In Defense of High-Proof Spirits

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I have a relationship with high-proof spirits that I admit most resembles a fetish. I love a solid foundation on which I can build my cocktails safely and creatively, and potent liquor provides just that.

My first discovery of this phenomenon was when I tasted an old formula for the Manhattan: 100-proof rye whiskey paired with Italian (sweet) vermouth, bitters and orange liqueur. The creation was unique in its balance and palate presence. It was also finally a Manhattan that I wanted to finish (and enjoy a second or a third one).

What was different about it? The ratio of whiskey to vermouth was weird: one-and-a-half ounces of whiskey to one-and-three-quarters ounces of vermouth, as well as half an ounce of Grand Marnier. The recipe read like a disaster, but once I made it, I was blown away.

Not only was it delicious, but it progressed down the palate in a logical—even nurturing—way. The strength of the whiskey and its robust flavor, plus the malt and sourness of the rye, proved to be the element that kept the structure balanced. I have since placed that drink on countless menus and taught it to scores of bartenders.

And when you learn how these spirits behave in the shaker, a whole world of possibilities opens up for you. The Sazerac becomes deeper and more velvety. The Vesper gets the “pop” you always craved and you are reminded why tiki concoctions are considered classics.

However, be cautious: High-proof should not mean high-heat. If it isn’t distilled right, you’ll feel a burn in your throat. (If it does that when sampled neat, it will do it in the cocktail as well.) Fortunately, there are plenty of bottlings of exceptional strength and quality that are perfect for mixing. Have fun!

Dushan Zaric’s Favorite High-Proof Spirits:

1. Baker’s Bourbon, 107-proof
2. Cadenhead’s Old Raj Gin, 110-proof
3. Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, 100-proof
4. Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum, 114-proof
5. Louis Royer Force 53° Cognac, 106-proof

Dushan Zaric is the co-owner of popular New York City bars Employees Only and Macao Trading Co., and the co-author of Speakeasy. He is also a Liquor.com advisor.

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