch in a glass.

Jardiniere: This San Francisco watering hole exudes class, but spits out patrons who can’t hold the 101-proof Wild Turkey they mix into their Bitter Maestro (and some Manhattans).

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The Library Bar: Hidden inside the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel is a drinker’s den where good-looking locals sip would-be stars under the table. First-timers sometimes find this out the hard way: The bartenders make the Nocino from 150-proof potato vodka.

Photos by Sean Molin / Getty Images