Barrel-strength bourbon is bold by design. Some would argue that it’s the opposite of “smooth” — refined, polished, and without rough edges — on purpose. It’s often hot, brash, BIG whiskey. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be refined, polished, and without rough edges — aka “smooth” at the same time. The whiskey in question is often selected at its barrel strength (or “barrel proof” or “cask strength” depending on the label’s chosen language) because that’s where there’s a perfect balance between the heat and the more polished flavor notes.
To prove that, I’m conducting a big blind taste test of 12 barrel-proof bourbons (many of them brand new) that offer a smooth drinking experience and a bold ABV. I grabbed 12 barrel-strength bourbons and my wife was kind enough to shuffle, pour, and catalog them for me. Our lineup today features the following bottles of barrel-strength bourbons:
- Penelope Barrel Strength Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys Aged 9 Years
- Bardstown Bourbon Company Discovery Series Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Series #11
- 291 E Colorado Wheated Bourbon Whiskey Finished With Aspen Wood Staves
- Old Dominick Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey Fall 2018 Batch No. 2
- Lost Lantern Single Cask Series Ironroot Republic Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Green River Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Full Proof
- Frey Ranch Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey Farm Strength Uncut
- Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch No. C923
- Barrell Bourbon Cask Finish Series: Tale of Two Islands Cask Strength
- Maker’s Mark Bill’s Recipe No. 46 French Oak Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength
- George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2023
- Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Barrels
After I blindly tasted through these pours, I ranked them. Of course, overall taste was the cornerstone of the ranking. I also looked at balance to find the truly “smooth” barrel-strength bourbons on the panel. That balance meant finding the whiskeys that were not blown out by massive ABVs that muted or completely erased the more nuanced flavor notes. Moreover, that meant looking at the overall depth of the flavor profile. If any bourbon pour is too one note, it’s out of balance.
Okay, let’s dive in and taste and rank some barrel-strength bourbons!
Part 1 — The Barrel-Strength Bourbon Blind Tasting
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.
This is good barrel-strength bourbon. It’s not a “wow” but it is balanced and tastes really nice overall.
Nose: Tart cherries and rich toffee rolled in roasted almond and dipped in salted dark chocolate drive the nose toward cinnamon spice cakes with a hint of dried cranberry, plummy sauce, and rich tobacco.
Palate: The taste leans into caramel-covered peanuts with a hint of red fruit leather, old spice barks, and a whisper of orange rinds next to a touch of Cherry Coke, old leather tobacco pouches, and the old beams from a whiskey barrel house.
Finish: The end leans into a lush vanilla buttercream with notes of old back porch wicker, almost sweet cedar kindling, smudging sage, and cinnamon bark soaked in cherry brandy with a touch of chili-cut dark chocolate.
This is excellent whiskey. There’s a deep nuance to the profile the runs deep and is intriguingly fresh. It’s quintessential while also feeling warming without feeling hot.
Nose: This opens with a very craft nose of Graham Cracker dipped in honey and rolled in cinnamon before hitting a hint of bubble gum and Hot Tamales.
Palate: The palate is hot with a clear sense of sharp cinnamon and sweet grits next to dark wood, old leather, and blood orange rinds.
Finish: The end really leans into the cinnamon heat with a hint of sweet honey underneath before diving deep into dark chocolate, cherry, and winter spice with dried fruits and rock candy.
This starts off so strong but then just builds and builds heat until you’re left with a numb mouth. It’s a lot.
Nose: Honey waffle crackers, rich vanilla buttercream, and dark cherry present on the nose next to nasturtium floral spiciness and a hint of garden store potting soil bags (almost a halfway point between burlap and old leather).
Palate: Dry straw and more burlap potting soil drive the earthy palate toward corn husks, black tea, and leathery tobacco countered by toffee and cherry with a hint of cinnamon.
Finish: The cherry and cinnamon make for a spicy sweet finish with a nice creaminess from the vanilla and toffee that’s all accented by a lot of earthiness.
This is very earthy Tennessee whiskey. It’s nice enough but that earthiness ends up going sort of one note.
Nose: The nose opens with a mix of rich caramel and freshly grilled pancakes next to cherry jam, dried cranberry, and vanilla cake.
Palate: That vanilla drives the palate toward creamy and moist marzipan, a touch of old oak, and a hint of cranberry sauce cut with star anise and clove next to a whisper of fresh cornbread with melted butter on top.
Finish: The end leans into the corn and oak as the cinnamon sweetness amps up the warmth of the finish with a hint of earthy and leathery tobacco just kissed with dark cherry.
This is nice enough. It’s a tad earthy but that’s balanced by nice sweetness, creaminess, and spiciness. It’s a little warm at the end but nothing overpowering.
Nose: Cream soda and honeycomb greet you on the nose with a light sense of spiced holiday cakes, vanilla sheet cake, soft-dried chili, and old woody spice.
Palate: The honey and vanilla bond on the palate to create a luscious mouthfeel that leads to balanced notes of sharp dried chili spice, soft worn leather, pipe tobacco, and rich walnut bread with plenty of butter, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.
Finish: The end leans toward the leather and tobacco with a chili-choco vibe accented by soft walnut and even softer vanilla.
This is a nice and very easy-drinking whiskey. It has a really nice depth and balance and doesn’t feel overpowered at all. You know the warmth is there but it makes sense to the overall flavor profile.
Nose: The nose bursts forth on this one with deep cinnamon candy, nutmeg-heavy eggnog, creme bruleé, salted caramel, and buttery croissant next to old cedar kindling, dark boot leather, and a hint of dusty old wine cellar.
Palate: There’s a Black Forest cake vibe on the front of the palate that leads to clove-studded oranges, leathery apricot, black-tea-soaked dates, and rich and moist pound cake just kissed with poppy seeds and vanilla oils.
Finish: The end leans into black cherry with a flake of smoked salt, dark orange, and fresh cacao with a return of that cedar kindling and old boot leather next to this faint note of old rickhouses full of well-aged barrels of whiskey.
This is just good whiskey. It has a warmth to it but it never dominates the profile. It’s all in balance, delivering a deeply nuanced profile.
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.
This starts off kind of chill then goes almost off-the-charts hot on the finish. This left my palate abuzz and really burnt out.
Nose: The nose opens with big notes of bananas foster, peach cobbler, and blackberry crumble next to roasting herbs, smoldering smudging sage, old cedar kindling, and rich vanilla-chocolate malted tobacco with a dash of Cherry Coke and Almond Joy.
Palate: Lushness dominates the palate with dark chocolate-covered espresso beans, candied orange peels, candied almonds, black cherry soda, cream soda, plum pudding, and mincemeat pies dusted with powdered sugar before dark and lightly smoked oak arrives.
Finish: That smoky oak leads to pepper brisket fat and salted butter cut with cedar tobacco before veering toward blackberry pie and red currants swimming in dark chocolate with a faint whisper of fresh vanilla pods.
This was nice but very light all things considered. When looking for a balance of ABV warmth and an overall balanced profile, there… wasn’t a lot there — even though the profile ran very deep.
Nose: The nose draws you in with a sense of old rickhouses and mincemeat pies with a hint of plum jam over buttermilk biscuits just kissed with clove and nutmeg.
Palate: Those biscuits turn into Christmas spice cakes with plenty of nuts and dried fruits with a candied orange hint next to caramel sauce and vanilla cake.
Finish: The end is lush at first with a nice earthiness that plays into rum raisin and brandy-soaked holiday cakes before fading abruptly.
This was just nice. It was by far the coolest ABVs of the bunch (I’d guess this is in the 50% area). That said, it is still a well-built whiskey with a really pleasant overall profile.
Nose: The nose opens with a classic sense of Cherry Coke, old leather tobacco pouches, and rich buttercream made with real vanilla next to fall leaves in an orchard and then this sense of Neoplotian ice cream creeps in that leans toward the strawberry and chocolate ice cream part.
Palate: The palate opens with a deep sense of an apple orchard on a cold fall day with leaves underfoot next to deeply-seeded dark cherry, cinnamon bark, clove buds, and allspice berries with a sense of the Neopolitan ice cream popping up again late.
Finish: The creamy vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry drive the finish back toward the old orchards, fall leaves, rickhouse floors, and soft cherry-spiced tobacco leaves rolled with cedar and smudging sage with a nice warming Kentucky hug on the very end.
This is goddamn delicious whiskey. The ice cream vibes really add a whole new dimension to the experience and offer the perfect counterbalance to the heat (which is bold).
Nose: Spiced cherry cake mingles with rich and buttery caramel sauce, toasted marshmallows, rum raisin, black-tea-soaked dates cut with cinnamon and nutmeg, and a deep sense of mulled wine cut with dark chocolate.
Palate: The palate leans into the mulled wine and sticky toffee pudding with a flourish of sea salt and orange zest next to lush vanilla buttercream, dark cherry spiced tobacco leaves, and old motorcycle jacket leather.
Finish: The end leans into brandy-soaked cherries dipped in dark chocolate next to dry sweetgrass, smudging sage, and cedar bark braided and stacked in an old cigar humidor next to a dry red wine cork with winter spice cakes, pear brandy marzipan, and deep dried fruits rounding out the end.
This is also just excellent. It reminds me of an old dusty bourbon from the 1970s (well-aged, deep and dark, and decadent). The proof is there in a warming sense that tracks with the sweet spiciness that’s layered throughout.
Part 2 — The Barrel-Strength Bourbon Ranking
12. 291 E Colorado Wheated Bourbon Whiskey Finished With Aspen Wood Staves — Taste 3
Average Price: $149
This bespoke Colorado craft whiskey starts with a malted wheat bourbon at its core. That bourbon is married to another wheated bourbon with rye malts in the mix, creating a four-grain bourbon in the final batch. That whiskey is then bottled 100% as-is at cask strength.
This was very hot on this panel. There’s a lot of nuance on the profile but it needs a rock or few drops of water to get at that nuance. Neat, it’s just too warm.
11. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch No. C923 — Taste 8
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.
Again, this just ended up too warm when poured and tasted neat. If I had given it half an hour to open up from the air and then added a little water to help it bloom in the glass, it’d probably have scored higher. As it stands, it’s just too tilted toward hefty ABVs.
10. Old Dominick Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey Fall 2018 Batch No. 4 — Taste 4
Average Price: $69
Old Dominick’s new Small Batch Series is a four-batch look at how the same whiskeys perform in different batching formats. Each whiskey is hewn from a mash bill of 52% corn, 44% rye, and 4% malted barley that’s left to age for four years in new West Tennessee White Oak barrels down in Tennessee. In this batch, select barrels were chosen for their barrel-proof beauty. Once batched, the whiskey was bottled as-is at cask strength.
This was nice but leaned very one note with all that earthiness. If that’s what you’re vibe is, then go for it. This is a very earthy Tennessee pour with classic bourbon notes hiding underneath it all.
9. Barrell Bourbon Cask Finish Series: Tale of Two Islands Cask Strength — Taste 9
Average Price: $89
This new release from Barrell Craft Spirits is a unique one. The whiskey in the bottle is batched from Indiana bourbon (five, six, and nine-year-old barrels) with Maryland bourbon (five and six-year-old barrels). Once batched, the whiskey is re-barreled into rum casks and Islay whisky casks. Then those barrels are batched and the whiskey is bottled 100% as-is at cask strength.
This was just a little light today. It wasn’t bad or faulty by any stretch. This was tasty. It just didn’t jump out. Part of that was that there was just so much going on on the profile that it kind of got lost in it all.
8. Lost Lantern Single Cask Series Ironroot Republic Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 5
Average Price: $119
This new single barrel from Lost Lantern is a Texas all-corn bourbon exclusive. The whiskey was made with 65% Yellow Dent corn, 30% Bloody Butcher corn, and 5% Floriana corn. The barrel was three years old when it was chosen for this bottling 100% as-is at cask strength.
Knowing now that this is a 100% corn bourbon, I would have expected it to be far earthier. But this was nicely balanced between earthiness and more classical bourbon notes. This was nice overall but didn’t jump out of the pack and grab me by the collars to keep my attention.
7. Maker’s Mark Bill’s Recipe No. 46 French Oak Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength — Taste 10
Average Price: $68
This version of Maker’s 46 is all about shining a light on the brilliance of their stave program. The wheated bourbon is a small batch (made in a 1,000-gallon vatting tank) that’s re-barreled into used Maker’s Mark barrels that are fitted with heavily seared French oak staves. That whisky rests for another few months before bottling 100% as-is at cask strength.
This was the lightest pour of the bunch by a country mile. It was also just really nice. There was a deep profile that delivered classic bourbon notes that all made sense and beckoned you back for more. The only reason it’s this low is that this pour barely registered as a barrel-proof or cask-strength whiskey. It was so light that it was barely warming at all.
Then again, that might be exactly what you’re looking for…
6. Penelope Barrel Strength Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys Aged 9 Years — Taste 1
Average Price: $69
This blended bourbon is a masterful lesson in the power of blending. The three bourbons that end up 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 is where we get into the good stuff. This is just good, well-balanced, and nuanced bourbon. There’s a nice warmth that makes sense to all the layers of flavors in the profile.
5. Green River Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Full Proof — Taste 6
Average Price: $59
The latest addition to the core Green River lineup is a doozy. The Kentucky whiskey is a rye-forward single-barrel bourbon. The mash bill is 70% Kentucky-grown corn with 21% rye and 9% malted barley. That whiskey rests for at least five years before water is added to bring the proof back down to entry proof, hence “full proof”. The whiskey is then bottled directly from the barrel as-is.
This is another one that’s ~ just nice.~
It’s super easy-drinking as a sipper, and I imagine this would also make a mean whiskey-forward cocktail.
4. Frey Ranch Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey Farm Strength Uncut — Taste 7
Average Price: $79
This new release from Nevada craft farm distillery, Frey Ranch, is a true grain-to-glass experience. The mash is Frey Ranch’s classic four-grain mash of 66% non-GMO corn, 12% Two-Row malted barley, 11.4% Winter rye, and 10% Soft White Winter wheat — all grown on the ranch. After almost five years of aging in the mountains of Nevada, the whiskey was batched and bottled 100% as-is.
This isn’t just nice, it’s great. There’s so much going on with the profile that I want to go back and find more to enjoy. Moreover, the warmth of the ABV always made sense and helped amplify whatever was happening on the nose or palate. This is the good stuff, folks.
3. Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Barrels — Taste 12
Average Price: $229 (Coming Soon)
This is the 12th Cask Strength Bourbon release from Angel’s Envy but the first under new Master Distiller Owen Martin. Martin brings a deep knowledge of craft Colorado whiskey making and Scotch whisky to the table and it shows in this new release. The whiskey is a masterful blend of Angel’s Envy’s port-finished bourbons at cask strength, allowing the barrels to really shine through. As a limited edition, there were only 22,656 bottles produced. The good news is that they’re going out to all 50 states.
This really felt like a big progression of the Angel’s Envy Cask Strength line. The overall vibe of the bourbon is akin to a 1970s Old Grand-Dad 114, which is beloved for a reason (hint, it’s delicious). This is quintessential bourbon that reminds you why you fell in love with bourbon in the first place.
2. George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2023 — Taste 11
Average Price: $124 (MSRP)
The new Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) George T. Stagg has arrived. This year’s batch was distilled in the spring of 2008 and left to rest in warehouses C, I, K, L, and M around the Frankfort Buffalo Trace campus. After 15 long years of rest, the barrels were batched and bottled 100% as-is at cask strength.
This is a great pour of whiskey. The heat is there but it’s always counterbalanced with deep creamy and earthy flavor notes that always make sense. The creaminess of the vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry helps this reach new heights as the more classic Buffalo Trace earthy fall orchards, barrel house, and rich tobacco vibes help it feel familiar. It’s great.
1. Bardstown Bourbon Company Discovery Series Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Series #11 — Taste 2
Average Price: $139
The latest release from Bardstown Bourbon Company is a full-on Kentucky bourbon blend. The whiskey is made with 73% 13-year-old Kentucky bourbon, 21% 10-year-old Kentucky bourbon, and 6% of Bardstown’s own six-year-old Kentucky bourbon. Once batched, the whiskey mellows before bottling 100% as-is at cask strength.
This has it all. It’s warm, nuanced, and delicious. There’s just so much going on and it all works. I want more of this whiskey in my life.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the Barrel-Strength Bourbons
Overall, the top six are beyond reproach. There’s something for everyone in there. Nitty-gritty, the top two are the true winners. While the Stagg will be nearly impossible to get outside of lotteries and secondary markets (with massively inflated prices), you can get the Bardstown Bourbon Company Discovery #11 pretty easily if you move fast.
My advice? Move fast! It’s 100% worth the price tag and may well be your new favorite bourbon pour of 2023.