Barrel proof bourbon whiskey tends to be big and bold. But with that said, “barrel proof” or “cask strength” isn’t a single designation like “bottled in bond” (which has to be 100 proof 50 percent ABV), it can be anything from 40 percent ABV — alcohol by volume — to well over 70 percent ABV (that’s 80 proof to 140 proof and above). It’s simply the proof that the whiskey came out of the barrel (assuming it was then bottled without any cutting with water to lower that proof).
So while “barrel proof” may elicit thoughts of ABV heat bombs that burn out your palate, that’s really not what this style of whiskey is at all. It’s far more nuanced and diverse.
To dive deeper into the variation at play with barrel proof bourbon whiskeys, I’m lining up a dozen new bottles and blind tasting them. I chose bottles that hit in the middle of the barrel proof range — spanning from 52 to 62 percent ABV. For my money, that’s the prime spot as it eliminates the lower-proof selections and the hazmat (70+ percent ABV) bombs from the mix. The bottles below are also generally easy-to-find with a few rare ones thrown in for good measure.
Our lineup today is:
- Kentucky Peerless Double Oak
- Rabbit Hole Nevallier
- William Larue Weller
- Woodford Reserve Batch Proof
- Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon 15-Year
- Larceny Barrel Proof B522
- Stellum Bourbon Equinox Blend #1
- Blue Note Juke Joint Whiskey Uncut
- Broken Barrel Cask Strength
- Penelope Bourbon Barrel Strength Four Grain
- Samuel Maverick Barrel Proof
- Booker’s 2022-02 “The Lumberyard Batch”
As you read the tasting notes, you’ll see that I’m looking for a balance between that barrel strength and a truly nuanced flavor profile. Spoiler alert, it turned out to be a hard task as a lot of these bourbons were stellar — so let’s jump right in.
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
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- The Best Ten-Year-Old Bourbon Whiskeys, Tasted Blind And Ranked
- We Tasted Bourbon Whiskeys ‘Double-Blind’ And Tried To Guess Each Bottle
- All The Double Gold-Winning Straight Bourbons From This Year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition
Part 1: The Tasting
This opens with a creamy buttery nature with vanilla, nuts, and a hint of popcorn leading to a twinge of woody chili pepper. The taste is classic with spicy berry compote next to cherry tobacco with a good dose of winter spice, salted caramel sauce, and maybe a whisper of smoked plum. The end touches on woody spices and creamed honey as a hint of cellar floor dirt and menthol tobacco round things out.
What a great place to start. This is delicious.
There’s a tannic oak note on the nose with a touch of powdery white pepper countered by burnt orange and salty vanilla cream. The palate is bold but not hot as tart dark berries mix with vanilla tobacco leaves, savory fruit, and woody winter spices. The end sweetens with more vanilla as sour cherry and sweet nutmeg blends with soft suede and chewy tobacco.
We’re starting off strong. This is another excellent dram.
The nose on this is great with deep creamy vanilla next to salted caramel, lush eggnog, and fresh sourdough doughnuts dusted with burnt sugars. The palate leans into a buttery cream-filled doughnut vibe with plenty of dusty cinnamon, chewy cherry tobacco, and smoked apricot jam with a hint of clove and cardamon. The end takes its time as that salted caramel returns with a hint of chili-spiced dark chocolate, old cedar bark — though minty tobacco lingers the longest.
These first three pours have been stellar. I don’t even know how anything will beat them from here on out. We’ll see…
A whisper of old grains and chocolate powder mingle on the nose with creamy vanilla ice cream cut with winter spices (especially allspice and cola berries) as a touch of dry orchard fruit sneaks in late. The palate marries the dried fruit with the spices as an apple tobacco vibe arrives and counters a very creamy vanilla feel with a dash more of those chocolate malts. The end leans into the chocolate malts as sour spiced red wine with a sweet edge leads to soft and worn leather.
This was slightly grainy but in a nice way, thanks to that chocolate feel. It’s definitely not top tier like the last few pours but very good.
This feels like a Tennessee whiskey immediately with a grainy nose leading to a cherry multivitamin that eventually gives way to pear, toffee, and some salted pasta water(?). The palate leans into the cherry while layering in tart red berries, more chalky vitamins, dark winter spices, and wet brown sugar with a hint of Earl Grey tea lurking in the background. The end has a hint of bitterness thanks to that tea that leads to soft cedar and dry cherry tobacco.
This was nice but felt a little out of place with that huge Tennessee note on the nose and palate.
The nose draws you in a mix of tart berries and savory melon next to classic bourbon notes — think rich caramel, leather, vanilla, and some pancake batter. The taste has a hint of that high proof with soft buzzing on the senses that gives way to a moist Christmas cake full of dark spices, candied fruits and citrus, and nuts with a good dose of oily vanilla. The end is lush but warm with a mix of old wicker porch furniture and cherry tobacco with a good level of spice to it.
This was a pretty easy drinker with a spicy/hot end. Overall, good but I don’t think it’s quite as top-tier as the first few.
Fresh chili peppers greet you with a sense of soft malted grains, old leather gloves, dried braids for sweetgrass, and a flourish of creamy toffee underneath it all. The palate leans into leathery stone fruit with fresh and floral honey, sharp woody cinnamon, burnt orange rinds, and bright clove berries. The end created an orange creamed pudding with a hint of green tea, black dirt, chocolate-covered espresso beans, and old oak staves from a cellar.
We’re right back in the great territory with this pour. This is going to rank high.
The nose is pretty rote with caramel leading to vanilla, a hint of oak, and some maple syrup over pancakes. The taste leans into winter spices with an eggnog vibe while vanilla tobacco leaves hint at cedar. The end is spicy and warm with a Red Hot vibe and a hint of old wicker.
This was fine but kind of one-note in that it was “bourbon” but didn’t really take me anywhere.
A light sense of old firewood leads to dark chocolate, vanilla pods, white sugar, and a hint of orange rind. The palate layers in dried red berries with a grainy oatmeal cookie feel with plenty of cinnamon, walnuts, and raisins. The cookie vibe lingers through the end as an eggnog creaminess leads back to the dark chocolate.
This was fine overall. Again, it didn’t jump out at me but was perfectly okay.
The nose on this is easy with a balance of mulled wine spices and sourness next to wet cornmeal, brown sugar, and a twinge of cedar. The palate is rich with brandy-soaked sour cherries touched by salt with buttery chocolate sauce, stewed plums, and plenty of winter spice. The end leans into rich toffee with hints of dry wicker next to sour cherry tobacco and chili-infused chocolate bars.
This is another really nice whiskey that didn’t quite blow up on this panel. It’s really good and nuanced but didn’t “wow!” me.
The nose on this is steely and savory to the point of almost hitting cucumber in the melon category with a whisper of dark chocolate and maybe some leather sneaking in. The palate was super grainy with a wet feel to it as soggy apple pie mingles with cinnamon and nutmeg and more of that steeliness. The end is largely the same with hints of mint, tobacco, and leather overpowered by wet grains and savory melon.
I wrote “Nope.” in my notes. I think you know where this one land in that case.
This opens with a rush of dry nutshells next to old cellar beams, soft old boot leather, salted caramel sauce, sweet black cherries, and dry tobacco leaves and cedar bark braided together. The palate has a creamy and lush vanilla underbelly that supports a hint of chocolate chip cookie next to fresh broom bristles, caramel apple from the state fair, and a whisper of freshly cracked black peppercorn with a dash of dried ancho underneath it all. The end is all about salted peanuts covered in dark yet creamy chocolate with beautiful lush vanilla tobacco chewiness wrapped in that old leather and cedar.
Well, that’s an ending! This was spectacular!
Part 2: The Ranking
12. Samuel Maverick Barrel Proof — Taste 11
Average Price: $65
This Texas craft whiskey is made from 72 percent Texas-grown corn, 18 percent rye, and ten percent malted barley. That spirit ages for two short years before it’s bottled at barrel proof without any fussing.
Well, that makes sense, this being two years old and still very steely and grainy. There was potential here but it needs a few years to find it. For now, this is a hard pass.
11. Blue Note Juke Joint Whiskey Uncut — Taste 8
Average Price: $40
This sourced whiskey comes from Kentucky. The juice is a blend of 70 percent corn, 21 percent rye, and nine percent malted barley whiskey that’s aged for up to four years before bottling as-is.
This is fine. It faltered on this panel since it was standard and not mind-blowing. I can see using this for cocktails going forward.
10. Broken Barrel Cask Strength — Taste 9
Average Price: $43
This whiskey, from Owensboro Distilling Co., is all about the finish. The whiskey is finished in casks with staves from ex-bourbon, sherry, and French oak barrels. Once that whiskey hits the right point, it’s vatted and bottled as-is.
I kind of liked the woodiness on this since it was more sweet than tannic or overly dry. Still, this felt like something you build a cocktail on more than anything else.
9. Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon 15-Year — Taste 5
Average Price: $270
Barrell Craft Spirits is another craft blendery that’s sourcing some of the best barrels in the game and expertly marrying those barrels. This expression blends 15-year-old bourbon from Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennesse into a final product that reaches new heights for blended bourbon.
Okay, we’re at ninth place and we’re already into the really good stuff. Seriously, this is where this ranking got hard until the top three or four. This whole section is stellar whiskey with nuance but I couldn’t have a five-way tie either so these are ranked by splitting hairs.
8. Penelope Bourbon Barrel Strength Four Grain — Taste 10
Average Price: $60
This whiskey from Penelope really helps solidify the brand as a powerhouse in blending. The whiskey in the bottle is a blend of three bourbon mash bills (one is 21 percent rye, another 90 percent corn, and a 45 percent wheated bourbon — all from MGP), which create a four-grain (corn, wheat, rye, and barley) bourbon. All of this is to say that this is a masterful blend of four to five-year-old barrels into something bigger than the individual parts.
This is a really solid sip that’s killer in a cocktail (try it in your next Manhattan).
7. Larceny Barrel Proof B522 — Taste 6
Average Price: $90
The second batch of Larceny Barrel Proof of 2022 is batched from barrels of Heaven Hill’s iconic wheated bourbon (68 percent corn, 20 percent wheat, and 12 percent malted barley). Those barrels are chosen for their specific flavor profile and blended as-is and bottled at barrel proof.
This has the perfect mix of fresh, funky, and classic. It’s also really easy to drink for a barrel proof on the higher end. Still, you might want to pour it over a rock if you’re not used to the big ABVs.
6. Woodford Reserve Batch Proof — Taste 4
Average Price: $299
This year’s new Batch Proof from Woodford Reserve’s Master’s Collection leans into high ABVs straight from the barrel. The whiskey is hewn from a few barrels that worked wonders at their barrel proof. Those barrels were batched and then bottled at the ABVs they evened out to meet.
This is just nice all around. In this test, that places it in the middle.
5. Rabbit Hole Nevallier — Taste 2
Average Price: $895
The latest Founder’s Collection from Rabbit Hole is a pricey masterpiece. The juice in the bottle is made from a few hand-selected barrels of 15-year-old bourbon that was then finished in new French oak before bottling as-is in only 1,155 bottles.
This is interesting in that it’s tannic but not overly so. It’s also super subtle with it comes to ABVs. There are no rough edges and it goes down very easily.
4. Stellum Bourbon Equinox Blend #1 — Taste 7
Average Price: $99
This expression is made from instant-classic Stellum Bourbon barrels. The ripple here is that the blend of this bourbon was created from specific rare barrels used for Stelllum that were blended until the exact moment of the vernal equinox. That whiskey was then bottled as-is.
I really like this whiskey. This is a big contender for the best of 2022 already, and where this list hits the big time with amazing whiskeys.
3. Kentucky Peerless Double Oak — Taste 1
Average Price: $134
The whiskey is around five to six years old and comes from one barrel that lets the grains shine through before it goes into another barrel that lets the oak shine through. That final barrel is bottled at cask strength, as is.
I never get tired of this pour. It’s fresh yet classic with a real depth that’s never too hot. This is the epitome of balance in the glass.
2. William Larue Weller — Taste 3
Average Price: $2,692
Distilled back in the fall of 2009, this barrel-strength bourbon skips the Minnesota rye and instead uses North Dakota wheat with that NoDak barley and Kentucky corn. The juice spent 12-and-a-half years mellowing in warehouses C, D, K, L, and Q on floors one through three. While maturing, 64 percent of the whiskey was lost to the angels before it was small-batched and bottled as is.
Damn! I would have bet real money on me picking this as my number one. I love this pour. Yet while this is delicious from top to bottom it didn’t excite me quite like the next pour.
1. Booker’s 2022-02 “The Lumberyard Batch” — Taste 12
Average Price: $200
The second Booker’s release of 2022 is a masterful blend of barrels from seven locations around Jim Beam’s rickhouses. Those barrels are mostly from the seventh floor of those rickhouses, with one coming from the ninth floor. All of them averaged out to this whiskey being seven years, one month, and seven days old before it was batched and bottled as-is.
This truly wowed me today. Was that because it was the last dram after a few mediocre pours? Possibly. But I went back and this still stood out. It’s complex, delicious, fresh, and nostalgic all in one sip.
Incidentally, both this and the Weller above have the same $90-odd MSRP. So there’s a bit of traction to them being so closely ranked in this blind.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
This was a great panel. The dregs were all fine (for the most part) and the majority of the pours were very solid. Overall, the top four whiskeys on this ranking are worth tracking down — even if just as a sipper at your local whiskey bar. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a bottle either if you can find them at MSRP though. Definitely grab the latest Booker’s — it’s a damn fine pour of bourbon whiskey.