Barrel-strength bourbon is for the bold-hearted. These bourbons are full of big flavors, big textures, and really big ABVs. Those ABVs (or very high proof) can be a lot to get a handle on and easily burn the palate of a newbie. That makes just grabbing a barrel-strength bourbon a bit of a crapshoot. You might grab a perfectly balanced barrel-strength bourbon with nuance and beauty — or you might grab a bottle that’ll taste like literal burning and nothing else. No one wants the latter.
To help you avoid those firey barrel-strength bourbon whiskeys that leave your palate exhausted after one sip, I’m conducting another bourbon blind tasting. This time, I’ve grabbed 10 brand-new bourbons that are all bottled at barrel strength. That means that the whiskey went into the bottle at the exact same proof/ABV that it came out of the barrel with zero proofing with additional water.
That makes our lineup today the following bottles of barrel-strength bourbon:
- Blackened X Rabbit Hole A Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys Distilled in Tennessee & Kentucky Finished in Calvados Casks Cask Strength
- Doc Swinson’s Hand Selected Exploratory Cask “Garryana” Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Garryana Oak Casks
- Nashville Barrel Company Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey Topflight Series by ReserveBar
- Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Cask Strength Bourbon Topflight Series by ReserveBar
- Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Barrel Proof
- Larceny Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Barrel Proof Batch No.: C923
- Rabbit Hole Dareringer Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Limited Edition Cask Strength Bourbon Finished in PX Sherry Casks
- Barrell Bourbon Cask Strength Batch #035
- Booker’s Bourbon Small Batch 2023-02 “Apprentice Batch” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Starlight Distillery Carl T. Huber’s Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Tokaji Barrels
After the blind tasting, I’m ranking these barrel-strength bourbons. But since I’m dealing with something a little more nuanced with this panel, I’m going to rank these based on a few key factors:
- One, these whiskeys have to be balanced. That means that the ABV/proof warmth needs to balance with the rest of the flavor profile and not blow it out.
- Two, there needs to be real depth here. It can’t just be a heat bomb or a cherry bomb or a wood bomb. There needs to be a good and deep flavor profile.
- Lastly, it has to feel good. You don’t want a whiskey that leaves you physically buzzing with burning heat for five minutes after you’ve tasted the goddamn thing. A nice gentle buzzing or numbing that lasts as long as the taste and finish is fine. Still burning minutes later is not.
Sounds good? Let’s dive in!
Part 1 — The Barrel-Strength Bourbon Blind Tasting
Nose: There’s a nice sense of chili pepper warmth on the nose with a hint of macadamia cookie nuttiness, honey Graham Crackers, light summer florals, and a whisper of darkly stewed apple.
Palate: Cinnamon-infused pear brandy sparks on the palate with a sense of clover honey, walnut loaf, and this thin line of smoked applewood with a good sense of barrel warmth.
Finish: The honey and walnut drive the finish toward a soft warmth that leaves the gentlest of numbness on the senses.
Yeah, this is nice. It’s not a “wow” whiskey but it’s a perfectly good sipper.
Nose: This has a strong nose full of slowly smoked brisket smoke, plum jam spiked with clove and allspice, rum raisin, and a deep dark fruit leather accented by chili tobacco.
Palate: Dark sugar cookies and more of that dark fruit leather drive the taste toward wet black tea cut with dried ancho chilis, soft chewing tobacco, and dark figs dipped in even darker chocolate with buzzing warmth underneath it all.
Finish: That black fig and chocolate sharpen on the finish as the tobacco gets warm and chili-focused next to a light cedar and hickory that’s just starting to smolder.
This has a good balance and depth. It got a little hot at the end but not overly so.
Nose: This has a classic bourbon nose full of maple syrup over fresh pancakes with Nutella, vanilla sheet cake, and Cherry Coke all mingling together nicely.
Palate: The palate sharpens with hot cinnamon and clove-heavy Dr. Pepper (still cut with cherry) while cashews and dark chocolate nut clusters lead the taste toward hot cinnamon tobacco.
Finish: Sharp mint and cherry compote with plenty of hot cinnamon and clove drive the finish toward chili pepper-laced tobacco on a hot finish.
This is very nice and classic all around. The end is a little hot though.
Nose: This is a strong nose full of burnt orange that turns into candied orange rinds before sweet and buttery toffee leads to soft whisper of sweet grits and old boot leather.
Palate: That dark and candied orange drives the palate toward cinnamon apple cider, burnt marshmallow, and salted dark chocolate-covered espresso beans with a hint of vanilla syrup and almond.
Finish: The end takes on a soft salinity (still barely tied to the chocolate) and goes deep on the old oak before fading out pretty quickly.
This starts out amazingly strong but sort of dies out at the end.
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.
This is fantastic whiskey. It’s balanced, nuanced, and deeply warming without burning your senses. This is the one to beat.
Nose: Lovely cinnamon cakes with a hint of milky malted chocolate shake cut with cherry, vanilla, and clove mingle on the nose next to salted caramel and maybe some smudging sage.
Palate: The sweetness of the nose carries over on the palate with a sense of cherry pie and cinnamon-laced mulled wine over cinnamon butter toast and chili-laced hot chocolate with mini marshmallows.
Finish: That cherry and chocolate dominate the end as the warmth sneaks in very slowly and leaves you with a soft numbness that’s accented with cinnamon holiday cakes and brandy-soaked cherry.
This is also really freaking good. It’s a tad sweet but does ultimately balance out.
Nose: Thick vanilla custard and walnut cake drive the nose toward musty sherry oak still in the cellar next to dark raw sugar syrup over a spiced fruit cake.
Palate: The dark winter spices from the nut cakes drive the palate toward large stretches of cinnamon bark, old oak staves, and dark cherry with a hint of Meyer lemon and tart currants.
Finish: Mulled wine and salted toffee round out the finish with a return to the walnut cake and plenty of sherry-soaked old oak.
This is another winner. If I had to nitpick though (And that’s what I’m here to do), this felt a little thin when it comes to ABVs. This was certainly a low-ABV barrel-strength bourbon.
Nose: Old fruit leather and plum jam drive the nose toward zucchini bread, orange oils, and Sioux City Sasparilla with a hint of old dark chocolate bars stacked with cedar bark, dry pipe tobacco, and rum raisin.
Palate: Orange-infused hot chocolate with a touch of dried red chili mingles with anise and port on the palate as eggnog and buttercream smooth everything out toward pine-driven earthiness.
Finish: Hazelnut ice cream and Almond Joys arrive on the finish with a sense of rainwater, old rye bread crusts, and soft winter spice barks with a hint of Cherry Coke before the heat arrives.
This gets really hot at the end. Is it out of balance? No. But it needs a rock.
Nose: The nose opens with a brandy-soaked holiday cake with a deep layer of rich vanilla, candied orange, candied cherry, stewed pear, and deeply sharp winter spices.
Palate: The taste is winter nut bread forward and spiced with real clove, allspice, and nutmeg next to apple-cider-soaked cinnamon sticks, eggnog creaminess, and floral honey.
Finish: The end really amps up those spices with a very barky vibe as the orange turns to marmalade and just keeps going and going until the heat overtakes everything and then crashes down, leaving your tongue buzzing.
This is just really good. It does get pretty hot on the finish, but a rock will solve that issue easily.
Nose: The nose opens with a deep sense of burnt orange, smudging sage, old boot leather, and creamy spiced eggnog with dark vanilla, brandy-soaked pear, and moist marzipan covered in salted dark chocolate and drizzles of buttery toffee.
Palate: Stewed pears and cherries drive the taste toward warming winter spices layered into fruit and nut cakes with a mulled wine vibrance next to chili-chocolate tobacco and cedar bark braided and just smoldering.
Finish: The end leans into the sharp winter spices that are stewed into the apple, pear, and cherry with a deep nuttiness and dark caramel vibe that’s just kissed with pear-infused Crème brûlée served with boozy eggnog with just the right kick.
This is excellent and provides a fantastic balance of, well, everything.
Part 2 — The Barrel-Strength Bourbon Ranking
10. Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Cask Strength Bourbon Topflight Series by ReserveBar — Taste 4
Average Price: $105
This single-barrel version of Jeffersons’ Ocean Voyage 27 is a bit of a unicorn. The classic Indiana bourbon sailed around the world as a finishing process for the whiskey. Once back in Kentucky, barrel 33 was chosen for this bottling and bottled at cask strength.
This was good overall. It wasn’t overly warm and had a nice balance of classic bourbon with a hint of graininess. This will work great in a cocktail.
9. Nashville Barrel Company Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey Topflight Series by ReserveBar — Taste 3
Average Price: $90
This single barrel from Nashville Barrel Company is a six-year-old MGP bourbon with a classic 75/21/4 (corn/rye/barley) mash bill. The barrel was pulled in late May 2023 and the whiskey was bottled 100% as-is.
This is good classic bourbon. No notes.
8. Doc Swinson’s Hand Selected Exploratory Cask “Garryana” Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Garryana Oak Casks — Taste 2
Average Price: $66
This Washington bottler used two MGP whiskeys for this release (both high rye bourbons). The five-year-old barrels were batched and then re-barreled in a Garryana oak cask (Oregon white oak) for an additional 2.5 months of finishing before bottling as-is.
This is also a very good bourbon. It felt like a solid cocktail base that also works on the rocks.
7. Blackened X Rabbit Hole A Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys Distilled in Tennessee & Kentucky Finished in Calvados Casks Cask Strength — Taste 1
Average Price: $149
This brand-new collaboration between Metallica’s Blackened and Rabbit Hole is masterful whiskey. The blend is a 13-year-old Tennessee high-rye bourbon batched with Rabbit Hole Heigold High-Rye Double Malt Bourbon (with malted rye and malted barley). Once batched, the whiskey was re-barreled into Calvados casks (an apple brandy) for a final rest before 100% as-is bottling.
This is just tasty. The ABVs/heat were barely there which is why it’s a tad lower today. But that’s not a knock. This is good stuff.
6. Barrell Bourbon Cask Strength Batch #035 — Taste 8
Average Price: $84
This brand-new blend of bourbons from Barrell Craft Spirits is a masterclass in blending. The mix starts off with six, seven, and eight-year-old Indiana bourbons and then adds in seven and 13-year-old Tennessee whiskeys alongside an eight-year-old Kentucky bourbon. That blend is then bottled 100% as-is at cask strength.
This is another really good whiskey. It gets a little hot at the end, sure. Pour this over a rock or two and you’ll be set.
5. Booker’s Bourbon Small Batch 2023-02 “Apprentice Batch” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 9
Average Price: $249
The second 2023 batch of Booker’s has arrived. This batch is named after the relationship between Booker Noe (who helped define Beam in the 20th century) and his mentor, Carl Beam, back in the 1950s. The whiskey in the bottle is a blend of a lot of barrels from prime spots in several warehouses across the Beam campus. The end blend ended up being 7+-year-old bourbon that’s bottled completely as-is without proofing or filtering.
This a great bourbon that gets very warm by the end. You’ll definitely want to pour this over a big ol’ ice cube to calm it down. Once you do that, you’ll be set.
4. Rabbit Hole Dareringer Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Limited Edition Cask Strength Bourbon Finished in PX Sherry Casks — Taste 7
Average Price: $312
This new Founder’s Collection release from Rabbit Hole is a doozy. The whiskey in the bottle is made from wheated bourbon, aged in well-charred Pedro Ximenez sherry casks from Spain’s renowned Casknolia Cooperage. Just 15 barrels were selected for this tiny small batch offering and bottled 100% as-is.
This is where we get into the well-balanced pours. This is nice, classic, and deep. The heat is on point. This didn’t wow but it kind of didn’t need to. It’s just good.
3. Larceny Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Barrel Proof Batch No.: C923 — Taste 6
Average Price: $59
The last Larceny Barrel Proof of 2023 is a batch of six to eight-year-old wheated bourbons from Heaven Hill in Kentucky. The barrels were batched and bottled 100% as-is.
This is excellent overall. It did lean a little sweet throughout, but I think the heat balanced that out nicely by the end. I really want to try this in an old fashioned or Manhattan.
2. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Barrel Proof Batch #22A– Taste 5
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.
This is exactly what you should be looking for in a perfectly balanced hot bourbon. It has some heat, sure, but it also has an incredibly deep bourbon profile that never gets muted by that heat. It’s also very Buffalo Trace with all of that earthiness, which is a great extra layer of depth. You can’t go wrong with this one, especially if you’re looking for real Kentucky heat that’s balanced.
1. Starlight Distillery Carl T. Huber’s Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Tokaji Barrels — Taste 10
Average Price: $75
This new bourbon from Indiana’s Starlight Distillery is a blend of their four-grain and high-rye bourbons — both farm-to-glass and distilled on pot stills. Once batched, that whiskey goes into a Hungarian Tokaji Essencia barrel (a sweet white wine) for another seven months of rest before bottling one barrel at a time.
This is a perfectly balanced whiskey with a deep and unique flavor profile that goes well beyond the usual. It also balances the heat with the flavor exceptionally well. Everything is clear and concise while offering surprises and comfort in equal measure. Try it neat and then go on your own whiskey journey from there.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the Barrel-Strength Bourbons
Stagg and Starlight are the true winners. Both of those whiskeys are everything you want in a barrel-strength bourbon — nuance, depth, and just the right layer of heat.
That said, there wasn’t a bad whiskey on the panel today. Some were very light, which doesn’t exactly meet the parameters of a big and bold barrel-strength bomb bourbon. But that doesn’t mean they were bad or faulty. Just lighter.
Overall, it’s the top two that you want to chase down. They’re fantastic bourbons.