Everyone’s got a story. The trash can full of “punch” at a house party sophomore year of college. Drive-through Cokes turned lethal in a poorly lit cul-de-sac junior year of high school. Spring Break, in its entirety. Overproof spirits, not yet referred to as such in those salad days, were once simply synonymous with two things: Everclear or Bacardi 151. Flavor profile was not a consideration; potency was. They simply got the job done, and fast.
In a moment like the one we’re in, let’s face it: Overproof has a nicer ring to it than low-proof. Historically, “overproof” was applied to any spirit that was bottled above the standard 50 percent ABV, or 100 proof. (That standard in the U.S. is now typically 40 percent ABV and 80 proof, but the line drawn previously still stands.) Today, as our tastes for drinks skew ever bolder, so have our spirits, leading to a resurgence of overproof rums and a bourbon market driven by a “more is more” mentality. But even now, with our heightened fluency in spirits and cocktails, why and when to use overproof rum, navy-strength gin or a high-proof, cask-strength bourbon isn’t universally understood.
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The general rule is simple: Don’t overthink it. Overproof spirits are effective as modifiers in drinks that lean on nuance, like the Kingston Negroni or Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Amaretto Sour. In the latter, a 3/4-ounce pour of barrel-strength bourbon dries the drink out, giving it the balance it has historically lacked. But do not fear overproof spirits as your base. Even in drinks like the Whiskey Sour or the Fitty-Fitty Martini, an overproof spirit adds both mouthfeel and a flavor profile whose contours are easier to identify.
If you need further proof of the virtues of overproof spirits, look no further than tiki. In tropical drinks, overproof rum is as much a vehicle for flavor as it is for texture, cutting a clear path through citrus juices and syrups while adding a rich, almost oily, quality to cocktails that prefer the volume up. Navy-strength gin, which must be bottled above 57 percent alcohol, is likewise a fixture in tiki drinks like the Saturn and the Double-Barrel Winchester, while overproof whiskey has become a useful tool in modern tropical drinks like Erick Castro’s Iron Ranger. And let us not forget the float. If anyone is kind enough to ask you if you’d like a shot of overproof rum to crown your Piña Colada, the answer is “yes.”