The other day, I gave a curious friend a sip of rum from my bar. Before I could say anything, he'd eagerly tilted back his head and downed it. Almost instantly he began waving his arms and hopping around like someone who had just swallowed a Scotch bonnet chile. "What the *!#%?" he screamed when he'd finally regained his breath.
I hadn't had a chance to explain that the Lemon Hart 151 I was handing him (a beautiful rum and a staple of the tiki world) was overproof. You could call overproof booze—a term that simply indicates alcoholic strength higher than 50 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) or 100 proof—an increasing phenomenon. And it's not just rum; many spirits (whiskeys, gins, and mezcals) are frequently made overproof.
So why would anyone want more potent, barely swallowable firewater? Indeed, I asked Lemon Hart's importer, Chicago-based Edward Hamilton, the self-styled Minister of Rum, if overproof spirits were just about getting drunk. His response? "No! In cocktails, overproof spirits add more dimension to a drink. By themselves, overproof spirits can have a bigger body than spirits diluted to a lower proof."
The bigger body of these spirits is not in doubt. But do they have bigger flavor as well? Most bartenders tend to think so. As Martin Cate, proprietor of San Francisco's Smuggler's Cove, told me last year, "High-proof rums [have] massive alcoholic strength, but their flavor bandwidth is also huge."
I'm still not convinced, however. This article suggests that more alcohol does not mean more flavor—that ethanol itself is flavorless.
My friend Toby Cecchini—bartender, author, and New York Times style magazine columnist—told me that for his own forthcoming article on this subject as it relates to whiskey, he's been looking into this question for years and that the answer "depends on who you ask." Most master distillers "won't touch this question," he said, "because 99.5 percent of their sales come from OBs [original bottlings at 40 percent], and they don't want to implicitly impugn those whiskeys by saying that cask-strength versions have more flavor."
However, in some cases, the higher-proof spirits may literally have more flavor, because they haven't been chill-filtered. In order to be bottled at 40 percent ABV, for instance, most whiskeys are chill-filtered to remove compounds that are insoluble at that alcoholic strength (meaning that these whiskeys would become hazy in the bottle, a quality that distillers worry is visually unappealing). Chill-filtering to remove those compounds, however, also strips the spirit of some of its native flavors. Hence, the Scotch distiller Bruichladdich releases no whiskeys below 46 percent ABV, the alcoholic strength above which those particles remain dissolved in alcohol (explained at length here).
While not technically overproof, Bruichladdich's whiskeys play to the tastes of aficionados, who more often prefer their malts at cask strength: spirits bottled at the high proofs they come from in barrel, unadulterated. This leaves the ministrations of dilution up to the drinker.
But of course most drinkers are not aficionados—and perhaps don't want to worry about the proper dilution of their hooch. Then again, most drinkers probably don't care if their spirits are chill-filtered or not. In a world where things are increasingly dumbed down and compromised to favor the least common denominator, I'll err on the side of flavor. Give me unfiltered, cask/navy strength, and overproof, and leave the watering down to me. Just make sure it's labeled properly, so I don't scorch my throat.