When whiskey is entered into the barrel it undergoes many changes. There are many factors in these changes and barrel entry proof is an important factor. This proof has changed over the past two centuries and these changes impact the flavor of the Bourbon we are drinking. The Bourbon of James Crow would have a very different flavor than the Bourbon of the 21st century. To best understand these changes we should look at the Bourbon of the 1830s when Crow was distilling his legendary whiskey.
The 19th century was a time of many advancements in technology but it was not until the end of the century before technology made glass bottles affordable to distillers and they started bottling their own product. In Crow’s time of the 1830s whiskey was sold by the distiller in the barrel. Consumers would purchase the whiskey from the liquor store or tavern and most often they would bring their own flask or jug to hold the spirit. These flask and jugs were filled straight from the barrel so the distiller wanted a whiskey that was considered palatable straight from the barrel. They filled their barrels with whiskey that was 100 to 103 proof. The proof could go up or down with aging, depending upon the conditions of the storage of the barrel, so that the consumer was getting whiskey somewhere between 95 and 105 proof alcohol.
This higher concentration of water meant that the natural sugars in oak staves dissolved quicker into the whiskey. Most whiskey barrels were sold by the distiller at no more than two or three years of age so it was important to get the sweeter flavors from the wood at younger age. At the end of the century when bottling became an affordable practice for the distiller, they would increase the entry proof sometimes as high as 107 proof to make sure the proof stayed above 100 for bottling purposes.
Prohibition put an end to consumers being able to purchase their Bourbon directly from the barrel. With repeal came increased regulations for Bourbon. There came an official “Barrel Entry Proof” range of 100-110 proof. The lower limit of 100 was done because the tax was based upon 100 proof alcohol. The upper limit was set because of tradition. Barrels were still relatively inexpensive and the flavor profile was important. That would change in the next two decades. It was determined that people wanted lighter flavored whiskey and one way to do that was to increase the barrel entry proof.
In 1962 the barrel entry proof was increased to the 125 proof limit of today. This was done to save on the number of barrels needed to age whiskey and to lighten the flavor of the end product. It would take almost two more decades before the new maximum entry proof became the standard in practice as well as regulation, but it has done so. The resulting whiskey was lighter in flavor after 4 years of aging. It would take 8 years or more to achieve the richer bold flavors of the post Prohibition products.
The craft distilling movement is seeing a swing back to lower entry proof for whiskey. It costs more because it takes more barrels to mature the whiskey, but some distillers are seeing that balanced by having a richer tasting product at younger age. That means they lose less to evaporation during aging and it is their hopes that the cost of the barrels will be made up for by a better tasting product and more bottles to sell.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl
December 21, 2015 at 4:18 pm
Mike, I wish some “master distillers” would read this. I recently got into an argument with one who goes around claiming max entry was now 130. His distillery still uses a lower entry so his understanding of the law being flawed is partially excusible.
December 30, 2015 at 9:55 pm
Reblogged this on Joyce Dunne.
December 31, 2015 at 4:47 pm
Very cool article, thanks for writing it!
December 31, 2015 at 7:45 pm
Did the pre-pro producers know the lower entry proof resulted in better end products or why or was it happy circumstance?
April 23, 2016 at 7:26 pm
I ran into Lincoln Henderson several years ago by happenstance as he was in Denver supporting Angels’ Envy. He had no clue who I was (why would he?), but I introduced myself as a small whiskey distiller, and wanted his opinion on entry proof. I told him about my 49% abv entry, and why I thought it made better whiskey, and how that was traditional entry for decades. He told me he was part of the team that was in charge of guiding the entry proof up to 62.5 at Brown Forman through testing in the 70’s and 80’s. He said that the one problem that they ran into was color…..that all that dilution water washed the color out, and BF didn’t allow coloring caramel. He then said, and the end of the conversation before his handlers whisked him away that “if I had the choice, I’d barrel at 50%” he then laughed, gave me a wink, and left. First and last time I met that wonderful man.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m happy that you are getting the word out on the historical entry proof of 100. After years of getting funny “you don’t know what your’e doing” looks from distillers and self-annointed “bourbon experts” on tours when I told them why we entered at 98 proof, I can finally direct them to an authority on the matter…since they had no interest in hearing that I was actually well informed on the subject. I should add that it also helps with consistency from barrel to barrel. This is an important trait to us, since we bottle one barrel at a time.
April 23, 2016 at 9:35 pm
Todd, I appreciate your comments. I always liked your whiskey and your low entry proof. I look forward to coming out to see you sometime. I just need to get an event in your area.
July 16, 2020 at 10:55 pm
Great story, Todd. I met you and your bro when you were first up and running in the small industrial complex in N Denver. You gave my wife and I the “tour” and we met your dad (who was taking you to a Rockies game for your b-day) and we both walked away impressed by your knowledge and respect for what you were embarking on. I sold your products for many years @ Wilbur’s in Fort Collins and still recommend them to this day. Your success in the industry is admirable and I wish you and your family the best!
February 8, 2022 at 11:04 pm
Hi Todd – I worked with Lincoln to start up Woodford Reserve. We barreled the whiskey made at WR at 110 proof for the reasons in Mike’s article. Cheers!
March 30, 2017 at 1:23 pm
@bourbonveach always picking up new little things from you. Love many of the old duties’ flavor. Much of which I think comes from the lower entry proof. I did not know however about the consumer originally pouring the whiskey directly from the barrel. That puts things a little more in perspective. Hope all is well with you and Rosemary
August 23, 2017 at 1:19 pm
You mentioned ‘The proof could go up or down with aging, depending upon the conditions of the storage of the barrel’…..how exactly does it increase in proof, considering alcohol is more volatile (evaporates easier)?
August 23, 2017 at 1:35 pm
On the hotter upper levels of the warehouse you get both water and alcohol vapor in the barrel. Water is a smaller molecule and goes through the wood easier than alcohol thus the water loss is greater and proof goes up.
May 4, 2020 at 12:03 pm
Hi Mike. Are any distillers currently using a lower barrel entry proof?
May 4, 2020 at 12:23 pm
Many. Michter’s, Wilderness Trail, Southern Grace, Wild Turkey,and lots of others.
July 16, 2020 at 12:24 pm
All of bourbon from Kentucky Artisan Distillery is,barreled at 110 proof including Jefferson and Whiskey Row
July 16, 2020 at 1:53 pm
Yes it is and I consider that one of the many reasons I like the whiskey coming from there. I also Thule that Jade is a very talented distiller another reason. Keep up the good work!