Whiskey Journey: What is Hazmat Whiskey?

Those who have followed along with our “Whiskey Journey” articles in the past know that most of my knowledge of the aging process, grains, and flavor profiles come from working at high end restaurants in Charleston and Birmingham, Alabama. Even the best training offered by distillers, distributors, and those in sales can miss major nuggets of information that would help anyone’s overall understanding of the entire process. Hazmat Whiskey is one of those topics that never came up in training or casual conversation. It probably has less to do with the aforementioned people neglecting information, and more so because it’s a newer trend in the bourbon world. I’ve learned that enthusiasts on the secondary market pay upwards of $900 for a 375ml bottle of Jack Daniel’s “Coy Hill” 2021 Special Release Small Batch; those bottles are in the 143.6-155.1 proof range and an all-Hazmat release. That’s $1800 for 750ml or $70 for an ounce and to me that is insane. Which begs the question: What the hell is hazmat whiskey and why are people paying so much for it? Let’s start with how it got its name.

The Federal Aviation Administration will not allow alcohol above 70% on airplanes due to its flammable nature and they consider it a hazardous material. Hazmat is a whiskey at or above 70% Alcohol by volume (ABV) or 140 proof. These whiskies aren’t easy to find for several reasons, but rarity and profit margin are two of the most notable. Somewhere along the process of shipping higher proofed alcohol was born the slang term, “Hazmat Whiskey,” and its popularity amongst enthusiasts has grown since 2016. That’s when Heaven Hill released their Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch 6 at 140.2 proof. Hazmat bourbon was now attainable in most U.S. states, rather than just experimental batches from smaller local distilleries. Just yesterday I saw a post selling Elijah Craig Barrel Proof batches 1-5, and 7-11; no batch 6 to be found. It tells me 3 things: either that person drank Batch 6, hasn’t been able to find one, or already sold it because of demand. They have become collectors’ items and bottles that some people are proud to show off. How does it get proofed so high anyway?

First, consider the aging process and losing a good bit of whiskey to the Angel’s share; that’s when the water inside the barrel evaporates at a quicker rate than alcohol. Now you have a barrel that should yield 200 bottles but currently yields 135 concentrated bottles at cask strength. You either bottle it at the higher proof or you proof it down creating more product and at a reduced price for the same reason. Using that scenario, let’s say they proof the 140-proof barrel down to 93 like Blanton’s. They can get 75-100 more bottles of whiskey per barrel, and for the masses, it’s typically a more palatable sip. Conversely for the whiskey nerds, it’s proofed down just a little too much and some great flavor profiles are missing. Have you ever heard of Blanton’s Straight from The Barrel? It’s around 124 proof but double the price. Blanton’s Gold is in the middle at 103 proof, and for me, it’s my favorite of the lineup. It’s the classic case of Goldilocks: Blanton’s STFB is too hot, Blanton’s Single Barrel is too weak, and Blanton’s Gold is just right. That’s not always the case with every whiskey label. Many of you may wonder why someone would want anything proofed at 140 or higher. Up until very recently, I would have agreed with you.

At the end of the summer, I drove up to Winston-Salem with G.C. and Kyle Ramey to visit Broad Branch Distillery and see what it was all about. It is a wonderful “Mom & Pop” operation with an all-hands-on deck/cross trained approach. Without boring you with a distillery tour story about how they once got cows drunk with the wrong spent mash, we ultimately ended up in their tasting room choosing a private barrel for the Gamecock Bourbon Society. The cellar master, the master distiller, and the two owners picked their favorite barrels from their entire inventory. It was a game for them to see whose favorite was going to be chosen out of the 4 options. We were unanimous with our choice and surprised our pick was the 144 proof (72% ABV) 7-year-old whiskey. We could tell it was higher proof, but it drank no hotter than some everyday sippers we see in the 115 range, and with richer flavors. Think of a spicier than normal basket of wings, but the flavors are so good that you keep powering through them. That’s about the best comparison I can make. Once we made the selection, Broad Branch told us that it would eventually be proofed down to 131 or so to create more bottles and become more palatable. We looked at each other (G.C., Kyle and I) and decided we wanted this barrel at cask strength. Not only because we enjoyed it immensely as it was presented, but because Hazmat whiskey is rare and we wanted to offer that to this society. Being able to decide at home how much you want to proof it down, if at all, is something we wanted to leave up to each of you. It should be for sale sometime in early January at Green’s Discount Beverages across South Carolina, but I’ll send an update closer to release.

Another recent experience that helped changed my mind was due to the kindness of someone that reached out to me online. His Twitter handle is Mostly Peaceful Bourbon (@mstlyPcflBourbn), and he saw a post that I made with the 135th Anniversary Four Roses Limited Edition that I was lucky enough to purchase. We decided to trade 5 of our hard to find/rare whiskies with each other. 2 of the 5 that I received from him were from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) and were the 2022 Thomas Handy and the 2022 William L. Weller. Most of you have heard of “Weller” and if so, you know that this is the hardest Weller to get by infinity. It fetches $1000 or more, so to get a 3 oz sample in a trade was very gracious of him. I decided to share these samples with my dad and my brother over Thanksgiving one night; the Weller is a 124 proof Bourbon and the Thomas Handy a rye in the 133 range. We all felt like the 124 proof Weller needed a small amount of water to tame the whiskey and bring out those flavors we knew were hidden behind the ethanol. The 133 proof Thomas Handy went down smooth as silk and was the clear favorite for all 3 of us. I wouldn’t want to proof the Handy down a single percent, and it was a true eye-opening experience for me. To have a light come on with 2 of the finest whiskies that Buffalo Trace distills was memorable to say the least.

Ultimately, I want people to know that higher proof whiskey gives the consumer more control over how they want their whiskey to taste. If you typically drink your whiskey neat, it will behoove you to consider the notion that adding a drop of water won’t ruin it. You would be doing at home what a blender would do at the distillery. Every drop of water will change the flavor and palate of a 1 oz pour of whiskey. If you wanted to exact your own dilution, a 93-proof bottle isn’t the best one to start with, but if it’s too spicy for you to enjoy, drop some water or a cube of ice in it. Let it simmer down for you and see if you can find the flavors that you enjoy. I personally think it would be better to start with a higher proof dram which gives plenty of room for proofing down, as well as room for experimental error. To be fair to those that drink neat 100% of the time, letting a whiskey sit open in a nosing glass for 10 minutes may also do the trick for a vibrant whiskey. It definitely allows the ethanol to escape and brings a much better nose if you allow the whiskey to rest a while. It’s a great style of whiskey to sit around a table with friends; complete with a whiskey water jug of limestone water not far away to help proof down certain whiskies that need taming. To date, I have had the privilege of tasting two Hazmat offerings: a Willet Family Estate 9-year at 147 proof, & our Broad Branch group pick at 144. Both were outstanding and worth sharing with friends around any table for any occasion.

Next time you host a blind tasting amongst your friends or family, vary the choices with different proofs and see where the chips fall. It’s very interesting to see people pick a 105-proof whiskey as the higher proof than one they may have thought was smoother at 20 proof points higher. Even better for a blind tasting would be to open a bottle over 130 proof; from there, pour 1 ounce of the same whiskey in 3 separate nosing glasses. In the 1st glass, pour 1 ounce of whiskey with a teaspoon of water. In the 2nd glass, add a half a teaspoon of water. In the 3rd glass, leave the whiskey untouched/neat. What will be in front of those tasting are 3 whiskies that smell and taste very similar but are completely different. It’s a great learning tool for someone who avoids higher proof whiskey without fully knowing why, and it’s also fun telling them it’s the same whiskey. It always comes down to being around a table with friends and family to learn something new, and to enjoy the fellowship that time together will bring. Whiskey simply helps to loosen the lips.

Hazmat is just quicker.

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