The best barrel proof bourbon — sometimes called “cask strength” or “barrel strength” — is the high proof whiskey we all need in our lives right now. This is whiskey straight from the barrel, hitting hard with big flavors and delivering plenty of tipsiness.
In general, barrel proof and cask strength mean that the booze in the bottle hasn’t been diluted with water to bring the proof (alcohol by volume) down to around 40 percent ABV. That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t multiple barrels from the same distillation used for a single barrel proof expression. (That is to say, “barrel proof” doesn’t mean “just one barrel.”) The point is more that these are the bourbons that taste good from the barrel that they can go straight to the consumer at a higher ABV and still be very palatable.
The ten bottles of barrel proof bourbon below are highwater marks of the style and generally available nationwide. It’s important to note that barrel proof and cask strength whiskey is generally a specialty expression along the lines of single barrel and small-batch whiskeys. So expect prices to range from $50 to $200 per bottle in this category. Still, you’re paying for high-quality, direct-from-the-barrel whiskey excellence. If you’re trying to grow knowledge and expand your palate during the quarantine, these picks will certainly help. Plus you’re sure to enjoy the hell out of them.
Quick Quarantine Tip: Click on the price of each bottle to get the bottle delivered to your door!
Stagg Jr. Barrel Proof Bourbon
Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery
Average Price: $69.99
Stagg Jr. Barrel Proof is a great entry point for this style. It’s mid-range pricey but comes with classic notes that’ll draw you into the flavor. The juice is distilled at Buffalo Trace, aged for eight to nine years, and then barrels are selected from the rickhouse to create this one-off bottling.
There’s a clear rush of sugary cinnamon toast with plenty of butter next to a vanilla pod. That brown-butter sugar leans into an almost Cherry Coke feel with a nice cut of citrus. A wisp of smoke arrives late as the spicy cinnamon rears its head on the long, warm finish.
Belle Meade Cask Strength Reserve Bourbon
Distillery: Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery (Sourced)
Average Price: $59.99
Nelson Green Brier’s barreling program for their sourced bourbon is a shining example of the beauty of great aging. This expression is the product of high-rye bourbons aging for seven to eleven years in Belle Meade’s rickhouses. After aging, seven perfect barrels are selected to create this masterclass of cask strength bourbon in a bottle.
Vanilla, pipe tobacco, and cinnamon greet you. Sweet red berries, apple pies, brown sugar cut with more cinnamon, and oak linger on the palate. A slight note of campfire roasted marshmallows arrive as the cinnamon and berry sweetness leads toward a lingering and warming end.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
Distillery: Beam Suntory
Average Price: $58.94
Beam’s Maker’s Mark makes some great standard bourbons, especially if you’re looking for a great Manhattan or old fashioned base. Maker’s chooses 19 prime barrels from their rickhouses to create this single bottle of the good stuff. The addition of red winter wheat instead of rye makes for a less biting drinking experience. The ABVs are more mid-range, making this bottle a little more accessible (read: drinkable) than the higher proofs on the list.
Bales of straw, rich tobacco, and a hint of banana lead the way. Orange zest meets oak char as stone fruit orchards meet lemon citrus. Hints of spice and vanilla linger as a note of salt helps bring about a powerful finish that warms before it fades.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
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Distillery: Wild Turkey Distilling Co.
Average Price: $49.99
Wild Turkey’s notoriously high-rye mash bill makes for some very pleasing bourbon. Their Rare Breed is a barrel proof, uncut expression that marries barrels that have aged for six, eight, and 12 years in their iconic rickhouses. The result is a favorite among bourbon lovers who like their bourbon on a rock or two.
This is a big sip. Notes of carnival candied apples and kettle corn mingle with tobacco, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, and a chocolate milkshake. All of that complexity rolls through the taste as the tobacco becomes sweeter and the kettle corn gets caramelized. There’s a velvet texture that peaks near the end with hints of spice and oak that will leave a smile on your face even during these trying times.
Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon Barrel Proof
ABV: 67.5% ABV
Distillery: Garrison Brothers Distillery
Average Price: $219.99
Texas’ Garrison Brothers make a very unique bourbon that’s worth tracking down if you have a little extra cash to spend. This expression varies with each year it’s produced. Generally, the expression is blended of around 180 of the best five-year-old barrels available from a distillation. The result is non-filtered and left uncut before going directly into the bottle. The price is a bit steep but that’s due to only 4,750 bottles getting produced with each run.
Sourdough bread, cinnamon cake with vanilla frosting, and wet brown sugar lead the way. Cedar boughs sit next to oak char with a clear sense of rich caramel and fresh mint. That mint carries through with a nice wisp of worn leather and more spice leading towards a big, velvety finish.
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon
Distillery: Angel’s Envy Distillery
Average Price: $219.99
Angle’s Envy finds its best bourbon barrels and transfers the juice to port wine barrels for finishing. Then the bourbon is bottled at cask strength to ensure that all that barrel aging is front-and-center in the sip.
Notes of port wine plum, sweet apples, fatty hazelnuts, and vanilla lead towards tart raspberries. That port sweetness peaks as whisps of smoke arrive — just as the raspberries dry out. The spice and fruit fade as a rich and warming end note lingers, with a final hint of plummy port.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Distillery: Heaven Hill
Average Price: $70.74
This expression is an unfiltered and uncut version of Elijah Craig’s 12-year bourbon. The whiskey is selected in small batches for its excellence and drinkability with no external tinkering and sent out as-is for your enjoyment.
Rye spices light up the nose with a clear sense of well-oiled leather and oak char. A velvet blanket of dark chocolate, vanilla pods, candied apples, rye spice, and pipe smoke mingle and drive the taste forward. A sense of roasted nuts mix with the bold rye spice as a rich, almost viscous finish lingers.
Distillery: Beam Suntory
Average Price: $79.99
This was the bourbon that Beam’s head distiller made only for friends as gifts. Over the years, it became so popular they started letting the public have some too. The expression is a marriage of barrels aged between six and eight years and bottled sans filtering at a very high-proof.
This is a big sip. Oak runs deep with old library leather, puffs of pipe tobacco smoke, toasted caramel, and fruit orchards in full bloom. That leather and tobacco carry through as peppery spice and vanilla meet on the palate. The throughline of leather and oak bring about an end note that’s richly rewarding and dissipates with an echo of a cherry orchard full of ripe, sweet fruit.
E.H. Taylor, Jr. Barrel Proof Bourbon
Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery
Average Price: $89.99
This bourbon comes from the Buffalo Trace rickhouses that were built by Civil War-era distiller E.H. Taylor, Jr. The barrels are hand-selected and are bottled uncut and unfiltered. The mash bill and processing is meant to replicate how the whiskey was made and consumed pre-Prohibition.
Berry tart, rich caramel, and wildflowers greet you. Bold spice, toasted oak, black pepper, and vanilla beans carry the taste. The rye spice peaks and brings the berry tartness and sweetness towards a rich and rewarding finish with a final whisper of those florals.
Michter’s US*1 Limited Edition Barrel Strength Bourbon
Distillery: Michter’s Distillery
Average Price: $67.99
This 2017 limited release from Michter’s was a bit of a test balloon. The bottle represents some of the best barrels from the Michter’s barreling program and is very limited. Still, you can find it if you look hard enough. The juice is the same beautiful bourbon from Michter’s you’ve grown to love with the added benefit of being straight from the barrel with a little more kick.
Corn-focused caramel meets rich vanilla and buttery toffee. Stone fruit orchards lean into the warmth of the alcohol and oak with a nice feeling of pecans swimming in molasses. Finally, the cherry and apricot combine with the charred oak and spicy warmth for a rich, textured finish.