If you've ever wondered about booze bottles bearing those curious cask- or barrel- strength labels, then mystery revealed: It turns out that the liquor industry has quietly gone "extreme" in recent years. Special editions of whiskey, vodka, gin and other potent potables are now available in levels of 51 to 70 ABV (or 102 to 140 proof) – and a few far higher – compared with more typical 40 ABV/80 proof of garden variety distilled spirits. These high-strength brews not only pack an alcohol wallop, but many are extremely flavorful, and thus stand out better when used with mixed drinks than their more diluted siblings (yes, it's true, most spirits are cut with water). Since many are twice or more as strong as your typical tipple, they'll ring your bell though if you don't treat them with the proper respect. Pour poorly at your peril.
Hapsburg Absinthe Premium Reserve
One of history's most romanticized and notorious spirits, this green beast with purported hallucinogenic powers - caused by thujone, a chemical found in the wormwood that's used in the distillation of absinthe - was hugely popular in Europe and major cities across the U.S and came to symbolize the Bohemian Movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Artists from Oscar Wilde to Vincent Van Gogh happily sipped it for creative inspiration. However, the same supposed psychoactive properties that made the liquor so popular were also its undoing, as absinthe was accused of turning children into criminals, encouraging loose morals, and inspiring murders. Thus another great liquor fell victim to the temperance movement that swept the globe at the beginning of the 20th century, and by 1915, was banned in many countries.
Thanks to the trend of artisanal everything, absinthe is seeing a welcome revival of sorts. And Hapsburg Premium Reserve is one of the most potent versions on the market, at 89.9 percent ABV (or 180 proof) – which explains the bottle's "Extra Special Super Strength" label. Sipped neat, it has a bitter taste and so is best consumed after diluting it with water and sugar. (For an added element of danger, try it Czech style: Place a sugar cube on a spoon, dip it into a shot of absinthe, and then light the sugar on fire; after it starts to melt plunge the spoon into the glass and stir fast, blow out the fire and then drink it.) One whiff instantly reveals that it is an herbal spirit, with anise and wormwood (the plant responsible for any psychoactive shenanigans) as well as peppermint, cloves, and cinnamon, among other aromatics. Sip carefully, and keep a chair safely nearby. [$65; hapsburgabsinthe.com]