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Adding Water to Your Bourbon: Exploring Dilution

Posted on by Eric Burke

It feels like there are so many proof chasers out there. You always hear things like: “this would be great if there was just a little more proof on it.” Obviously things that are too diluted are less than tasty. But I propose that too high of a proof can be just as bad too. Especially in this era of “I only drink things neat” that many new whiskey drinkers seem to think is cool. 

The old timers like to say that a higher proof whiskey is better because then you can water it down as much as you like. I like that. I’ve always seem to prefer things that are in the goldilocks zone. Not too high, not too low. 

But being a blogger, I need to put my money where my mouth is. And coincidentally it just so happens that the final two pours of my attempt at blending a barrel proof Four Roses Yellow Label were slated for removal (drinking down after reaching 1/4 full to free up shelf space and prevent hoarding). I thought they were amazing, spicy and complex. They were also barrel proof. So what’s a poor blogger to do but water them down in the name of science?

Using math (and water), I diluted the initial 56.24% ABV sample down to 50%, 45% and 40% ABV. I let them sit for a while to incorporate and then my wife and I tasted them together. 

40% ABV sample 

Nose: Bubble gum, oak, thick caramel and a hint of mint.

Mouth: thick mouthfeel, odd for an 80 proofer. sharp ginger, sweet caramel

Finish: lingering spice and warmth. 

Thoughts: Like a spicy cookie. There is ginger and caramel, but not much more. Tasty though.

45% ABV sample

Nose: A bit soapy at first. Juicyfruit gum, caramel and oak.

Mouth: Sweet and spicy again. There is a nice roundness to the mouthfeel. Baking spices, cayenne, caramel and vanilla.

Finish: Warm, but mellow (this lives up to the Four Roses marketing even if they didn’t blend it). A slight lingering sharpness that transistions to dark chocolate.

Thoughts: This makes me wish for a slightly older Yellow Label with just a bit less water in it. This is delicious and a vast improvement over the 80 proofer. It’s sweeter and the spice is more complex and less sharp. The mouthfeel was round and pleasant. I enjoyed this very much.

50% ABV sample

Nose: Rich. Buttery brown sugar, cinamon spice, mint.

Mouth: Sugery sweet on entry, sharp oak flavors as it moves back.

Finish: Tannic. Baking spices and lingering warmth. 

Thoughts: The higher proof on this one shows the oak a little too much. It’s tasty, but a bit hot and sharp compared to the others. 

Comparison Thoughts:

All of the single barrels that went into this belnd were at least 8-9 years old with some edging into the 11 year range. As such, it is quite a bit older than what I assume to be in the regular Yellow Label Four Roses. It is just about perfect at 90 proof. 

I’m struck by how different each of these are considering they were all poured out of the same bottle at the same time. Water is an amazing addition to whiskey. I agree with the old timers here, the main benefit to buying whiskey that is of a higher proof is so you can water it down to where you feel it’s best. Even if that is barrel proof. 

(And yes, I do really want an older and higher proof yellow label…)