Grain alcohol may bring back memories—or flashbacks—of college dorms. But Gilardi’s, a sleek Italian bistro in Springfield, MO, offers a house-made Limoncello with lemon zest, sugar, and the 190-proof grain alcohol Everclear. It’s served straight up in a sugar-rimmed cordial glass—hardly a means to a sloppy end.
The drink is no anomaly. In the last few years, exceedingly potent alcohols have moved beyond the frat house and into the mainstream palate, thanks to the revival of pre-Prohibition cocktails and our unending thirst for the latest and greatest. “There’s this new level of connoisseurship among drinkers in search of novelty,” says Noah Rothbaum, former editor in chief of liquor.com. “It’s not about flavor; it’s about the experience.”
What kind of alcohol levels are we talking about? While your everyday Absoluts and Macallans average between 80 and 100 proof, some specialty liquors come with proofs as high as 196, or 98 percent alcohol. But drinking them is not all about getting blasted: some higher-proof alcohols, especially whiskeys, can in fact be more flavorful at a higher proof because they’re not cut with water, says Rothbaum.
Josh Childs uses overproofed alcohols like Four Roses bourbon and green chartreuse, both 110 proof, sparingly at Trina’s Starlite Lounge, his bar in Somerville, MA. “Overproofed spirits can enhance the flavor of cocktails,” he says. “But it’s a rinse or a spritz. Otherwise all you’re getting is the heat.”
Sampling some of these high-proof liquors, however, requires a passport. Balkan 176, a 176-proof vodka made in Bulgaria, is sold in more than 20 countries, but not yet in the U.S. That may be a good thing: it comes with 13 warnings (including one in braille) about dangers of drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, and drinking while pregnant. “There’s no product in the liquor trade that has more caveats,” says Dale Sklar, managing director of the liquor’s London-based distributor, Wine & Spirit International. “And the marketing guys will say to me, ‘You know that sells more, don’t you?’”
Sklar also imports 179-proof absinthe, which he began doing more than 15 years ago, after British travelers started bringing the legendary liquor home from weekend trips to Prague. “I thought absinthe was going to be a flash in the pan, but the more dangerous something is, the more people seem to want it,” he says.
Glasgow-based Pincer Vodka, whose Shanghai Strength vodka is 88.8 percent alcohol, insists that danger isn’t a factor in its vodka’s appeal—for Pincer, superproofing is a matter of convenience and environment. “Shanghai Strength is 234 percent stronger but reduces packaging waste and carbon footprint by the same amount,” says founder Jonathan Engels. “But it is meant to be a mixer. It is not intended for drinking straight.” Of course, that’s what they all say.