Bourbon seems to be classified in an endless number of categories that can often sound redundant and confusing. Where barrel proof is undiluted bourbon, bottling proof is diluted standard-shelf bourbon. But what is full proof bourbon?
Full proof bourbon is a bourbon that has the same proof in the bottle as it had before aging. Water escapes the barrel as bourbon ages, increasing its proof. By adding the lost water back and making the barrel full, the distillery brings the proof back to what it was when the barrel was filled.
In this article, you will learn where full proof bourbon rests in the hierarchy of liquors, what its strong points are, and which ones you should consider.
But before we get into the best full proof bourbons, let’s look at the extent to which this kind of liquor is diluted…
Is Full Proof Bourbon Diluted?
Full proof bourbon is diluted to match the proof at entry of the barrel contents. Sometimes, the barrel proof does not change during the aging process, so the full proof bourbon can end up being barrel proof (or undiluted).
Full proof bourbon is diluted but less than bottling proof bourbon. It is diluted just enough to ensure that the proof of the bottle is the same when bottling as it was when barreling. To understand what full proof is, you need to see its relation to ABV and how ABV changes over time.
Let’s explore these connections…
Proof Is Twice The Alcohol By Volume (ABV)
The first aspect of a liquor’s strength is its alcohol ratio. Alcohol by Volume refers to the percentage of whiskey or bourbon that is pure alcohol. By the American Bureau of Alcohol’s standards, a whiskey must have 40% alcohol at a minimum. Since proof is twice the percentage, that would be 80 proof alcohol.
If a liquor has 60% alcohol, it is 120 proof. Generally, bourbon can range between 100 proof and 190 proof. Since proof is tied to the alcohol ratio, it goes up and down as the alcohol ratio fluctuates.
Proof Increases In The Barrel
Once you know that proof goes up when the alcohol ratio goes up, it is pretty easy to understand how proof of liquor changes as it ages. When the contents of bourbon are added to a barrel, they have a certain volume of alcohol alongside the different volumes of grain essence and water. Barrels are slightly permeable because they are made of wood.
Wood absorbs water reducing the amount of water in the bourbon while increasing the ratio of alcohol. If there is one shot worth of alcohol for every five shots worth of water, and the barrel absorbs one shot of water, the ratio of alcohol increases to one per four shots of water. As alcohol by volume increases, so does the proof, which is simply twice the alcohol percentage.
Distillers Bring Down The Proof
Most bourbon distillers actually bring down the proof of alcohol by over 10% for taste and feasibility reasons. Even those planning to produce strong liquors choose to lower the proof of bourbon by a small percentage. The extent to which the bourbon’s proof is lowered determines how it is categorized.
Here are a few ways in which bourbon can be bottled after aging.
- Cask Strength / Barrel Proof – When the distillery bottles liquor at the same ABV and proof as it is in the barrel, the product is considered to be barrel proof or cask strength.
- Full proof / Entry strength – When the distillery dilutes the liquor just enough so it has the same ABV and proof as it had when entering the barrel, the yield is considered full proof.
- Bottling proof – When the distillery diluted the liquor to a consumable level of proof, the result is considered bottling proof.
As you can see, there are two other proofs/strengths aside from typical bottling strength. These are often confused with each other though there is a tangible difference between them.
Full proof liquor is one in which the water lost during the aging process is added back to bring the proof down to what it was when filling the barrel. Barrel-proof liquor is one that is distilled without dilution and bottled at the resulting proof.
Full Proof Vs. Barrel Proof: What’s The Difference?
Of the two proofs, barrel proof is always higher than full proof because the alcohol ratio increases over time in any cask or barrel. It changes noticeably in high-altitude and high-temperature environments. Full proof liquor offsets these changes with pre-bottling dilution. To illustrate the difference between full proof and barrel proof bourbon, you’d have to consider the case of bourbon with 50% alcohol.
Suppose a barrel has 50% alcohol after bourbon contents are added to it. Hypothetically speaking, when this bourbon is aging, 10% water could be absorbed by the barrel. This increases the alcohol ratio to over 50%.
After it has sufficiently aged, you have to bottle this bourbon. If you choose to add 10% water, previously lost, to bring the alcohol content back to 50%, then the result is full proof. You bring the proof back to the level at which the barrel was full.
If you choose to bottle the bourbon without adding any water, the alcohol percentage will be higher than 50%, and the product will be considered “cask strength” or “barrel proof.” In other words, the proof of the liquor is what the barrel allows it to be.
There is a utility for both proof tiers, and people shop full proof bourbons as well as barrel proof ones every day. Neither is inherently superior and if one were universally better, the other wouldn’t exist in the market.
Is Full Proof Bourbon Better?
Full proof bourbon is better than bottling proof bourbon for dilution control, mixing, and overall quality. It is cheaper than barrel proof bourbon and has a wider market.
To understand whether full proof bourbon is better, you should judge the following pros and cons within your context.
|Pros of Full-Proof Bourbon||Cons of Full-Proof Bourbon|
|Cheaper than barrel proof||More expensive than bottling proof|
|Has a wider market than barrel proof||Has a narrower market than bottling proof|
|Is stronger than bottling proof||Is weaker than barrel proof|
|Allows you to dilute your drink according to your preferences||Is pre-diluted to an extent|
|Has a more intense flavor than bottling proof||Has a watered-down flavor compared to barrel proof|
Full proof bourbon has significant advantages over bottling proof and a few contextual benefits when compared to barrel proof. It is the midway product between pre-diluted liquors and the ones bottled at cask strength. You can rely on a full proof bourbon to transition from bottling proof liquors to barrel proof drinks.
5 Popular Full-Proof Bourbons on the Market Today
If you want to purchase bourbon that is stronger than standard liquor store variety but not at cask strength, then you should buy full proof bourbon. As long as the bourbon is made in the US, has decent reviews, and meets your expectations of taste and alcohol strength, you should buy it. Here are the top 5 full proof bourbons recommended most often between 2020 and 2023.
- 1792 Full Proof – 1792 is one of the most sought-after full-proof bourbons and is considered a pioneer in setting entry proof as a bottling metric. It remains the market leader, and for a good reason: it tastes great.
- W.L. Weller Full Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon – W.L. Weller offers an authentic Kentucky bourbon at full proof, and it packs the punch you’d expect from a straight bourbon. You can almost taste the oak.
- Wheat Penny Full Proof Bourbon – A relatively underground option, wheat penny full proof is reminiscent of roasted almonds and honey wheat. It definitely has an interesting flavor profile.
- Benchmark Full Proof Bourbon – Benchmark full proof is pretty popular among young bourbon lovers. It has everything the youngsters enjoy, including high heat and on-the-nose flavor. From vanilla notes to brown sugar and fruit, you can taste a bit of everything in this bourbon.
- Cleveland Underground Uncommon Barrel Collection Black Cherry Wood – Often reviewed as being bold and brash in both taste and “kick,” this is a great bourbon for social or solo consumption on the rocks.
Is Full Proof Bourbon High In Alcohol?
Full proof bourbon is high in alcohol compared to standard bourbon. As a result, it has a high heat factor, a more intense flavor, and a higher price tag.
This type of bourbon is not as high in alcohol as cask-strength liquor. Therefore, it has comparatively lower heat, lighter flavor, and lower price than barrel-strength bourbon.
Whether you find full proof bourbon strong enough, though, matters on the actual ABV of the specific bourbon and the ABV that you are used to. It is possible to fill a bourbon barrel with such weak ingredients that the proof at entry is 80. Such a liquor would be 95 proof at barrel strength and 80 proof at entry strength.
If you’re used to 120 proof liquor, this beverage is unlikely to impress you.
While full proof of a specific has more alcohol than a bottling proof version of that barrel, it is not inherently stronger than other liquors. “Full proof” refers to the relationship between the individual bourbon bottle and the barrel from which it comes. Some barrels are filled at a high ABV, while others are filled at a relatively low ABV.
Ultimately, the proof of the contents at entry matter more than anything in determining whether a full proof drink is strong.
Is Full Proof The Same As Entry Proof?
Entry proof is the proof of liquor when it enters a barrel. For a bottle to be full proof, its proof must equal the entry proof. The value of full proof bourbon is the same as entry proof bourbon, even if the two terms don’t refer to the same thing.
All bourbons have an entry proof, though the proof of the final drink changes depending on whether it is diluted or not. When the contents of a liquor enter a barrel, the proof at which they are is their entry proof. After that, the proof of the liquor increases as it loses water.
The following three categories explain how the proof of a bottled bourbon relates to its entry proof.
- Barrel proof – This is higher than entry proof because the water loss in the barrel has increased the alcohol by volume compared to when the contents entered the barrel.
- Full proof – While the barrel has increased in proof during the aging process, water that is lost is added back, so the bottled liquor has the same proof as the entry proof.
- Bottling proof – Even though the alcohol ratio is higher when a barrel is opened after aging, the distillery adds enough water to make the final proof lower than the entry proof.
Should I Buy Full Proof Bourbon?
Most bourbon in liquor stores is bottling proof. As covered earlier, this means that the bourbon has lower proof in the bottle than it had when its contents first entered the barrel.
If most bourbon buyers get diluted bourbon and still find it pretty strong, should you even bother will full proof bourbon?
You should buy full proof bourbon if you plan to have it on the rocks and should get barrel proof bourbon if you plan to use it in cocktails. Full proof bourbon is stronger than standard bourbon bottles but not too strong.
Ultimately, the choice between full proof and bottling proof liquor comes down to your preference and alcohol tolerance. If you have low tolerance, you should probably stick to bottling proof bourbon. If you’ve had bottling proof whiskeys for a while and are fairly stable with your consumption, it isn’t as risky to step up to a full proof bottle.
Full-Proof Bourbon Recap
Full proof bourbon is bottled after the lost water is added back to the barrel. As a result, the bottle has the same proof as the entry proof of the liquor.
It is significantly stronger than standard diluted bourbons but is not as strong as barrel proof bourbon, which doesn’t replace the lost water and is bottled at a higher concentration.