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Overproof Spirits

by Paul Clarke

It’s been a long, long time since British navy officers routinely dosed small mounds of gunpowder with rum or gin, then flared the mixture with a match to verify the liquor’s potency. But while such spirituous pyrotechnics are now mainly a matter for the history books, bartenders still need to weigh the firepower of their liquid arsenal by considering the alcohol content of a spirit before deploying it in a drink.

With a few exceptions, most spirits are diluted with water before being bottled for sale. While earlier generations regularly partook of whiskies for which 100 proof was a starting point, and brandies, rums and gins that reliably displayed a touch of muscle, recent decades have seen a gradual watering-down of the bibulous universe, with 80 proof now the not-quite-universal norm. But as I said, there are exceptions, and those exceptions include some of the biggest beauties on the back bar: cask-strength whiskies, rums that can out-tussle a seasoned street fighter, and gins so full-flavored that a drinker needs a quiet moment after finishing a cocktail just to reconsider his or her position in the cosmos.

It’s not hard to figure out the appeal of higher-proof spirits: less dilution translates to a greater concentration of all those oils, compounds and other aspects of the distillate that carry through as flavor. With overproof spirits, more is more - though again, there are exceptions.

“Not all overproof rums are equal,” says Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. Cate is a major fan of high-octane rums (as well as of the occasional higher-proof spirit that’s not rum, such as the 110-proof green Chartreuse and gins and whiskies that weigh in at 94 proof and up), and he says that while strong spirits such as these can project an unprecedented payload of flavor, they can also be tricky to work with.

“Bacardi 151 is overproof, but it’s very neutral; if you’re using it in a drink, it’ll pop the heat, but not necessarily the flavor,” he says. To ensure that the spirit delivers a flavorful addition to a drink, and not just an alcoholic boost, Cate prefers using rums that are either entirely pot distilled, or contain a significant percentage of pot distillate - spirits such as Lemon Hart 151-proof Demerara Rum, or the Jamaican overproofs, Wray & Nephew 126-proof and Smith & Cross 114-proof Rum. And while Cate is talking about rum - the predominant spirit-in-trade at Smuggler’s Cove - the same idea applies to burly, high-proof bourbons such as George T. Stagg, to cask-strength single malts and to navy-strength gins: the more pronounced flavor of these higher-proof spirits can redefine a cocktail’s character. “Then I’m not only pushing through heat, but I’m pushing through flavor, and something lower proof just wouldn’t shake up the drink in the same way,” Cate says.

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than simply swapping a high-proof spirit for an 80-proof relative; the greater potency of both flavor and alcoholic bite require a recalibration of the cocktail’s proportions and, sometimes, the choice of the other ingredients. For example, in spirit-forward cocktails made with a strong, rich whiskey, the higher proof provides greater license; a more flavorful vermouth or strong-character amaro can be utilized without worrying that these other ingredients will overshadow the flavor of the spirit. For sours, punches and other complex drinks, a higher-proof spirit can likewise shine through in the mixture, without its nuanced flavor being eclipsed by the other ingredients.

Since higher-proof spirits bring more flavor, a delicate hand is required when mixing. In a daiquiri made with a standard 80-proof Spanish or Cuban-style rum, for example, a two-ounce pour may be standard. But when Cate introduced Triumvirate, a 105-proof rum from House Distillery in Portland, Oregon, that’s made exclusively for Smuggler’s Cove, he dropped the rum pour in his daiquiris to one-and-a-half ounces. The amendment both balanced the drink’s alcoholic payload while placing the rum’s robust flavor front and center. “You’re not getting much more booze, but you’re getting a lot more flavor,” he says.

The big flavor of overproof liquor appeals to bartender palates that have been seasoned with mezcal, Smith & Cross and shots of Fernet Branca, but a spirit with such a powerful character definitely isn’t for everyone. “We very easily forget about the consumer palate. It’s something to remain conscious of,” Cate says.

The solution, Cate says, is to know your clientele, and offer them options such as a diverse selection of drinks that includes lighter, brighter choices. And keep the alcohol level in mind, as well: a punch made with 151-proof rum can easily outmaneuver an unsuspecting customer, so make sure the menu and the bartender convey enough information about the drink’s potency so the guest can make an educated - and responsible - decision.

The Smuggler’s Cove menu features a number of classic-style tiki drinks made with overproof rum, and while Cate loves the big flavor of a high-proof rum, he notes that higher-proof spirits should still be used selectively. “I’ve got non-industry friends, maybe they taste orange curacao neat and say, ‘Wow, that blew my head off!’” he says. “A lot of consumers, if they mainly drink wine and beer, their palates are really blown away by hard spirits. Even a Manhattan can be very boozy, and if you serve them something with overproof in it, consumers go, ‘Oh my god! What the hell is this?”

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