Not to undermine Cervantes’ brilliant quote, but for the sake of this article the proof of the alcohol is in the drinking. By a small sample we may judge the whole barrel. Let me explain.
Before you partake in enjoying your favorite bourbon, do you take a look at the proof? Or the amount of alcohol within? Of course you do. In fact, I am pretty sure that between the time you purchased the bottle and the time you completely emptied it you perused the label to see what “proof” or Alcohol By Volume (ABV%) your bourbon was rated. It is common knowledge that the amount (%) of alcohol is half of what the proof rates. So for example and to keep it simple, if the proof of your favorite bourbon is 100 then the alcohol content is 50%. This is nothing new to any of you I am sure. But where did the term “proof” come from and what was it’s original meaning?
To find out we need to take a trip back in time to somewhere between 16th and 17th century England. Specifically the Royal Navy and the transportation of one of the Empire’s desired imports…rum. I know this is a bourbon site but just bare with me, will ya!
So imagine yourself back in time sailing on the H.M.S Tall Ship from a New England distillery with a hold filled with barrels upon barrels of rum. You’re a young Quarter gunner’s mate on your way back home to England. It’s a long monotonous journey and all that sailing has made you quite thirsty. But you’re tired of the water aboard ship. You can’t help but staring at a small barrel tucked away in the nose of the hold. It’s practically hidden from plain sight. “No one’s going to know if I take a little. Just a few sips to take the “edge” of this long sail. That’s all! No one will be the wiser.” So you pop the bung from the barrel and dip anything you can find into the sweet intoxicating libation. “So good,” you think to yourself as you take a few more sips. You repeat this process over the next several days, but despite your best efforts to remain discreet a few bowmen catch wind of your chicanery. They threaten to report you to the Lieutenant unless you allow them to take part in your artful deception. You oblige to save your neck.
To make sure the barrel is not left empty, you and your cohorts cleverly sample from numerous other barrels instead of just the one. However, after a few days of inconspicuous imbibing you realize there are several barrels that are much “lighter” than when they were originally stowed. Especially that first smaller barrel. You begin to panic. To rectify the problem you add water, saltwater, urine and whatever you can find to restore the level of the barrels back to the desired amount. Phew! You just prevented yourself from being keel-hauled or being hung from the yardarm.
Or did you?
After the long and arduous sail, the Captain, the Master and the Captain of Marines decide celebrate their arrival home with a drink from a small private barrel set aside in the nose of the ship’s hold. But these officers are no dummies. They know the temptations that befall sailors during such journeys. As you peak into the galley, you see the Captain make a small pile of gunpowder on an old charred wooden plank. “What is he doing?” you despair. Then, from the small barrel that you and your mates carelessly over-sampled for nearly the entire trip, the Captain fills a small glass and pours it over the gunpowder. “Huh?” you ask yourself. “What is going on here?” The Master hands him a flame from a small desk lamp. Phhhssssst! The flame immediately goes out and the gunpowder doesn’t ignite. “Captain!” the Captain sternly bellows to the Captain of the Marines. “Find out who is responsible for this!” You watch in terror as the Marine commander nods,”Yes Captain, right away!”
A few hours later you find yourself with your hands and feet bound and a rope around your neck being hoisted to the block of the upper arm. As you look down desparately squirming, taking your last breath, you see those scoundrel bowmen grinning as they man the rope. Your last thought, “How in the King’s name did the Captain prove the rum in the barrel was watered down?”
The Captain was wise enough to know that unadulterated rum would ignite when introduced to fire and would subsequently burn with a dull cherry colored flame. This was his way of “proving” that the alcohol was or wasn’t watered down. If it wasn’t diluted then it was considered “100 proof” and worthy of being enjoyed. It was determined that gunpowder would not burn in rum with less than 57.15% alcohol. So if the rum burned or ignited then it contained at least that amount and was defined as having 100 degrees of proof. So there you have it! The etymology of the the word “proof”as it relates to alcohol.
Like most things that were born of British ingenuity, we in the United States eventually changed the proof system to our liking in 1848. At that time, proof became known as the percentage of alcohol in our spirits such as bourbon.
So be sure to check out the proof of your next bourbon purchase. But I think you’re pretty safe in drinking it at your leisure without pouring it over gunpowder. In fact, for the safety of you and your family, I strongly recommend not testing the proof in such a manner. Please just read the label instead.
Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Evan Williams KSBW, 43% ABV or 86 proof (NAS) Old Evan Williams Distillery, Bardstown, KY.
http://www.wikipedia.com -“Alcohol proof”, http://www.hmsrichmond.org, http://www.wikipedia.com-“Royal Navy ranks, rates and uniforms of the 18th and 19th centuries”, http://www.macmillandictionary.com -“Parts of boats and ships”, http://www.izquotes.com