It seems that the origin of the term “proof” lies with the British Royal Navy. The story goes that in order to prove that the BRN was getting its shillings’ worth, a measure of rum (or gin) would be poured over gunpowder, and if the powder could still be lit with a flint, the booze was considered up to snuff.
It took a content of just north of 50 percent alcohol, hence 100 percent “proved,” for this to work. More genteel standards would later prevail, with 40 proof becoming the current norm for most spirits, achieved by cutting them with water before bottling. Anything more than that became known as cask-strength, overproof or, in the case of gin, navy strength.
Now the pendulum is swinging back, though without the benefit of gunpowder to influence its motion. Lutfy Flores of SoHo Wine & Martini Bar is upfront, saying high-proof spirits “are great options for the bartender or ‘pro’ drinker who gets a little bored over time.” Our palates do “wear out,” he says, and this is a way to bring back big flavor coupled to a little heat.
Flores and crew use a 94 proof Death’s Door gin for the A-Treuse cocktail composed of gin, green Chartreuse, lemon juice and simple syrup—shaken, poured out and topped with both egg white “froth” and grated orange zest. A touch more potent is his Old Debt, a rum drink employing navy strength Smith and Cross Rum (114 proof) stirred with Luxardo Maraschino and Averna, a splash of water and a shake of chocolate bitters on top.
Why use one gin when you can use three? At Arcade Midtown Kitchen, bar manager Christopher Ware’s Spanish Gin & Tonic takes advantage of a navy strength gin by Hayman’s Old Tom and combines it with Citadelle and Beefeater’s, a muddled cinnamon stick, lemon peel, Jack Rudy Tonic syrup and a splash of club soda. Ware also keeps several brown overproof spirits, including Rittenhouse Rye and Knob Creek Bourbon, both at 100 proof, in his well and will often ask if a patron wants, say, an Old Fashioned “hot” or mild. Tapatio 110 proof tequila is, almost surprisingly, “very, very smooth,” he says. (He’s right; it’s amazing.)
Even 110 proof seems wimpy after cruising retail shelves at shops like Saglimbeni’s Fine Wines. Here you’ll find Wray & Nephew white overproof rum at 126 proof, Whistlepig 11-year Straight Rye at 111, Knob Creek 9 Reserve Bourbon at 120, and several Cadenhead’s Cask Strength Single Malts at proofs as high as 128.6. Though I didn’t find it, there is said to be a George T. Stagg bourbon at 142.8 proof, from which one wag makes a high-test Manhattan, compromising the traditional recipe only with an added splash of branch water. Maybe next time.
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