Barrel proof bourbon whiskey — or “cask strength” or “barrel strength” depending on the brand’s preferred wording — is one of the hottest styles of bourbon. The idea is that barrel proof bourbon is “more authentic,” thanks to no proofing with water. That’s not true. Barrel proof whiskeys are simply made from barrels that hit certain flavor notes which makes them ideal for bottling without water. Other barrels shine brighter with a little water added. Neither is inherently better. Of course, there’s more to it than simply whether a bourbon is proofed with water or not before it goes into the bottle, but we don’t need to get bogged down in all that.
Semantics aside, with so many barrel proof bourbons on the shelves it felt like it was the perfect time for a barrel proof bourbon blind taste test. For this blind taste test, I lined up the following bottles:
- A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength Bourbon Batch #2
- Barrell Bourbon New Year 2023
- Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch no. C922
- Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
- Woodinville Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Redwood Empire Pipe Dream Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength
- Frank August Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Barrel No. 0002
- Smooth Ambler 6 Years Old Founders’ Cask Strength Series 2022 Batch #1
- Horse Soldier Reserve Barrel Strength Bourbon Whiskey
- Booker’s 2022-04 “Pinkie’s Batch”
When it comes to ranking these barrel proof bourbons, it’s pretty simple. What tastes the best? Sometimes it doesn’t have to be harder than that. Still, there is the ABV factor at play with barrel proof bourbons. Do those higher ABVs/proofs blow the palate out? Or is there a real balance where the higher proof/alcohol becomes part of a more cohesive whole? That’s what’s fun about tasting these blinds, finding out answers to questions like that. Let’s find out together by tasting some fantastic barrel proof bourbon whiskeys.
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- The Best-Known Basic Bottles Of Bourbon, Blind Tasted And Ranked
- The 30 Best Bourbon Whiskeys For Fall, Blind Tasted & Ranked
Part 1: The Tasting
Nose: There’s a leathery nature on the nose with classic bourbon deep flourishes of very black cherry, salted caramel, cinnamon toast with cream butter and old vanilla pods, a touch of orange oil, and woody spice berries and barks.
Palate: Apple orchards and cherry pies open the sweet palate toward a massive heat from the ABVs that eventually fades towards creamed soft nut butter, vanilla cake, and apple cider spiked with spiced cherry tobacco.
Finish: The heat comes roaring back on the finish with brash woody winter spice and burnt orange with a touch of vanilla trying to find a counterbalance to all the heat.
This is classic Sazerac bourbon (Buffalo Trace, Barton 1792, A. Smith) from top to bottom. It’s just kind of classic with a big ABV push through the mid-palate to the finish. That said, it really felt well-rounded and tasted really f*cking good.
Nose: This is a classic bourbon on the nose with deep flavors of buttered buttermilk biscuits, salted caramel, singed marshmallow, Almond Joy, cherry cream soda, and a touch of Nutella and maple syrup.
Palate: The palate leans into cherry root beer with a hint of vanilla cream soda next to eggnog spices and creaminess, old dried roses in older leatherbound books, and a whisper of red peppercorn cracked over some sweet pipe tobacco.
Finish: The end has a candied chili pepper vibe next to burnt orange, marzipan, and creamy dark chocolate with a hint of walnut and cherry saltwater taffy.
This was supple and kind of soft but delivered a nice overall profile. The heat wasn’t really there in any overwhelming way but popped in from time to time. Still, this felt more “fine” than “wow.”
Nose: The nose opens with a deep leatheriness with a bright line of green hatch chilis next to a warm sense of dry powdered dark chocolate and dried sour cherries with an underlying dry earthiness and this tiny whisper of sourdough starter.
Palate: The palate opens with a hint of peach before kicking in some serious ABV buzziness and heat and then quickly rollercoastering down toward cinnamon and clove-laced dark chocolate, dark caramel, apple chips soaked in root beer, and a hint of clove and orange.
Finish: The end has a mild sense of dry sweetgrass and plenty of heat that gives way to an echo of that cinnamon and dark chocolate with a smidge of smoldering cacao husks and cinnamon bark.
This was pretty nice but has a slightly… cheapish finish — kind of like pleather instead of leather. It was complex and tasted good overall but felt way more like something you’d make a cocktail with than sip neat.
Nose: Burnt caramel candies and lush vanilla lead the way on the nose with hints of dry straw, sour cherry pie, and spiced apple cider with a touch of eggnog lushness.
Palate: The palate has a sense of spicy caramel with a vanilla base that leads to apricot jam, southern biscuits, and a flake of salt with a soft mocha creaminess.
Finish: The end is all about the buzzy tobacco spiciness with a soft vanilla underbelly and a hint of cherry syrup.
This was pretty nice but very light compared to the last few pours. That lightness really made this feel like a cocktail bourbon more than anything else.
Nose: Mocha and leather mix on the nose with fresh-cut green grass and piping hot cornbread dripping with butter and caramel sauce, creating a very grain-forward/crafty vibe.
Palate: The palate starts off with a nice and subtle barrel char leading toward Almond Roca toffees, cherry-chili tobacco, and velvety vanilla cream before those sweet porridge grains kick back in, confirming this as a very crafty bourbon.
Finish: The finish leans into a stewed apple with a hint of clove and sassafras that, in turn, leads to almond tobacco and plenty of cedar wrapped in old leather.
While this was clearly a craft bourbon thanks to those sweet grain notes, it was still deep and well-rounded with just the right hit of high-proof warmth. Long story short, it had a nice balance.
Nose: There’s a soft sense of classic bourbon on the nose with dark cherry, vanilla pod, light caramel sauce, and pecan waffles with pancake syrup and cinnamon-brown sugar butter next to a whisper of old boot leather and a very distant echo of sweet grits.
Palate: The palate has a soft creamed honey sweetness with a twinge of Cherry Coke next to buttery toffee dipped in crushed roasted almonds with a hint of Mounds Bar and chewy caramel. A good dose of ABV heat kicks up on the mid-palate with a mulled wine spiciness and a touch of sour cherry.
Finish: The end is nutty and full of dark cherry tobacco just kissed with dark chocolate and dark brown spices.
This had a whisper of crafty grain on the nose but ended up hard-core classic bourbon by the end. It’s a great balance.
Nose: This is a very classic Kentucky bourbon nose with big winter spice notes tied to barks and buds with a hint of nutmeg before leaning into oily vanilla pods and salted caramel chews with a nice hint of apple cider and black cherry cola.
Palate: Clove buds, cinnamon bark, and allspice berries lead on the palate with a hint of chili pepper spiciness before a lush sense of vanilla white cake with toffee frosting and burnt orange creates a luxurious mouthfeel with a hint of alcohol warmth.
Finish: The end arrives with a deeply classic vibe that’s slightly tied to old oak cellars next to cherry bark, old bottles of vanilla, and easy-going salted caramel sweetness next to a hint of apple cider tobacco rolled with cinnamon bark and cedar.
This is just a classic bourbon from top to bottom that has just the right amount of kick balanced out with a deeply satisfying flavor profile.
Nose: There’s a nice sense of Graham Crackers dipped in dark chocolate with a hint of singed marshmallow next to orchard wood, dried cherry, and mild winter spice.
Palate: The palate opens with soft brown sugar next to cherries dipped in dark chocolate, allspice berries, and eggnog creaminess.
Finish: The end has a Cherry Coke vibe next to cinnamon bark, buttery gingerbread, and a hint of apple-cinnamon tobacco wrapped up in leather and cedar.
This was pretty nice and refined overall. There was a little jaggedness around the edges but it was barely noticeable.
Nose: There’s a crafty, sweet grain nose that opens toward a pile of freshly chopped firewood, lemon pepper, creamy vanilla-laced honey, winter spices, and Kiwi boot soap.
Palate: The palate has a hint of caramel malts next to Vanilla Coke, a buttery and spiced apple pie with plenty of brown sugar, and a hint of ginger next to some orange blossoms in the background.
Finish: The end is solid with a spicy warmth next to more of that dry firewood and a smidge of sweet oatmeal cookies.
This has a nice crafty base but feels about a year too young. It’s just not quite as refined as the other pours today. Still, it tastes pretty good overall, and I imagine a rock would sand off those rougher edges quite nicely.
Nose: This is full of dark brown sugar vanilla pods and winter spices that start to lean toward chili and cumin and then a sense of a well-seasoned pork butt before it goes into the smoker — it’s kind of like raw leather.
Palate: The palate is classic bourbon with a rich vanilla white cake frosted with buttercream next to bold dark cherry, woody notes of dry reeds, and salted caramel with a twinge of orange oils.
Finish: The end has a mild sense of tangerine flesh and star fruit that leads back to warm ABVs and dark winter spices layered into fresh tobacco and old cedar bark.
This is funky Beam through and through. The proof really does hit a high on the end but never overwhelms anything going on in the flavor profile. Overall, this felt really good on the nose and the palate, but I don’t think it was my favorite.
Part 2: The Ranking
10. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch no. C922 — Taste 3
Average Price: $149
The last Elijah Craigh of 2022 is also the highest-proof release this year. The whiskey is made from a very low rye bourbon mash bill of 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley. That juice then ages for at least 12 years before the barrels are vatted in very small batches and bottled without proofing or filtration.
It’s weird to say this felt “cheap” but it just did. That said, this would work perfectly well in a cocktail.
9. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength — Taste 4
Average Price: $45
This special release from Maker’s Mark is their classic wheated bourbon turned up a few notches. The batch is made from no more than 19 barrels of whiskey. Once batched, that whiskey goes into the barrel at cask strength with no filtering, just pure whiskey-from-the-barrel vibes.
This was on the thinner said, which is par for the course with Maker’s Mark. That’s what makes this the perfect bourbon to build your cocktail with.
8. Horse Soldier Reserve Barrel Strength Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 9
Average Price: $92
The bourbon in this bottle was contract distilled in Ohio at Middlewest (but it’s now being made in Kentucky too). The juice is a wheated bourbon that spent eight years mellowing before bottling. Each barrel was hand-picked before being married into a barrel strength expression that’s bottled as-is.
This was a little rough around the edges, but still had a great depth and overall profile. Plus, that roughness will go away once you make an old fashioned or whiskey sour with this one.
7. Barrell Bourbon New Year 2023 — Taste 2
Average Price: $85
Barrell’s New Year Bourbon is one of the most beloved releases of the year. This year’s batch is made from a grouping of five, six, seven, eight, and 10-year-old straight bourbon whiskeys distilled in Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Wyoming, New York, Texas, and Maryland. Those whiskeys were batched in Kentucky and bottled as-is.
This was nice overall but felt a little light as well. And if you’re looking for big “barrel proof” vibes, this might be a slight letdown. That said, this works on every other level as a tasty sipper or cocktail base.
6. Smooth Ambler 6 Years Old Founders’ Cask Strength Series 2022 Batch #1 — Taste 8
Average Price: $55
This whiskey is made from a high-rye mash of 71% corn, 21% rye, and 8% malted barley. That whiskey is then left alone for six years before it’s batched and bottled without filtering or proofing.
While I did find a twinge of roughness to this one, I was really trying to find it. If you’re just looking for an easy-going and classic bourbon with a little kick to it, this will 100% deliver.
5. Woodinville Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 5
Average Price: $70
This craft darling from Washington state is all about local ingredients. The mash is rendered from locally grown corn, rye, and barley. The spirit is distilled in Western Washington and then shipped to Eastern Washington to age for at least five years. That whiskey is then batched and bottled as-is with no fussing or cutting.
This was able to balance the craftiness of it all — that sweet graininess — with a really solid overall high-proof bourbon flavor profile. And while I’d probably use this for a cocktail, I can see sipping this easily over a few rocks and never being disappointed.
4. Booker’s 2022-04 “Pinkie’s Batch” — Taste 10
Average Price: $249
The last batch of Booker’s of 2022 is a nod to Booker Noe’s father, Pinkie Noe. The whiskey in the bottle was created from barrels from the middle/sweet spot of four warehouses. The average age of the batch ended up being 6 years, 10 months, and 10 days old when it was bottled completely as-is.
This was a funky Beam product and I kind of dig it. It was a tad warm, but that high ABV heat never overpowered the unique profile. That said, this feels like it needs a little time and water to really find its full potential in the glass.
3. Redwood Empire Pipe Dream Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength — Taste 6
Average Price: $70
This uncut and unfiltered version of Redwood Empire’s beloved bourbon is a four-grain whiskey built from a blend of California, Kentucky, and Indiana whiskeys. The mash ends up being 74% corn, 20% raw rye, 4.5% malt barley, and a mere 1.5% wheat. The barrels in the final blend range from four to 12 years old with the older stuff coming from the Ohio Valley.
This leaned hard into classic territory with a whisper of craftiness lurking beneath. Overall, the profile was spot on and felt very satisfying as a cask-strength bourbon experience with good flavor and warming heat in the chest. This is a good sipper.
2. A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength Bourbon Batch #2 — Taste 1
Average Price: $2,999
This new batch from Sazerac’s Virginia distillery is all about upping the ante on last year’s bold ABV release. This year, Batch #2 takes the ABVs even higher in this cask-strength bourbon bomb thanks to the careful selection of old barrels that are batched and left completely uncut and non-chill-filtered.
I was shocked this ranked this high. The ABVs really didn’t overwhelm but added to the overall spiciness and warmth of the bourbon flavor profile. It was deep and rewarding from nose to finish. That said, I want to revisit this with some time and water to find what’s lurking beneath those hot ABVs.
1. Frank August Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Barrel No. 0002 — Taste 7
Average Price: $159
This brand-new release from awards-favorite Frank August dials things into a single barrel of whiskey. The whiskey in the bottle is a 5.1-year-old Kentucky bourbon from an undisclosed source. That barrel is bottled 100% as-is with no cutting, filtering, or fussing.
This was just f*cking delicious. It had the perfect balance of single-barrel warmth with a deep and delightful bourbon profile. It’s an instant classic through and through.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
I kind of just want to talk about that Frank August Single Barrel all day. It’s quintessential and yet somehow fresh. There’s a lot of vibrancy that speaks to deeply classic bourbon notes while still offering a sharp sense of uniqueness. It’s so good, folks.
Effusiveness for Frank August aside, this was a killer lineup of bourbons. Each one had its own vibe and moxie that makes it a great pick. Still, the top five really are the ones you want to focus on if you’re looking for a truly fantastic barrel proof bourbon pour.