Bourbon whiskey as a style leans towards big, bold flavor. While there are whiskeys bottled at the minimum of 80 proof, stronger whiskeys are commonplace and often preferred among whiskey fans. Nowhere is that preference more on display than in the wide range of cask-strength (sometimes also called barrel-proof) bourbons out there.
Dialing up the proof on your favorite brand of bourbon often means pumping up the flavor, and in a good example of cask-strength bourbon this is done without the whiskey becoming a hot, burning, alcohol-forward mess. If you don’t like your whiskey that strong, no problem; just add a little water and dial it down to suit your own tastes. Cask-strength bourbon has the substance to stand both dilution and chilling from ice, making it a must-have for summertime whiskey drinking. Finally, in an era when many popular bourbon brand names have lost their age statements, their high octane versions have retained them.
Barrel-proof bourbons are proliferating, with new choices popping up every day. Here are five that will suit a range of palates and budgets.
The independent bottler, Barrell Craft Spirits, has earned a solid reputation for chasing down top notch bourbon stock and bottling it in uncut releases, their most recent being Batch 012, a 9-year-old bottled at 108.5 proof. Every Barrell Bourbon batch is different, but they are reliably good and sometimes even great.
Beloved by fans of Heaven Hill, these releases tend to float in the 120 to 135 proof range. This version takes the Elijah Craig flavor profile of big, bold vanilla sweetness and oakiness to soaring heights. What is more, while the original Elijah Craig has lost its age statement, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof remains a 12 year old.
If you have several hundred dollars to spend and want a very old, very strong bourbon in the traditional style, George T. Stagg is your pony. Part of the annual and medal-bedecked Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Stagg is usually about 17 years old and bottled between 125 and 140 proof. Officially, it is priced at $80 and some lottery winners or folks who are especially cozy with their local liquor store actually pay that. Few are fortunate enough to score a bottle that way, however, and most that get a bottle of Stagg wind up paying the market price of between $500 and $800 a bottle.
Compared to other distilleries, Maker’s Mark does not have a huge product line. This is due partly to the fact that the standard Maker’s Mark is in such high demand that they have limited capability to introduce new products, but also because they make only wheated bourbon (and are pretty good at doing it).
One spin on their staple product is the Cask Strength version. In keeping with the softer profile of wheated bourbon, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength comes in lower than most of the barrel-proof whiskeys, floating in the 108 to 115 proof range. This makes it a good choice not just for fans of wheated bourbon, but also for those who want their bourbon just a little stronger, rather than a lot stronger.
Living legend Jimmy Russell has a very clear idea of what the sweet spot for his bourbon is, and as a rule this spot is a bit older and a bit stronger than most, as exemplified by Wild Turkey 101. That said, he doesn’t like bourbon that is too strong or too old, and that is perhaps best shown in Rare Breed. It’s bolder and woodier than Wild Turkey 101, but not a ball-breaker and is roughly comparable to Maker’s Mark Cask Strength in terms of potency.
Richard Thomas turned his Kentucky upbringing and eight years as a European expat into cheese, whiskey and wine writing. Booze-wise, he owns and edits The Whiskey Reviewer and writes freelance, including authoring the book Port: Beginners Guide To Wine and contributing to The New Single Malt. When he isn’t scribbling in a bar, he is hauling a ruck in Red River Gorge.