When it comes to whisk(e)y in the US, the standard alcohol content is typically around 40% ABV (80 proof). For many drinkers that’s more than enough, but if you’re a fan of more robust, potent, warming whisk(e)y iterations, you’ll likely want something stronger. We’re talking cask strength, barrel proof, or full proof expressions.
In most cases, after a barrel of whiskey is finished aging, water is added to dilute it and lower its alcohol by volume. In a cask strength/ barrel proof expression, water isn’t added. Instead, the whiskey is bottled at the proof it reached during maturation. This means the whiskey will typically end up between 50% and 75% alcohol by volume. Full proof is slightly different — it allows the distiller to return the final spirit to the proof it was when it entered the barrel as hot juice.
Since February’s chill calls for warming whiskeys, we’re going to enjoy our fair share of cask strength and full proof expressions while we eagerly await spring. To find the best, we went to the experts — asking a handful of our favorite bartenders to tell us the best high proof whiskeys to track down this winter.
Weller Full Proof Bourbon
Cari Hah, formerly bar manager at Café Alcove in Loa Angeles
Weller Full Proof. Flavors of vanilla, cinnamon, oak, caramel, and honey on the nose as well as the tongue. The gentle sweetness of the taste tempers the heat of the proof. The flavor crescendos through the mid-palate and lasts long into the finish.
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
Demetrëa Dewald, lead bartender at Bar Mateo at Zinc Café in Los Angeles
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon is an extremely smooth cask-strength whiskey. In my opinion, this bourbon makes the perfect old fashioned. Its caramel and vanilla sweet notes combined with the extra kick from being 100 proof leads to a perfectly balanced cocktail with subtle woody afternotes.
Jack Daniels’ Single Barrel, Barrel Proof Whiskey
Alex Tack, bartender at Rex 1516 in Philadelphia
My personal favorite is Jack Daniels’ Single Barrel, Barrel Proof. My reasoning is almost entirely due to it being such a pleasant surprise. I don’t especially care for Old No. 7 — I find it cloyingly sweet. Their single barrel expressions are much more oaky, dry, and complex. The addition of alcoholic heat from the cask aging adds an additional tier.
I’m naming this almost entirely because I like it so much more than I thought I would. It’s great with a few drops of water added.
Stagg Jr. Bourbon
Andy Printy, beverage director at Chao Baan in St. Louis
Stagg Jr. AKA Son of George. T. Stagg is the champion of cask strength expressions. Various proofs and profiles are expressed in each release. The heat reminds you of the territory you’re exploring, but the toffee and cinnamon finish is what really takes your breath away.
Sean Ebbitt, owner and bartender at Bluegrass Tavern in Lexington, Kentucky
For me, my favorite cask strength is Booker’s Rye. This Rye was a limited release in 2016 and packs a punch, so it’s not for everyone. But if you like spicy Ryes and higher proof whiskeys this one will not disappoint. At 136 proof and aged for 13 years and 1 month it’s full of strong flavors of cinnamon, pepper, oak, and a hint of orange.
Michter’s US-1 Barrel Strength Rye
Gavin Humes, bartender at Scratch|Bar & Kitchen in Encino, California
Don’t tempt me with a good time, there are too many great choices for a cask-strength whiskey for me to ever turn one down. That said, the Michter’s US-1 Barrel Strength Rye is probably my favorite at the moment. The spicy notes prominent in rye are present, but it still has plenty of butterscotch and caramel notes to balance.
I prefer with just a small splash of water to really let the flavors shine.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon
Courtney Cantrell, bartender and assistant manager for Old Hickory Whiskey Bar in Pensacola, Florida
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon from Heaven Hill Distillery will always be my number one barrel strength whiskey. What I view as one of the best values on the market, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof provides you with the perfect full-bodied level of oak and toasted marshmallow on the palate, but is not overpowered by ethanol on the nose — which most cask strength whiskeys struggle with.
In the last few years, this cask strength Scotch whisky has gained a bit of a cult following. It’s well deserved with its rich sherried, butter cookie, and caramel flavors. It’s so refined and complex you won’t even notice the high alcohol content.
Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength
If you already enjoy the briny, band-aid-like, peaty, magical flavor of regular Laphroaig 10, you’ll love the cask strength version. It’s high in alcohol and equally high in flavor.
Drink it neat and drink it slowly.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof Bourbon
If you’re looking for a brash, bold barrel proof bourbon, you’re looking for Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof. It’s uncut, unfiltered, and filled with creamy caramel, charred oak, tobacco, and candied orange peel flavors perfect for your favorite whiskey-based cocktail.