If you’ve ever visited a bourbon distillery and had the chance to tour a rick house, the warehouse where the barrels are aged, you’ve smelled that special smell. You know the one I’m talking about; that deep, oaky, smoky, sweet, delicious smell of all of that whiskey escaping its porous, woody confines and permeating the dark, damp air with the fabled angels’ share. It’s heady and enticing and makes you want to pour a dram straight from one of the dusky barrels surrounding you on all sides.
Well, many bourbon brands allow you to do the next best thing by offering barrel proof or cask strength releases. This means the whiskey is bottled straight from the barrel, sometimes after undergoing a filtering process to remove bits of wood or other contaminants that might have chipped off in the barrel. The flavor is fuller, and the proof is much higher. The reason for this is that normally water is added to the whiskey before bottling to get the proof down to somewhere around 80 to 100 (this varies). But barrel proof bourbon often pushes its alcohol content up to the 120 and 130 proof range, making it headier but explosively flavorful, and arguably the most pure bourbon drinking experience you can have.
The nice thing about barrel proof bourbon is that you can adjust it to your taste (and desired level of intoxication) yourself by adding a little water, or letting an ice cube mellow it out. A bottle of cask strength is going to be more expensive than your average whiskey, but if you haven’t yet tried it, you are missing out. Here’s a list of some of the best barrel proof/cask strength bourbons available today.
Maker’s Mark isn’t a brand that releases a lot of expressions, instead choosing to focus on its tried and true formula – so much so that the distillery is expanding not by building bigger stills and mash tuns, but by building mirror images of what they already have so they can be sure the flavor will remain exactly the same. In addition to Maker’s 46, though, they now have a third release with their Cask Strength Bourbon. It’s bottled at 108 to 114 proof, which is intentionally lower than most cask strength whiskeys because they don’t want to overpower you with alcohol taste. So what does it taste like? It’s kind of like original Maker’s on steroids, but the flavors are not overly aggressive and you can still taste the red winter wheat that is Maker’s signature grain, making this one of the finest cask strength sipping whiskeys available.
I had the chance to speak with master distiller Greg Davis about why Maker’s Mark decided to release a cask strength bourbon, and he had this to say: “Maker’s Mark Cask Strength isn’t really a new ‘expression,’ per se – it’s bottled Maker’s Mark straight from the barrel – uncut and unaltered. When friends would come down to the distillery and taste a little, they raved about it so much we finally decided to listen. Maker’s Mark doesn’t release products because they’re trends. We stick to what we know.”
For the time being the Cask Strength is available only in 375ml bottles, but over the next few months there are plans to release it in 750ml bottles as well.
Redemption was recently purchased by Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, owners of Yellow Tail wine, among many other brands. So who knows what the future holds for this excellent rye brand? But the company’s Barrel Proof Rye (aged either seven or ten years) is powerful stuff, filtered just to remove any bits of char that might have come from the barrel. The mash bill is 95 percent rye and 5 percent barley, making this a spicy, tangy whiskey. The bottle I sampled was 123.2 proof, so a little bit certainly goes a long way. Redemption doesn’t distill its own rye – this is an MRP product – but they carefully select their barrels and the result is inarguably something special.
Buffalo Trace’s catalogue of expressions is long and deep, but this I was unfamiliar with this one before sampling. E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof has a surprisingly mild nose and flavor, with sweet and subtle hints of brown sugar and oak. This bourbon is “uncut and unfiltered,” according to Buffalo Trace, and the bottle I sampled was 127.2 proof, getting to the higher end of the alcohol spectrum. But you honestly wouldn’t know this when you drink it. This bourbon, along with the Maker’s, is a good entry for the novice barrel proof drinker.
You all know what Wild Turkey makes – good bourbon that will kick you in the teeth and won’t call you the next day to say it’s sorry. That’s what I love about Wild Turkey; it’s truly unlike any other and is unapologetically bold with its woody flavor and upfront alcohol in the nose. The barrel proof expression follows the same set of company rules. It’s around the same proof as Maker’s – 112.8. And the flavor is intensely oaky, not very sweet, and delivers what you expect from this legendary brand.
I had to save the best for last. Been looking for George T. Stagg but can’t find it? Or if you do, is it about $500 a bottle? Don’t sweat it, because Stagg Jr. is available (for under $100 if you’re lucky) and is a truly beautiful bourbon. This is the most brazen of the bunch, at 132.1 proof. The mouthfeel is decadently silky, the flavor is like dark black cherries and caramel melting together on an oozing charred oak sundae. Sound delicious? If you are a bourbon fanatic, it should, and Stagg Jr. is the milestone for which all other barrel proof and cask strength bourbons should strive for.