High Strength Bourbon

Our man behind the stick ups the ABV for a different type of drink
By Ryan Chetiyawardana
It’s been very much the centre of discussion of late what a few degrees in a whiskey will do to the taste. The seed of the debate was the (subsequently reversed) decision by Maker’s Mark to drop their ABV by a mere three per cent. Measly as this may seem, it still equates to almost a 10 per cent loss in whiskey, and really, that’s the thing you’re after rather than the extra three per cent of Kentucky water. Many argued that it wouldn’t change the taste (mainly on the distillery side), but one of the key changes I think would’ve come when it came to mixing the spirit.

Cocktails, as I’ve discussed before, are a great way to explore a different side to your whiskey; be it a different occasion, bringing a new friend around or showcasing a different side flavour-wise. Like adding a drop of water to a neat dram, dilution or complementary flavours begin to open up new facets, and play up to the characteristics inherent to the base spirit.

By having a higher proof whisk(e)y, you’re giving more opportunity to allow these different flavours to unfold according to your own tastes. I often find a ‘sweet spot’ with a dram, which changes according to mood, by adding drop by drop of water. This is often a starting point for me in terms of a cocktail too as I’ll find different notes opening out as the whiskey dilutes.

You often find higher proof Bourbons, the advantage being the shorter ageing, and also the occasional raising in proof, but they’re often the pricier drams. This might put you off mixing them, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. The aforementioned change through dilution gives you an opportunity to have a drink that evolves. Particularly when being served over ice, a cocktail made with a high-proof Bourbon will continue to change as the dilution liberates different notes within the whiskey.

"The bigger Bourbons and Ryes that exemplify this range, they’ll perform differently to their lower strength brethren"

The flavours within the cocktail (and in turn, the whiskey) will actually give up more flavour as the ABV drops with dilution; this is partly due to the release of volatiles, but also as it is a bit friendlier to the palate. However, we’re all accustomed to the difference when enjoying a higher proof or single cask dram. Sometimes it’s in the texture, or in the way the alcohol interacts, but often it’s as the higher proof drams are more premium, and although not necessarily better they’re often less tinkered with, and usually a rarer breed. All of these things lend well to making some special cocktails and fascinating experience.

As mentioned, one of my favourite ways to mix these bigger drams (bonded and up is good – 50%+) is to let them continue to open out. What I tend to do is apply a small amount of dilution to begin with, ensuring all the elements are folded together, then serve over ice
(ideally one large block to give the most control over the dilution) and sit with it for a nice while. The same drink with a regular 40-45% abv whiskey has a very different flavour stance, and will dilute in a very different manner once it starts to open out over time. As the drink would already be at a lower strength, it gives less opportunity for the journey as described; still a good drink, but lacking the time and fortifying element of a higher strength combination.

As per the previous discussion on Bourbon cocktails (see WM109), the effects of the mashbill will also affect the drink, but with the greater proof the drink plays out differently. With some of the bigger Bourbons and Ryes that exemplify this range, although you might not think to mix these whiskies, they'll perform differently than their lower-strength Rye/wheat/corn led brethren. When mixing the high-proof version, the softness that is associated with a wheat leaning Old Fashioned comes through much later in the drink.

The same goes with the bigger Ryes; Try these recipes, it might seem a little sacrilegious, but it really opens out the fruitiness of these cult whiskies, while also drawing the herbal notes, and letting the flavours under the intense alcohol and oak play out...

Good Ol’ Fashioned Staggering


  • 5ml Gabriel Boudier Creme de Fraise des Bois

  • 3 dashes Chartreuse Elixir

  • 50ml George T. Stagg 2012

Stir briefly over ice, then strain over a block of ice coated in 3ml sugar syrup.

Garnish with a small pinch of ground white pepper.

The first sip will be significantly different from the last, but the journey of the whiskey through this is quite special.



  • 20ml lemon

  • 20ml honey (2 parts honey to 1 part water)

  • 50ml Baker’s Bourbon

Shake serve up in a coupette.


It expresses everything about using Bourbon in a drink that I could want, the acidity balanced by the sweetness of the honey just pairs perfectly with the body of the Bourbon, playing off the taste of corn and giving such a good length. For me this is my favourite Bourbon cocktail, only downside, they are too easy to drink!

De la Lousiana


  • 2 dash peychaud

  • 2 dash absinthe

  • 5ml benedictine

  • 15ml sweet vermouth 

  • 40ml Wild Turkey Bourbon

Stir down on ice strain into a coupette.

A cherry.

Just a beautiful classic drink, a nice slow sipping drink, that has a great body with some intense flavours.