How And Why To Keep Proof In Mind When Mixing Cocktails

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"I make the best Amaretto sour in the world," celebrated bartender — and Food Republic contributing cocktail editor — Jeffrey Morgenthaler once proclaimed as I sat at his wonderful bar, Clyde Common, in Portland, Oregon. It's a bold statement, and as an experienced bartender myself, of all the drinks I could choose or lay claim to making the "best" on planet Earth, the Amaretto sour would certainly not make it near the top of my list. Not even close. And for the record, Morgenthaler does, in fact, make the best Amaretto sour in the world, at least in this scribe's opinion.

The secret that Morgenthaler continues to espouse is the addition of a little overproof bourbon (he likes to use Booker's) as it lends the drink more character and — let's be real here, people — gives this often maligned, ahem, cocktail, a whiff of much-needed credibility. I think we can all agree that the Amaretto sour needs all the help it can get — at least in the context of modern mixology, whatever that means. As someone who truly despises Amaretto as a rule, I am pleasantly surprised, shocked even, at the sublime balance of Morgenthaler's iteration.

"Just as a cocktail is unpleasant when it's too strong, a drink can also be out of balance if it's too weak."

"One thing a lot of people don't realize is that there's a lot more to balancing cocktails than simply making sure the drink is sour or sweet," he says. "Another important element is the strength of the drink, and just as a cocktail is unpleasant when it's too strong, a drink can also be out of balance if it's too weak. In order to bolster our Amaretto sour, which is a traditionally weak drink to begin with, we use cask-strength bourbon to bring it up to a point where it is very much in balance."

I also think about proof a lot when creating new cocktails, and I certainly appreciate it when a bar or restaurant lists the alcohol content next to each spirit on its wine or spirits list. I find this is especially pertinent to whiskies because they can be enjoyed in so many ways: neat, perhaps with a little ice or water, or even shaken or stirred into a cocktail. A good bartender will know which whiskies should be served in each of these guises.

Let's use the Manhattan, the most regal of all whisky cocktails, as a case study. Any bartender worth his or her Maraschino cherries always asks a guest if they have a whisky preference when they order a Manhattan (some might even ask for a choice of vermouth — a nice touch, if perhaps unnecessary). The first thing I like to ask, however, is whether that person is going to enjoy his or her drink "up" or on the rocks.

This information allows me to better choose a whisky that is more appropriate. If the drinker prefers a Manhattan up in a cocktail glass (that is, without ice), I'm more likely going to suggest a whisky that is not so high in proof (probably not over 90, give or take), such as W.L. Weller 12-Year, Buffalo Trace, Maker's Mark, Eagle Rare 10, Woodford Reserve, Evan Williams Single Barrel or Wild Turkey 81 (among many others), which all make wonderful lower-proof bases for a sublime Manhattan. Of course, there is also a growing plethora of superb rye whiskies, which are more de rigueur in today's rye-mad cocktail world.

"Proof is an oft-overlooked factor in deciding what to serve a guest, especially when it's a dealer's-choice situation."

If someone prefers a Manhattan on the rocks, however, this completely changes my direction of which whisky to recommend. While these fine drams might make the drink cost-prohibitive, something like Booker's, Baker's, Knob Creek, Parker's Heritage, Weller 107 or Wild Turkey 101 is more appropriate because that extra alcohol will shine through as the drink begins to dilute as it sits on ice. This is where using single large ice cubes in such drinks is also preferred.

The whisky sour is another classic libation that definitely benefits from — sorry, needs — a high-strength bourbon or rye. When any cocktail is shaken, it is diluted significantly more than when a drink is stirred. Plus when you add lemon juice, simple syrup and sometimes egg white — as is the case here — that extra proof becomes even more welcome and the drink maintains balance, as Morgenthaler pointed out earlier.

Of course, this is not a hard-core, black-and-white rule. If someone wants to drink a George T. Stagg Manhattan (and can afford it) and have it served with the least amount of dilution, then who am I to argue? But this is certainly a philosophy that makes sense to a lot of people, and customers have always appreciated the fact that I am thinking about their enjoyment and well-being.

"Proof is an oft-overlooked factor in deciding what to serve a guest, especially when it's a dealer's-choice situation," says Joaquin Simo, owner of East Village hot spot Pouring Ribbons. "Is it their first round or their fourth? Are they coming straight from work or have they just had dinner? These are questions that cut right to the core of responsible service."

Gin is another category that requires some thought when mixing, especially since there is such disparity in proof across the myriad brands that now crowd the shelves of America's liquor stores and bars. Spirits such as vodka, brandy, rum, tequila and blended scotch mostly sit around 80 proof across the board. I say "mostly" because there are exceptions, of course, but the variances are more obvious with gin.

This rationale is why I've always held that Plymouth makes the best martini (I'm not alone here), and the reason is because its lower alcohol content (41.2 percent) makes the already-potent drink somewhat softer, more balanced and therefore more enjoyable. If you were to throw in Junipero from Anchor Distilling (49.3 percent) or Old Raj (55 percent) — both very fine gins, I might add — then your night (and the next morning) is going to take a very different direction.

Now, if you were to pour those aforementioned stronger gins over lashings of ice with fresh lemon, sugar and sparkling water, then that Tom Collins will actually have a suitable kick of juniper. Shake it into a simple classic like a White Lady with some Combier triple sec or Cointreau and lemon juice, and you'll still have a serious drink on your hands that tastes unmistakably of gin. A lower-proof gin would simply get lost in there. And that would be the biggest shame.

Amaretto Sour

Courtesy of Jeffrey MorgenthalerIngredients

45 mL Lazzaroni amaretto

20 mL Booker's bourbon

30 mL lemon juice

1 tsp rich simple syrup

1 egg white, beaten


  • Dry-shake ingredients to combine, then shake well with cracked ice.
  • Strain over fresh ice in an old-fashioned glass.
  • Garnish with lemon peel and brandied cherries, if desired.
  • Serve and grin like an idiot as your friends freak out.
  • White Lady

    From The Savoy Cocktail Book


    1 1/2 ounces gin (high proof if possible)

    ¾ ounce Combier triple sec or Cointreau

    ¾ ounce lemon juice

    1 barspoon simple syrup


  • Shake hard with ice and double-strain into a frozen cocktail glass.
  • Garnish with a lemon twist.