If you want to buy high-quality whiskey, one of the types you should consider is barrel proof. It is indicative of the quality and is popular among seasoned whiskey and bourbon drinkers. But you shouldn’t buy it just because the aficionados love it. You should learn more about it and decide if it is really what you want.
Barrel proof means “same proof as the barrel,” which means that the alcohol-to-volume ratio of whiskey or bourbon in a bottle is the same as the barrel from which it is bottled. Barrel proof whiskey is not watered down or diluted before bottling.
In this article, you will find out the meaning of different terms related to proof including barrel proof, original barrel proof, and cask strength. You will also find out whether barrel proof whiskey is superior in taste or is just hyped by whiskey purists. By the end of this post, you’ll have the knowledge of an aficionado and will be ready to buy your own top-shelf whiskey.
Barrel Proof Vs. Cask Strength
The terms barrel proof and Cask strength are used interchangeably but don’t mean the exact same thing. Barrel Proof whiskey is a whiskey that has the same alcohol by volume (ABV) strength as the contents of the barrel it comes from. Cask strength whiskey is a whiskey that is bottled directly from the cask without dilution or blending.
Usually, cask strength whiskey is barrel proof, and barrel proof whiskey is considered to have cask strength. The barrel proof label deals with the Alcohol content of the beverage, and the cask strength label deals with its purity. For practical purposes, the terms remain interchangeable.
Is Barrel Proof Whiskey Single Barrel?
While barrel proof whiskey is cask strength, it doesn’t necessarily have to be aged in a single barrel. Single barrel whiskey starts its aging process in a single barrel and matures in it until the bottling stage. Barrel Proof whiskey has the same strength as it does from the last cask from which it is bottled. Prior to maturing in that cask, it could be blended from various spirits.
That said, many barrel proof whiskeys are also single barrel products. But the reason behind this overlap isn’t that barrel proof means single barrel. As mentioned earlier, barrel proof whiskey can come from multiple barrels, and single barrel whiskey can be diluted (non proof). The overlap between barrel proof and single barrel occurs because of taste reasons.
Blended whiskey producers prioritize taste over purity. Both single barrel whiskey and barrel proof whiskey are acquired tastes. Standard whiskey is diluted for palatability, and blended whiskey is blended for the same reason.
So while it is possible for blended whiskey producers to bottle cask strength whiskey, they choose to pre-cut their product with water and neutral spirits to produce a tastier end product.
What Is The Difference Between Cask And Barrel Strength?
There is no difference between cask and barrel strength as both terms refer to the alcohol concentration of the beverage being the same in the bottle as its barrel source. Barrel and cask are interchangeable terms referring to the same container.
Any time you read the terms “cask strength,” “barrel strength,” or “barrel proof” before a whiskey or bourbon, you’re dealing with a product that hasn’t been diluted. Whether the product is strong, though, depends on the ingredients in the barrel.
If bourbon is made with 99% corn mash and a quarter of the usual yeast, its “barrel proof” product would be weaker than an iced serving of bottom-shelf liquor. According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol’s 79-9 ruling, whiskey can be considered barrel proof as long as its bottled alcohol by volume (ABV) strength is within 2% of the barrel.
That doesn’t tie the barrel proof label to an immutable ABV strength. The ABV of the barrel proof whiskey bottle is relative to the ABV of its barrel source.
In other words, it is technically possible for a spirit to have 45% alcohol content and still be legally “barrel proof.” Fortunately, this kind of technicality abuse doesn’t happen in the U.S. alcohol market and all barrel proof whiskeys are pretty strong and worthy of the label.
How Much Alcohol Is In Barrel Proof Whiskey?
Barrel proof whiskey has 52% to 66% ABV, while diluted whiskey has 40% to 45% ABV. Consumers don’t buy barrel proof whiskey just because it is stronger but also because it allows more dilution control. While bottled whiskey comes pre-cut with water or neutral liquids, barrel proof whiskey allows the aficionado to dilute his beverage with the type of water or ice he likes.
For instance, most seasoned whiskey drinkers swear by mineral water instead of tap water. They get to choose the exact type of mineral water they want to dilute their drink if they get it at cask strength. Similarly, people who enjoy their scotch on the rocks don’t have to worry about the ice turning the drink toothless, if it is at sufficient ABV and barrel proof.
Does Barrel Proof Whiskey Taste Better?
Barrel proof whiskey doesn’t taste better than standard bottled whiskey. It, however, is purer and allows one to serve better-tasting drinks. Not all whiskey is diluted for cost reasons. Often, there is a taste rationale behind whiskey dilution.
When whiskey has over 55% ABV, it can have a very high burn sensation, which is often associated with alcohol. Slight dilution helps improve the overall taste of the drink. Around 3% to 7% dilution is perfect for a great-tasting serving of whiskey. The problem is that most bottles have over 10% dilution.
You are better off buying barrel proof whiskey and diluting it with ice than you are getting pre-cut whiskey and drinking it out of the cooler.
Is Barrel Proof Strong?
Barrel proof whiskey is strong but is not the strongest whiskey. Barrel proof whiskey has the same strength in the bottle as it does in the cask. However, there are some distilling methods that have even higher ABV than barrel strength whiskey.
Still strength whiskey brewed in column stills have some of the highest alcohol concentrations. Pot still whiskey can have 70% alcohol by volume, which is nearly twice that of barrel strength whiskey. While still-made whiskey is definitely stronger than barrel-made whiskey, most commonly marketed whiskey is produced in barrels.
With a broader market comes the need for clarity. Because the term barrel proof deals with the alcohol concentration, it is possible to alter the product and add alcohol to maintain the ABV. As long as the concentration of alcohol is the same in the barrel and the bottle, any additions made in the distilling and bottling process do not affect the barrel proof label.
Barrel proof whiskey is as strong in the bottle as in a barrel, but it might not be as pure. The term single barrel is a better indicator of purity than barrel proof. There is also another term that indicates purity and strength or barrel-aged whiskey.
What Is Original Barrel Proof?
Original Barrel Proof whiskey is a whiskey that has the exact same proof in the bottle as it does in the barrel. No concentration maneuvering is allowed if whiskey is to be labeled “original barrel proof.” Many barrel proof whiskeys are entry proof/ original barrel proof.
Original barrel proof is almost never used on bottles but is often used in white-label deals. Whitelabeling is the process where a distiller produces a whiskey that is marketed by a different party. The selling party owns the brand, label, and bottle design, while the distilling party is responsible for selling the contents at a wholesale price to the selling party.
White label brands prefer not to leave room for mixing or blending. They want original barrel proof whiskey that they can repackage and sell at a markup. Aside from business-to-business liquor deals, original barrel proof is never used publicly.
Barrel Proof Whiskey Buying Guide
Now that you know what barrel proof whiskey is and how it differs from other types of whiskey, let’s go over the specific dos and don’ts that will help you get the best whiskey for your buck. The best practices covered in this section will help you select barrel proof whiskey that meets your expectations.
Assess The ABV
Start by looking at the Alcohol By Volume of the drink. A drink being barrel proof doesn’t mean much if its alcohol ratio is under 50%. If the drink has 60% to 65% alcohol, it is a great barrel proof purchase because you can dilute it with water, alternative spirits, or ice and still enjoy it.
You can get a 52% to 60% ABV whiskey if you chill your drinks in a refrigerator and don’t use ice. Ultimately, the ABV of a drink has to match your needs before you can even consider whether it is barrel proof or not.
Look At The Storage Region
Once you are satisfied with the alcohol content of the drink, the second most important aspect is the flavor. Barrel proof drinks have a higher natural flavor burden because there isn’t an option of blending for flavor. The distillery is not going to mix a bourbon for flavor if it is positioning it as a barrel proof product.
When the prospect of mixing for flavor is absent, then one has to rely on aging and concentration as taste-making aspects. If the whiskey is aged in a warm region, it is likely to be more flavorful. If you want to get more specific, you should read up on rickhouses and shelf altitude to choose barrel proof drinks with the best flavor profile.
Mind The Age
Whiskey that hasn’t aged over three years is far from mature. Almost no distillery produces barrel proof products aged below 3, so that’s not something that you need to actively filter out. That’s the bare minimum. What you actually need to look for is the optimum age.
You need to look for the 4 to 8-year mark when purchasing barrel proof whiskey. It balances maturity, flavor complexity, and affordability. Blends can be aged up to 50 years and still be pretty flavorful because the oldest contribution is listed as the bottle age.
If a whiskey bottle reads “20 years,” for instance, and the whiskey is not a single barrel variety, then the oldest spirit in the bottle is 20 years old. It is possible that 99% of a bottle’s contents are four years old, yet the 1% that is 20 years old gets the label placement.
Since barrel proof whiskeys are usually single barrel, getting one that is over twelve is pretty difficult. The distillery doesn’t have the option to balance the flavor with younger whiskeys. And having a whiskey that tastes good solo after aging beyond 8 to 12 years becomes increasingly difficult. It is nearly impossible to get a good single barrel whiskey aged 50, and very difficult to get one aged 20 at a good price.
Look At The Reviews
It always helps to look at the general reviews before investing in a batch. Different whiskeys reach their optimum flavor profile at different ages. This depends on the rickhouse/warehouse where they are stored, the altitude at which they age, and the ingredients used in the process.
By looking at reviews, you can find a common trend around the best age profile. For any given production facility, the age which attracts the most positive reviews is usually the least risky one to invest in.
Get The Smallest Possible Sample
While assessing whiskey by its age, storage region, and ABV can help you narrow down the best possible product for your budget, you should avoid going all in. It is best to purchase one bottle at a time, even if the facility is running bundle deals.
If possible, you might want to check out the bars in your region that serve that specific whiskey and order a neat drink. This can help you sample the whiskey before you buy a bottle.
Final Thoughts on Barrel Proof Alcohol
Barrel proof is a term that implies the uniformity of proof (alcohol ratio) in the final drink as in the barrel. There is a 2% margin of error allowed, so a bottle with two percent less or more alcohol than the barrel can still be called barrel proof. Barrel proof bourbons and whiskeys are strong but not as strong as their still strength equivalents.
Ultimately, barrel proof drinks are admired not because they have the highest alcohol concentration (they don’t) but because they give the consumer enough control over drink dilution. The person who knows how to cut his drink can make the most of a barrel proof whiskey.