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To Whom Do We Leave the Burden of Proof

Is everyone geeking out about Game of Thrones yet? With Season 5 premiering this spring, I can’t be the only nerd in the room. Well hold on to your seats, because it’s about to get nerdy in an entirely different and decidedly more boozy way.

As I write (to you), in anticipation of the new season, I have just finished a review of the final few episodes of the fourth season of HBO’s TV show based on George R.R. Martin’s novel series titled A Song of Ice and Fire. Coincidentally, during this viewing I also finished the bottle of Redbreast 12-year old cask strength whisky which brings us to now, when I, admittedly slightly buzzed (I just misspelled coincidentally three times), make a ridiculous metaphor to great literary effect.

Ready? Here we go:

Just as it does on the page, and the screen, the song of ice and fire takes place in the glass. The fire breathing dragons of the East that lie within this pot stilled bottle of Irish beauty do battle with the frozen dead world of the North, where only the Starks, and my ice cube trays reside. Beyond the wall there is only…never mind I lost it. And I’m sobering up. Let’s talk about cask strength whiskey. Forget all that nerdy stuff—it’s not important, and cask or barrel strength whiskey is a lot easier to explain than Game of Thrones.

While you may have a fun picture in your mind of happy distillers from Kentucky to Scotland to Ireland, and everywhere in between, popping open their barrels and pouring the sweet brown liquid directly into a bottle, this is pretty far from the truth. Among the many processes between the barrel and the bottle, there is blending, transportation, filtering, and finally proofing (read: diluting) that takes place.

I count many distillers as friends and colleagues and I regularly trust them with my wallet, my night at the bar, and my sobriety, or lack thereof.

Dilution is important throughout the process, because proof is all over the place between the still and the bottle. For example, bourbon whiskey can be distilled at up to 160 proof (no thank you); however, it cannot enter the barrel above 125 proof (that’s better). But the proof journey doesn’t end there. Alcohol and water evaporate at different rates. Depending on a number of factors including temperature, humidity, and where the barrel is stored, the proof could end up lower, or higher after aging. So a spirit that enters the barrel at 125 proof could end up well above 130 proof depending on how much water evaporated from that barrel.

At this point, if you bottle the liquid from the barrel, you have barrel strength whiskey, but with this much variation and unpredictability, dilution is a measure of control over the final product. Controlling the amount of alcohol in the bottle allows you to control the flavor of your product. This is great for consistency, but in the grand scheme of things, not always the best for flavor.

Among it’s more prestigious jobs, alcohol—in this case ethanol specifically—is a fantastic carrier of flavor. When distillers add water to the mix, the effect is more than just bringing down the heat. To use a somewhat cheesy analogy, when you pour water on the fire, you lose the smell of the smoke in the air, or in the glass. This is to say that the flavors and aromas become, well, diluted. Distillers, of course, aren’t trying to steal away your pleasure; they are striving for a perfect balance that expresses the flavor and aroma in a tolerable fashion to the average consumer.

But our idea of perfect has changed dramatically over the years.

Take bourbon and rye whiskey for example. Today, you will find that most are bottled at around 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume. If you turn back time around a century however, that number jumps up to 100 proof, or 50 percent alcohol by volume. In 1897, this percentage was legislated as part of the Bottled in Bond Act of The United States. In an effort to ensure the quality of a spirit, it would be bottled at 100 proof, among other requirements, and labeled as Bonded, or Bottled in Bond. Going back even further, and across the pond, to when rum was a daily ration for the British Navy, (as it still is for some of the writing staff at Stock & Barrel) the sign of a quality spirit was that it was at or above 114 proof. This is also where we find the origin of the word proof itself.

To “prove” that the rum served to them was not watered down, sailors would pour it over gunpowder and attempt to light the powder. If the alcohol content was below 57 percent, the gunpowder would not light: hence, when the powder lit, it served as “proof” for the seamen (ha!) that they weren’t being taken advantage of. (Hahaha that last line was awesome. Also I think I might still be drunk.) Additionally, this ensured that gunpowder, which was often stored in barrels in the same hold with the rum, would not be ruined by a leaky rum barrel.

Whether legislated by the US government, or policed by unruly sailors, the quality of our spirits is a big deal. Today there are further measures in place to ensure the quality of what is sold throughout the country, and the vast majority of distillers are not trying to trick their consumers into drinking swill. A lot of work goes into tasting spirits at multiple strengths to determine the perfect expression of flavors. The fact that distillers save a lot of money and resources by bottling at a lower proof is, I’m sure, just a happy coincidence. I count many distillers as friends and colleagues and I regularly trust them with my wallet, my night at the bar, and my sobriety, or lack thereof. Beyond trusting them, I find many of them to be true artists, and masters of their craft. I often agree with them in their chosen bottling proof and I am not out to present some sort of vast conspiracy by distillers to pull the wool over our eyes. I am only here to make a case, or the case, for cask strength spirits.

Imagine someone telling you that they could hand you $1,000 right now, but they are confident that you will not need all $1,000. After all, you have a tendency to blow your money on stupid things, and you’ll really be happy with just $800. That’s enough to pay some bills, buy groceries, and have a nice meal. Maybe they’re right, you do make some pretty stupid choices. After all, when was the last time you actually played with that $300 remote control helicopter you bought? If you’re ok with this, there’s nothing wrong with that. In this analogy, you’re just allowing someone else to do the hard work of deciding what you do, and do not really need. That’s completely fine. Carry on. When I took my first sip of the 2014 Elijah Craig Barrel Strength, I didn’t need all 140.2 proof, either. But after two pristine ice cubes, adequate melting time, and a few more sips I found my happy place all on my own.

Personally, I want the full thousand. Maybe I don’t need it all, and maybe I wont appreciate all that money, but I’ll be the judge of that. I’ll start with the thousand and work my way down to what I need…a Lannister always pays his debts. 

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