I taste a lot of whiskey — I’m well over 2,000 pours this year so far. I drink way less. It’s the sort of thing where if you work in a chocolate shop all day, you don’t want to go home and eat chocolate for dinner. When I do drink whiskey, it’s always over a single (good) rock. That’s mostly because I tend to drink higher-proof whiskeys but that’s not always the case, either.
Whiskey just tastes better and fuller with a little water and cooling. It’s science.
With a lot of warm whiskeys dropping this time of year, we felt like it was the perfect time to blindly taste some bold AF barrel-proof bourbons with a single rock in them to find the very best and highlight how much these bourbons change with a single rock. So for this blind tasting, I purposefully grabbed 10 very bold and very hot barrel-proof bourbons. My wife was kind enough to pour them and then I added a single medium-sized, deeply-frozen ice cube.
Our lineup features the following barrel-proof bourbons:
- Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Kentucky Peerless Double Oak Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Barrel Proof Batch #22A
- Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch No. C923
- Penelope Barrel Strength Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys Aged 9 Years
- Frank August Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength Barrel No. 0015
- Barrell Bourbon Single Barrel Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Booker’s “Charlie’s Batch” 2023-01 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Watershed Distillery Fall Finishing Series Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Apple Brandy Barrels Aged 6 Years Barrel Strength
- Ammunition Cask Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Cabernet Sauvignon Barrels
Before we dive in, let’s get technical. What happens when you add an ice cube to a glass of bourbon is that as the cube starts to melt, it begins to slowly dilute the whiskey. This allows the fatty acids to detach from the esters (chemical compounds that hold flavors). Since the fatty acids are free, the whiskey gets super creamy and maybe even nutty. At the same time, the esters (chemical flavor notes) change, thanks to being free of those same fatty acids.
The whole profile of the whiskey shifts. This is often called “the bloom” in tasting circles.
Since we’re talking about ice and not dropping in drops of water, the whiskey also cools — but only slightly. If you put whiskey in the freezer, it’ll dull the profile massively thanks to the chemicals binding together, creating a viscous texture. With a single ice cube that adds dilution, this doesn’t really happen. Instead, some chemical compounds (esters) — think sharp hot spice notes — are lowered in volume while others are raised — think fruitiness and earthy notes. Again, you’re simply highlighting more of what’s actually in the distillate while, yes, making it easier to drink.
Here’s a cold hard fact in case you’re still incredulous. Every whiskey blender at every bottler or distillery proofs/dilutes their whiskey down to 20% ABV or 40-proof to taste it. Why? That’s the proof where the whiskey is most flavorful with the best texture (and cannot hide its faults). That is true of all whiskey in all regions. What does that tell you? Even barrel-proof or high-proof whiskey is best when it’s diluted with some water. That’s because far more of the flavor profile is muted by over-proof heat from the ethanol than water. That high proof not only hides flavor notes but also turns off the taste receptors on your palate (it’ll feel like a burn to you physically). That’s a double fail if you’re trying to get the full brunt of what the distiller/blender/bottler did with their whiskey — so add some ice!
Make sense? Now it’s time for us to dive in!
Part 1 — The Barrel-Proof Bourbon On Ice Blind Tasting
Nose: The nose opens with a rush of sharp cinnamon bark wrapped up with old saddle leather, freshly fried apple fritters, walnuts, old cedar bark braids twisted up with dried wild sage, and a hint of dried yellow mustard flowers with an underlying sense of maple syrup over pecan waffles.
Palate: The palate leans into the spice with a hint of allspice and ginger next to apple pie filling with walnuts, brandy-soaked raisins, and plenty of grainy porridge next to spiced Christmas cake dipped in dark chocolate sauce.
Finish: The end takes its time and meanders through salted caramel, stewed plums with star anise and sharp cinnamon, a hint of vanilla Dr. Pepper, and a mild sense of chocolate-cinnamon-spiced chewing tobacco buzziness with a warming Texas hug that’s part Hot Tamales and part chili-spiced green tea.
The nose on this changes to a rich and creamy vanilla malt with cherry on top. Think of a real vanilla malt made with really good malt powder where you still get that light note of the sweet barley grain. The palate gets super grassy and loses almost all of that graininess while the mid-palate hits a dark chocolate mocha latter vibe with plenty of dark fruits and mild winter spice barks.
This is a dream to sip over a rock.
Nose: The nose is beautifully deep with salted butter, old soft leather gloves touched with menthol, soft vanilla beans, and toffee candies dipped in walnuts and dusted with dark chocolate powder.
Palate: The palate hits on deep yet soft woody spices — allspice berries, star anise, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods — while dark cherry tobacco in an old pine box mingles with salted caramel, black tea leaves, and more of that soft leather.
Finish: The end mixes dark berries and spiced honey with old porch wood and a moist vanilla white cake with a hint of spiced mint lurking in the background.
This takes on a heavy cream nose (almost a fresh whipped cream) that turns toward vanilla custard that’s almost a flan with homemade caramel sauce. The palate weaves rich eggnog with mild woody spices and luxurious vanilla cake at the end.
This is a creamy delight with a good layer of spice to remind you of its depth and wood finishing.
Nose: This is rich on the nose with deep senses of dark chocolate brownies just kissed with stewed black cherry and old vanilla pods before a soft sense of red chili tobacco and wet brown sugar tobacco lead to a whisper of smoldering fall leaves.
Palate: That dark chocolate and chili-laced tobacco drives the taste toward a Christmas cake brimming with candied cherry, orange rind, rum raisin, clove, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and creamy vanilla icing with a dash of salt, marzipan, and brandy-soaked apple and pear orchards.
Finish: The rich and boozy holiday cake fades on the finish as deep earthiness — think firewood bark and smudging sage — drives the end toward a big Kentucky hug of warmth that’s just right.
The nose on this turns into the chocolate ganache instead of a chocolate candy like a Lindt Ball. The palate is like an iced Mexican hot chocolate with dried chili melding with almost umami dark chocolate next to a whisper of mildly spiced horchata.
I really dig this.
Nose: Big notes of stewed apples lead to apple cider spiked with dried red chili, allspice, and anise on the nose before dark chocolate oranges and salted caramels give way to old oak staves with a hint of vanilla-mint tobacco.
Palate: That vanilla creates a silky palate with tons of butterscotch and caramel popcorn with a good flake of salt as cinnamon and chili-heavy cider leads to Christmas nut breads and old leather tobacco pouches with a hint of dark cherry.
Finish: The end amps up the ABVs dramatically as chili, black pepper, and anise drive the end toward an almost cool mint tobacco vibe with a vanilla buttercream underbelly.
The nose melds cedar bark, birch tea, and root beer pudding to create a creamy yet woody vibe. The palate balances those woody spices with dark fruits and a dry sweetgrass end that’s bold and warming but not overly hot.
This feels like it nails its barrel-proof vibes with long aging and beautiful base distillate. It’s really freaking good is my point.
Nose: You get a sense of dry cornmeal on the nose next to apple crumble, plenty of wintry spice, a hint of mulled wine, wet brown sugar, and a thin layer of wet yet sweet cedar.
Palate: A hint of brandy-soaked cherries arrives on the palate with a dusting of dark chocolate powder next to more apple pie filling, spice, and buttery crust alongside a sweet, toffee-heavy mid-palate.
Finish: The end arrives with a dry wicker vibe, cherry tobacco chewiness, and a hint of that dark chocolate.
The nose gives you a light vanilla cream feel before the palate pops with deep winter spice barks. The mid-palate highlights dark cherry with a woody orchard bark feel. This is nice but doesn’t quite pop like the others.
Nose: Rich winter spices draw you in on the nose as deep and sweet oak staves lead to red fruit leather, dark chocolate-dipped cherries, and a layer of vanilla sheet cake.
Palate: Cinnamon cake and peppery citrus drive the palate toward salted caramel over that vanilla sheet cake before more of those chocolate cherries arrive to tie everything into a rich and moist Black Forest cake spiked with allspice and clove.
Finish: The end circles around the chocolate cherry cake as the spices mount on the finish with a warming sense of cinnamon sharpness and red chili heat that’s just tempered by oak wrapped in cherry tobacco.
The nose feels like a scone smeared with rich buttercream next to dark but very creamy chocolate. The cherry really brightens on the palate as red berries stewed with clove, allspice, and cinnamon reach toward soft nuttiness.
This is a really nice pour of whiskey.
Nose: Rummy spice and fruit open the nose with a sense of nutty winter cakes, caramel sauce, and soft kindling with a light whisper of tobacco just kissed with chili chocolate.
Palate: The palate leans into the chili-chocolate vibes with plenty of winter spice barks, rich marzipan, soft vanilla lusciousness, and a good dose of mincemeat pie.
Finish: Stewed plums and dates drive the finish toward sharp spice barks, more tobacco, and a whisper of walnut bread.
The nose takes on this soft spiced dark berry gelée vibe (the kind you get inside a German Christmas cookie). The palate is super creamy with a nutty sense of spiced winter cakes cut with rich vanilla and chocolate sauces.
This is a very good whiskey.
Nose: Toasted almonds and walnuts lead the way on the nose with a deep and rich vanilla cake lightly dusted with cacao, dry cherry, and cinnamon with a touch of old oak cellars and black-mold-encrusted old deck furniture.
Palate: The soft caramel and vanilla open the palate before a rush of woody and sharp spices — clove, anise, allspice, red chili pepper — arrive with a sense of old wood chips on a workshop floor leads to salted toffee dipped in roasted almonds and dark salted chocolate with a whisper of cherry cordial backing it all up.
Finish: That soft sweetness counters the hot spices for a while on the slow finish as the spices take on an orange/cherry/vanilla Christmas cake vibe with plenty of nuts and ABV heat.
The nose on this one feels like quintessential Kentucky bourbon with deep and dark cherry swimming in reach vanilla buttercream with a good dose of mild winter spices adding sharpness and depth. The palate is super creamy with a chocolate malt vibe next to spiced vanilla pudding over a sticky toffee pudding dripping with salted caramel sauce cut with fresh orange zest.
This is a pretty freaking excellent whiskey, too.
Nose: Honey Graham Crackers and almond cookies present on the nose with a sense of clove-studded oranges and old cinnamon sticks with a note of caramel and apple.
Palate: The apple merges with the cinnamon and caramel on the palate next to leathery prunes, piney honey, and more clove-orange before a dark potting soil arrives with a deep earthiness.
Finish: That earthiness turns into dry sweetgrass on the finish with a sense of cinnamon-heavy stewed apples and old oak.
The nose holds onto that Graham Cracker dipped in honey vibe. The palate gets super grassy with a dark winter spice berry feel.
This is a good whiskey but doesn’t quite have the same edge as some of the others.
Nose: The nose is peppery with a sense of white chocolate and vanilla pudding cups next to sweet cola cut with cherry and maybe some brown sugar.
Palate: Peaches and mulled wine lead on the palate with a sense of fresh oak lurking in the background, mild notes of orange zest, and hints of nuttiness.
Finish: Mulled wine cut with fresh orange lead to lemon pepper and more oak with a final note of cherry tobacco with a very sweet edge.
The nose stays pretty peppery as the overall palate hits classic bourbon notes. This was fine.
Part 2 — The Barrel-Proof Bourbon On Ice Ranking
10. Ammunition Cask Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Cabernet Sauvignon Barrels — Taste 10
Average Price: $35
This MGP whiskey is made with a unique bourbon mash bill of 60% corn, 25% wheat, 10% rye, and 5% malted barley. The whiskey is batched from barrels that are two, three, and four years old before re-barrelling into French Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon casks for another three months of resting.
This is a perfectly fine bourbon but nothing to write home about.
9. Watershed Distillery Fall Finishing Series Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Apple Brandy Barrels Aged 6 Years Barrel Strength — Taste 9
Average Price: $89
This Ohio whiskey is all about batching and finishing. The bourbon was re-filled into American oak that held apple brandy for years. After six total years of aging, the whiskey was batched and then bottled 100% as-is at cask strength.
This is a nice enough bourbon. Even with ice, it feels more suited for whiskey cocktails than sipping.
8. Penelope Barrel Strength Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys Aged 9 Years — Taste 5
Average Price: $69
This blended bourbon is a masterful lesson in the power of blending. The three bourbons in the blend create a four-grain bourbon via their mash bills. The final blend is comprised of 44% 10-year-old Indiana bourbon, 46% nine-year-old Indiana bourbon, and 10% nine-year-old Kentucky bourbon. Once batched, the whiskey is bottled 100% as-is at cask strength.
This was a nice everyday sipper. Again even with ice, it felt like it’d make a better cocktail. But … I’d still sip this on a weekday and not be mad about it.
7. Kentucky Peerless Double Oak Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 2
Average Price: $134
This whiskey from Kentucky Peerless 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, allowing all that beautiful bourbon and oak aging to shine brightly.
This is a nice sipper over ice that lets the oak shine through all the way to the end.
6. Barrell Bourbon Single Barrel Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 7
Average Price: $99
This single-barrel pick from ReserveBar is a very unique bourbon. The whiskey in the bottle is made from 99% corn and 1% rye Indiana bourbon. The team at ReserveBar picked one special eight-year-old barrel of that whiskey and bottled it 100% as-is at cask strength.
I like this over ice but it didn’t quite pop like the next five pours on the tasting panel. Like the two pours above, this is a nice mid-week easy-going sipper.
5. Frank August Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength Barrel No. 0015 — Taste 6
Average Price: $139
The latest single-barrel release from Frank August is from a small collection of only 15 barrels. One barrel was chosen for bottling and then bottled 100% as-is to highlight the beauty of the whiskey in that barrel. That means this whiskey ended up being 6.1 years old.
This is a nice sipper with a good depth. It’s classic.
4. Booker’s “Charlie’s Batch” 2023-01 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 8
Average Price: $97
This first Booker’s Small Batch of 2023 has arrived! This release is an hommage to Charlie Hutchens — the woodworker who makes Booker’s boxes the whiskey comes in and a long-time family friend to the Noe family who makes Beam whiskeys. The whiskey is a blend of mid to high-floor barrels from five warehouses. Those whiskeys were batched and bottled 100% as-is at cask strength after just north of seven years of aging.
Okay, this is where we get into the “wow” pours. This is excellent bourbon over a single rock. If you’re looking for a quintessential Kentucky bourbon sipping experience, this is the play.
3. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Barrel Proof Batch #22A — Taste 3
Average Price: $399
Stagg is Buffalo Trace’s Mash Bill no. 1 (a low-rye mash) turned all the way up to MAX volume. The whiskey spends about a decade resting in the old Buffalo Trace warehouses before it’s batched and bottled (in this case in Spring 2023) 100% as-is.
The shift here is pretty drastic and all for the better. This is essential Kentucky bourbon with that little extra somethin’ somethin’ that draws you back for more. The hype is real as this is so drinkable with a rock.
2. Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $249
This year’s Cowboy Bourbon from Garrison Brothers is a blend of only 118 barrels of six-year-old Texas bourbon. 1,000 bottles of the crafty Texas whiskey will be available in mid-September at the distillery with an additional 8,600 bottles going out nationwide the first week of October.
This changes from a crafty grain-forward ABV boom to a svelte and sexy bourbon with insane depth and zero burn. This was … exciting.
1. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch No. C923 — Taste 4
Average Price: $74
The last drop from Elijah Craig Barrel Proof of 2023 is a big one. The whiskey in the bottle is a 13-year and 7-month-old bourbon that was bottled 100% as-is at cask strength.
This is another one that changed massively for the better with a touch of water and ice. It truly bloomed in the glass into this foundational Kentucky bourbon that then just kept going and going on the palate with new and fun flavor notes. This is a great sipper.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the Barrel-Proof Bourbon On Ice
Overall, there wasn’t a bad bourbon on this list. If I were to skip any bottles, it’d be the tenth bottle only. The rest all have something unique to offer.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The top four are mind-blowingly great pours of bourbon over a single rock. And they’re all iconic expressions. With that hint of dilution and a touch of cooling, it is easy to see why those top four bourbons get so much hype. They’re truly that good. Get all four if you’re able.