Imbibers who make high demands of their bourbon and vodka can’t help but have noticed the proliferation of boutique spirit brands lately. These are the liquids that differentiate themselves with modifiers like “small batch,” “artisanal,” and the pleasing (if perplexing) descriptor of “hand-crafted.” Just 10 years ago, only about 70 independent distillers were making small-batch liquor; the American Distilling Institute estimates that number now stands at about 900—and that’s not including the old-line European family distillers that have established a foothold on American soil in recent years.
In a country that spends $1 of every $100 on alcohol, this is niche branding at its best. But look a little closer, and you’ll see another sort of branding at work, one that adds a considerable kick to the sales of these designer libations.
It’s the release of limited-edition, high-proof batches—and we mean stuff that’ll take the stripes off a zebra.
While your average spirit weighs in at around 80 proof (40 percent alcohol), craft distillers routinely issue reserve runs with proofs of 120, 140 and even over 190 proof. Historically, the only stuff on the market that potent was Everclear (grain alcohol, basically)—a $15 frat house favorite that usually wound up in Jell-O shots.
But these days, rotgut’s gone designer. High proof is hip. How’d we get here?
“For boutique brands, high proof is part of their identity,” explained longtime spirits consultant Arthur Shapiro. “They’re trying to demonstrate their authenticity, their standards, and that they’re not cutting the distillage with water.”
It helps that mass-market U.S. distillers have little financial interest in taking their proofs higher than 70 anyway—not least because the government slaps a $3.20 per-case tax every time a proof goes up by 10 points, and there’s a limit to what people will pay for a bottle of White Horse or Captain Morgan.
But here’s the strange part. Artisanal distillers that can command dizzying prices for their high-proof hooch generally keep pretty quiet it. Why? “It’s cachet,” Shapiro said. “It happens when a guy is sitting around with his friends who love handmade bourbons. Then he’ll say, ‘Try this one. It’s 95 proof—can you imagine?’”
In other words, word about the super-strong stuff tends to travel on its own.
In case that word hasn’t traveled, here’s our sampling of five the most tail-kicking, high-octane liquor that specialty brewers are making both on and off these shores. And yes, we know, this list is by no means complete. Tell us your favorite in the comments.
But please, sleep it off first.