Barrel proof bourbons can be really hit and miss. Simply put, more ABVs do not always mean “better.” Sure, you’re getting more alcohol for your dollar. But if that alcohol blows out the taste of the bourbon in the bottle, what are you actually getting (besides drunk faster)?
This week, I decided to blind taste test some classic barrel proof bourbons to see which stood out. I picked eight bottles and tasters that I had on hand, with one thing in mind: flavor. But as all Uproxx blind taste tests reveal, we all have unique palates and that means unique results. Speaking personally, I’m not a huge fan of overly high ABVs. Usually, 40 to 50 percent alcohol is fine for me. I do love plenty of whiskeys that inch into the high 50s percentages. But when things get into the 60 percent territory, it gets a little squirrely.
Absinthe is 65 percent ABV. That’s a lot and gets you very drunk very fast which isn’t really the point of high-end bourbon.
Going into this, I feel like the lower barrel proofs are going to win the day but… we’ll see. I’ve also thrown in a “high proof” bourbon from Pinhook as a ringer, to see if adding water to bourbon (even a tiny bit) stands out that much. I specifically chose Pinhook’s Bohemia Bourbon High Proof because, even though it’s cut with water, it’s still a little higher proof than some of the barrel proof bourbons I’m tasting — meaning it’s got a great shot at confusing the hell out of me.
Okay, let’s get into it!
Part 1: The Taste
Bah! This is bold. There’s a rush of holiday spice that’s warm — but not hot — that leads towards a mellow vanilla ice cream. The taste is cherry tobacco with a hint of BBQ smoke and a touch of worn leather. It’s slightly woody but not in a distinct way.
It leaves you with a serious and long buzz that heats up your senses and really sticks with you.
The nose on this dances between notes of apple tobacco, stewed pears, cacao beans, and soft leather. The taste mingles between dried mint, freshly peeled squash, hints of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon, and dried furniture reeds. There’s a dark chocolate and herbal edge with an old woody leather feel that ends on a dried almond nuttiness.
This opens with a lemon curd vibe with a buttered bread — nearly croissant — feel next to a mild dose of spiced fruits. The taste is toffee sweet but is countered by a powdered dark chocolate bitterness and marzipan smoothness. The sip ends fairly thin and fades quickly.
This might be the Pinhook. It just doesn’t have the staying power of the last two. Very nice though.
This has this matrix of dark berries next to cedar boxes full of orange-scented tobacco and soft tanned leather. The palate dips ripe raspberries into creamy dark chocolate while butter toffee mixes with bitter coffee and a hint of that soft cedar-infused tobacco.
There’s a vanilla and floral honey vibe on the nose with a touch of almost burnt toffee. Espresso beans mix with a dab of smoky bacon fat that leads towards a slightly bitter black peppercorn. It’s very subtle and nuanced between the bitter, spicy, and sweet.
This takes you back to eating vanilla cookies dipped in spicy cider while the smell of an old leather pouch full of rich tobacco floats by. There’s this choco-orange vibe that leads towards light mint ice cream all wrapped in a subtle cedar home. There’s also a late touch of dry straw that dries out this very silky sip.
This almost has a pumpkin pie feel to it but without the crust. The spice goes full Red Hots but is tempered by soft vanilla cream and a drizzling of fresh maple syrup. The end amps up the warm tobacco buzz but keeps it tethered to a semi-sweet and fruity vibe.
Woah… There’s soft bourbon vanilla that leads towards almond-encrusted toffees inside a pine box with a dark chocolate bonbon hidden somewhere inside all that nutty toffee. The sip leans into a cherry and dark chocolate bespeckled ice cream with a solid vanilla bean base and a dusting of crushed-up walnuts and maybe even peanut. The end is slightly dry and leans more towards cedar and straw with spicy cherry tobacco buzz.
Actual note I wrote in my book: This is really f*cking nice.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. 2020 Antique Collection George T. Stagg — Taste 1
Average Price: $550
We started off with one of the biggest whiskeys of the line-up. This juice is distilled from Kentucky corn, Minnesota rye, and a touch of malted barley from North Dakota. The whiskey then spent 15 years and four months in oak in three different warehouses on three different floors at Buffalo Trace’s old campus. Over that time, 59 percent of the whiskey is lost to the angels.
This was just a bit much. I had to eat some celery to reset my palate after this. There were some very nice bourbon notes but they were hard to find under all that heat. It needed water or a rock to let it cool down and bloom.
In the end, this is the bottle I’d go back to the least out of this group.
7. Pinhook Bohemian Bourbon High Proof — Taste 3
Average Price: $52
Pinhook’s contract distilled bourbon is all about refinement. The expression is made from 100 barrels that are matured for 34 months before being small-batched by Pinhook’s Master Taster Sean Josephs. The juice is barely touched with that soft Kentucky limestone water to take the edge off.
This was, again, very nice. But it was also kind of thin. It felt more like a really solid cocktail bourbon than a sipping one.
And, hey! I got it right. There just wasn’t the oomph in this dram to meet the energy of the other bottles (looking back, that was kind of a good thing).
6. Larceny Barrel Proof Batch A121 — Taste 7
Average Price: $72
This is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after wheated bourbons on the market. The mash amps up the wheat with 68 percent corn supported by 20 percent wheat and 12 percent malted barley. The juice then spends six to eight years maturing in Heaven Hill’s vast warehouses. It’s then small-batch blended and bottled with zero fussing at barrel proof.
I dig this. But there’s just something missing that I can’t quite put my finger on. Every time I taste this, it’s either too candy hot or too savory. I like both of those notes in whiskey. But they kind of butt heads here.
I am going to try this in some cocktails to check my palate one more time.
5. Redemption 10 Year Barrel Proof High Rye Bourbon — Taste 5
Average Price: $100
Redemption has a knack for sourcing some of the best barrels from MGP Indiana. This multi-award-winning bourbon is a marriage of minimum of ten-year-old barrels that come together to make a highly sippable bourbon experience.
This was subtle and nice. In fact, I’ve dipped into this one quite a bit over the months. That being said, it didn’t quite hit the heights I thought it would against this line-up. Which is fine — it still tasted pretty damn great.
4. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch A121 — Taste 4
Average Price: $80
This Heaven Hill expression is released three times a year (generally) and has been winning award after award. The whiskey in the bottle is generally at least 12 years old and bottled with no cutting down to proof or filtration whatsoever. This expression is all about finding the best barrels in the Heaven Hill warehouses and letting that whiskey shine on its own.
I honestly thought this would rank a little lower. It’s a bold ABV and whiskey. But that fruit note really takes it to another level.
This dram also brings us squarely into splitting hairs territory. From here on out, everything is sort of a push.
3. Barrell Bourbon Batch# 024 — Taste 2
Average Price: $90
This much-loved expression from Barrell marries bourbon from Tennessee, Indiana, and Kentucky. The juice is pulled from nine to 15-year-old barrels. Those whiskeys are vatted and then go into the bottle with no cutting or fussing.
This was nuanced, subtle, and unique in all the best ways. It stood out from the pack while still being engaging and very easy to drink.
2. Wild Turkey Rare Breed — Taste 6
Average Price: $50
This is the mountaintop of what Wild Turkey can achieve. This is a blend of the best barrels that are married and bottled untouched. That means no filtering and no cutting with water. This is a classic bourbon with nowhere to hide.
I would have put serious money on me picking this as the number one seed. I love this expression and highlight it often. Even in this ranking, I have nothing bad to say. This was so well-rounded, had beautiful bourbon notes, and felt classic while also being a dream to sip.
1. 2020 Antique Collection William Larue Weller — Taste 8
Average Price: $800
This wheated whiskey from 2008 eschews the more common rye and adds in North Dakota wheat. The juice is then barreled and stored in two warehouses where 73 percent of the whiskey is lost to the air in those Buffalo Trace warehouses. The juice is then bottled untouched and unfiltered.
I’m honestly a little shocked that I picked the bourbon with the highest ABVs. It really didn’t feel like this is 134.5 proof. That’s more than freakin’ absinthe, folks.
All of that aside, this really is just a fine dram of whiskey. It’s classically bourbon while feeling refined and elevated. But it’s also accessible and almost … nostalgia inducing. It’s just delicious and makes it abundantly clear why Weller is so damned beloved (and expensive).
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Again, I kind of can’t believe the highest ABV won the day. Still, that Weller would be my everyday dram if I could get my hand on a bottle at MSRP and not the ludicrous markup at retail. Oh, how I wish…
Overall, this was less varied than I thought it’d be. There was a lot of deep and dark cedar, toffee, choco-coffee bitterness, and spicy fruit. I think that helped the Pinhook really stand out, even though it was barely touched by water. Still, that drop of water in the bottle was undeniable.
Now, I need to give my palate a rest. It’s still buzzing from all those ABVs. Time for more celery.
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