Here’s What You Need To Know About Barrel-Strength Spirits

In late 1980, the then-National Distillers Corp. out of Frankfort, Kentucky, released a bourbon it called Old Grand-Dad Special Selection. A reporter for The Los Angeles Times likened it to “General Motors Corp. coming out with a 16-passenger Cadillac with fins.” Why? Because of its strength: a mind-melting 114 proof, or 57 percent alcohol by volume.

Most bourbon, then and now, is bottled at around 80 to 90 proof, or 40 to 45 percent ABV. Old Grand-Dad Special, on the other hand, was what the industry calls barrel strength or cask strength. And it came amid a years-long slump in sales of bourbon — that corn-based American original — as tipplers turned en masse to fine wine and, especially, vodka and its rainbow of cocktails.

A barrel-strength palate-burner seemed an odd choice for a new bourbon. Heavier, richer tastes were out. Flavorlessness (a.k.a. vodka) or at least lightness (a.k.a. Chardonnay) was in. Fast-forward a generation, and barrel-strength spirits — from gin to rum to all manner of whiskeys, especially bourbon — are very much in vogue.

The appeal is twofold. There is that alcohol level: Distillers do not cut barrel-strength spirits with water, as they typically do for their other inventory; instead, these spirits go straight from the barrel to the bottle. In turn, that dearth of dilution often means a fuller, more complex flavor.

“The main difference and the main appeal is that you get the whiskey as it is, no changes,” says Lew Bryson, author of Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirit. “You can cut it to the strength you think is best, and the strength most definitely has an effect on the flavor. Some are simply best at attack strength; some dial in best at a slightly lower proof.”

While any dilution is up the drinker, beware: Even an ounce or two of water can drastically cut the alcoholic strength; distillers know how to dilute with a precision that’s difficult to mimic at home.

Although cask-strength spirits have been around a long while, the modern boom can perhaps be traced to June 2013. That was when Paul Pacult, the Robert Parker of spirits, named Angel’s Envy Cask Strength bourbon from the Louisville Distilling Co. as the world’s top spirit, along with a more traditional Scotch whisky. It was the first time Pacult, who launched his Spirit Journal in 1991, had elevated a barrel-strength spirit to the number-one spot.

Here’s What You Need To Know About Barrel-Strength Spirits

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