For some palates a barrel proof Manhattan sounds like a nightmare, but for some of us, it’s heaven in a glass. Barrel proof bourbons get a bad rap. They’re too hot for some people, or their finish is too strong, or they just have so much proof you can’t taste the whiskey.
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But for a lot of women, barrel proof bourbon is where it’s at. Research done by Bourbon Women indicated that women prefer higher proof bourbons and whiskies. And I’ve found this to be true anecdotally of my female bourbon lovers.
We may not always want a high proof bourbon, but when done well, it’s a symphony of flavors and mouthfeel that’s hard to come by under 100 proof.
So, for the Bourbon Women cocktail of the month I wanted to celebrate our love of the higher proof spirit in a cocktail built to showcase bourbon and whiskey – the Manhattan cocktail. (For more on the Classic Manhattan cocktail, you can check out my article here.)
What does barrel proof mean?
A barrel proof bourbon is one that is bottled at the proof (technically within 2 degrees of proof) it comes out of the barrel. In the production of most bourbon and whiskies, producers proof the spirit down through the addition of water. Generally, most bourbons are sold between 80 and 100 proof, or 40-50% alcohol by volume.
Barrel proof bourbons go from 103/104 proof all the way up the 135 and higher. Drinkers find them more flavorful and robust to bourbon drinkers, and if they are single barrel AND barrel proof, you’ve got a whiskey that’ll never be sold again once the bottles from that barrel are consumed.
While barrel proof bourbon may go through a filtration process to remove tiny bits of char, no water will be added. It goes into the bottle and is sold to the consumer at the same proof as it comes out of the whiskey barrel.
In the US, bourbon can go into the barrel at any proof 125 or lower. Over time, as the the whiskey ages in the barrel, some of the distillate evaporates, as the angel’s share sips away at the whiskey in the barrel as it moves in and out of the wooden staves.
As the barrel works its magic, the temperature and placement of a barrel in a rickhouse overtime means that the alcohol level of the spirit in the barrel varies. As it ages, the alcohol level increases and drops based on temperature, climate, length of time in the barrel and position in the rickhouse.
Why is barrel proof bourbon more expensive?
In Kentucky, 60% of the cost of a bourbon of bourbon is taxes. Sixty percent. And yet we Kentuckians still love it. Some of that tax rate is calculated by the proof of the spirit in the bottle. If you have a higher proof spirit (as barrel proof bourbon is) it’s going to cost more.
The cost of a barrel of bourbon is calculated by a dollar amount per proof gallon (a proof gallon is 50%) alcohol. Bourbon going into the barrel at 125 proof, the upper limit, would be taxed at a rate of 1.25 proof gallons.
All of that is a complicated way to say that if your alcohol has a higher proof, it’s going to take more out of your wallet.
A barrel proof Manhattan cocktail
Bourbon Women don’t wait for Bourbon Heritage Month to celebrate America’s Native Spirit. We celebrate all year long. But, to honor America’s Native Spirit, I put together a high proof bourbon Manhattan cocktail since so many of us love our bourbon strong and tasty even in a cocktail. I wanted to pair it with a little coffee infusion so that we can call it a breakfast drink. You might not need another drink all day.
While some people shy away from using barrel proof bourbons in their cocktails, I find that if you pair the flavors you find in your whiskey with the elements you’re adding to the cocktail you can marry the two. The result is a smooth, assertive bourbon Manhattan cocktail that celebrates the bolder flavors of the higher proof.
How to choose a whiskey for a barrel proof Manhattan
Just because you love a barrel proof bourbon doesn’t mean it will make a stellar barrel proof Manhattan. Each barrel proof bourbon expression is different, and each expression pulls out different flavor notes, mouthfeel and complexities from the barrel.
Go for complex flavors rather than a one-note bourbon
Sometimes barrel proof bourbons are so assertive you can only find one flavor in the bourbon. It might only be you, but your palate is the one that matters. When you select a barrel proof bourbon for a Manhattan, look for a bourbon with complexity and layers.
You’ll use bitters and vermouth to build and expand those layers, so choose something that’s more well-rounded rather than an oak or cherry bomb.
Taste test slightly diluted with a little water
Because you’ll be making a cocktail, you’ll add water in the final Manhattan through stirring over ice. So add a teaspoon or two of water to the bourbon you’re considering using and taste it.
Once built into the cocktail, the bourbon will have more water in it (which can open up fruity and floral notes) and it will be chilled. Think about how the bourbon will taste as it’s more subdued from being chilled and a little lighter with the addition of water.
Consider the vermouth you’re using
Match or complement the vermouth you plan to use. Instead of choosing a vermouth with contrasting flavors. Because you want to keep the focus on the bourbon, use a vermouth that won’t compete with the bourbon.
Finally, the Recipe
For this iteration of a classic barrel proof Manhattan cocktail, I chose to infuse the sweet vermouth with coffee beans. By adding the bitterness of the coffee infusion, it decreased the amount of bitters I needed to use and actually matched the flavors present in the bourbon. A benefit I didn’t expect was the oils from the coffee infusion adding to a creamier mouthfeel.
A tiny bit of maple syrup counteracted the unrefined bitterness from the coffee beans, and brought out more of the caramel and baking spices present in the bourbon.
I added cardamon and orange bitters in small quantities as well, because those spices make me think of breakfast when paired with coffee and maple.
Let me know how your barrel proof Manhattan cocktail turned out!
If you like non-traditional variations on the Manhattan cocktail, check out these other fun Manhattans I’ve created:
- Bananas Foster Manhattan
- French Quarter Manhattan
- ThRUMbelina – Rum Tiramisu Manhattan
- Black Licorice Manhattan
- Uncle Nearest Manhattan
Did you try it? I love getting unsolicited DRINK pics from you when you try out a cocktail. Send them along to me on social media. Join me on my social channels at @cocktail_contessa on Instagram and Cocktail Contessa on Facebook and use the hashtags #cocktailcontessa and #bourbonismycomfortfood.
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Cask and You Shall Receive
- 2 oz barrel proof bourbon
- ¾ oz coffee-infused sweet vermouth**
- ½ barspoon maple syrup
- 4 drops cardamon bitters
- 8 drops orange bitters
- Garnish: orange peel
- Combine bourbon, infused vermouth, and bitters in mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir until well chilled and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with an orange peel.
- 3 tablespoons dark roast coffee beans
- 4 ounces sweet vermouth