I enjoy my Bourbon and Rye neat. As a result, I don’t care for most American whiskey that is 80 proof. I find them too thin and watery in flavor for my taste. The exception to this for me is Four Roses Bourbon (formerly known as “Yellow Label”). It is complex enough that even at 80 proof, there are plenty of flavors to be found in a neat pour of this Bourbon. Most of my Bourbon-enthusiast friends agree with me about 80 proof whiskey. So the question then becomes “Why?” Why are so many of the whiskeys bottled at 80 proof?
Historically this is a fairly recent phenomenon that has happened in the last 40 years. In the 19th century people were drinking whiskey they purchased from the barrel at their local liquor dealer, grocery, or saloon. Their whiskey ranged in proof from 90 to 105. The average barrel entry proof for the whiskey was about 100 proof and there was some increase or decrease with aging just as there is today. When bottling became affordable, the distilleries bottled their whiskey in this same range of proofs. In 1897, the Bottled-in-Bond Act was passed and straight whiskey was mostly bottled at 100 proof and bonded. This was a time before chill filtering technology and the whiskey would have more body and flavor as it received very little filtering to remove flavor.
After Prohibition was repealed Bonded Straight Whiskey was still the standard, but blended whiskeys were made at lower proofs. This was the influence of Scotch whisky for the most part. Scotch was an aged product and after repeal, there was very little aged American whiskeys, so Scotch became known as “the good stuff”. In most cases, it was bottled at 80 proof. The consumer tastes were changing to a lighter style in flavor and proof. American distillers introduced blends that mirrored this change in palate. It also stretched the distillery’s stocks of aged whiskey while they aged more for future sales. Blends remained popular with distilleries through the end of the World War and up to 1950 as they needed to continue to stretch their stocks of aged whiskey.
In the 1950s tastes were still favoring lighter bodied whiskey and many traditionally bonded straight whiskey brands began to offer lower proof versions. Most distillers preferred the bonded, 100 proof whiskey and Julian Van Winkle refused to lower the proof of Old Fitzgerald. He argued that if you wanted a lower proof, then add your own water to the glass – you would get more flavor that way than purchasing lower proof whiskey. Van Winkle knew that when you bottle whiskey you need to filter it to prevent the whiskey from getting cloudy when chilled. This filtration removes flavors, as well as, the natural vegetable oils that cause the cloudiness. The lower the proof you bottle the whiskey at, the more filtration needed to prevent the cloudiness. Still, the public wanted lower proof, lighter tasting whiskey, so many brands started offering 86 proof versions to the public.
By the 1980s bonded whiskey had lost market share to their lower proof expressions. Then with the popularity of products like light beer, the distilleries started lowering the proof of these 86 proof products to 80 proof. Whiskey sales were at record lows and most people who did drink whiskey were mixing it with soft drinks, so no one really noticed the change. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were very few 86 proof brands left as they had become 80 proof in the bottle. As the new century progressed 80 proof whiskey became popular because the distiller was able to create more bottles from each barrel. Many consumers today drink their whiskey in soft drinks and 80 proof brands are cheaper. Because of this, 80 proof whiskey is here to stay.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and Michael Veach