Whiskey Nips: Barrel Entry Proof
One of the rules of bourbon is that it cannot be distilled above 160 proof. This helps to preserve flavor, before it turns into something like vodka. Before putting that distillate into a barrel to age, distillers must add water and proof it down to 125 proof or less. Before prohibition and bottling became a more common practice, distillers used to barrel their distillate between 100 and 103 proof, even though at the time, today’s strict laws of bourbon were not in place. This was done mostly in part because consumers would get their bourbon straight from the barrel and it was a very drinkable proof. The additional water added before barreling to proof it down helps to break down the sugars pulled from the oak, bringing out a much sweeter profile at a younger age.
After prohibition, distillers continued to barrel their distillate between 100 and 110 proof, the maximum by law at the time. If you have ever had an older bourbon, even the lower proofed ones contained a lot of flavor and richer mouthfeel. The demand started changing in the next couple of decades, and consumers wanted a lighter flavor of whiskey. This could be achieved by adding water after aging, and not before, so the legal limit was increased to 125 proof in 1962.
If a lower barrel entry proof results in a richer flavor, why would distilleries choose to have their distillate go into the barrel at 125 proof? Simple answer, cost. Going into the barrel at 110 proof compared to 125 proof requires 14% more barrels. When you’re a big company like Beam, who’s filled over a million barrels in less than 2 years, this is a huge cost in not only barrels, but storage space.
Not all distilleries barrel at the maximum proof. Maker’s Mark puts their distillate in at 110 proof, which is why their cask strength release comes out between 108 and 113 proof. Peerless distills their rye to 132 proof, barrels it at 107, and bottles it at barrel strength with no added water. Even though their first release is only 2 years old, people have said it is a very good product that’s full of flavor. The barrel entry proof contributes greatly to this. Due to the demand of bourbon, I don’t foresee any of the large distilleries lowering their entry proof, but smaller craft distilleries can use their size to their advantage and barrel at a lower entry proof because they aren’t barreling 100s of barrels per day.