At this time of year, when people like to treat themselves and their friends, it's common to buy whiskeys you normally don't, probably because they're too damn expensive.
Many people are enamored of barrel proof or cask strength whiskey, whether it's Booker's Bourbon at 63% ABV (alcohol by volume), McCallan Single Malt at 58% ABV, or the 2007 George T. Stagg Bourbon at 72.4% ABV. If you give or receive any of these this holiday season, or anything else above about 55% ABV, be careful.
Of course, you always need to be careful with straight spirits. Most whiskey is sold at 40% ABV, which is about four times as much alcohol per ounce as wine and more than eight times as much as most beers.
The most important part of self-control in an alcohol consumption context is being aware of exactly how much alcohol is going into your body; not the volume of liquid, the volume of alcohol.
With very high proof beverages there are additional risks.
Gentle sipping of small quantities of very high proof spirits probably won’t hurt you. It depends on your personal sensitivity. Drinking—as opposed to sipping—alcohol at very high concentrations risks damage to any and all of the tissue it encounters along the way: mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach.
A pour of straight Stagg, for example, contains 75 percent more alcohol than Jack Daniel’s. If you’re not paying careful attention to how much you consume, you risk alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal. Those are the primary risks, tissue damage and alcohol poisoning.
On the other side of the risk there is no reward. High proof alcohol tends to deaden or anesthetize the sense receptors, reducing your ability to taste or smell the whiskey. No fun in that.
Whiskeys aren’t bottled at high proof so you can drink them that way. They’re usually expensive and are bottled that way so you pay for whiskey, not added water, and can prepare it for drinking as you see fit. I recommend reducing the proof with room temperature water to about 50% ABV.
I hope this isn't a downer. Have a great holiday, including your favorite adult beverages. Just be adult about it.