High-proof bourbon whiskey is that category that sits neatly in between “bottled-in-bond” and “barrel proof.” Bottled-in-bond whiskey always has to be 50 percent or 100 proof and gets to that proof through the addition of water. Barrel proof (or cask strength) whiskey is whatever proof the whiskey was in the barrel and is never cut with water. High-proof whiskey is (generally speaking) the whiskey that’s 100 proof or higher and always cut with water.
Ironically, there are uncut barrel-proof bourbons that are lower proof than watered-down high-proof bourbons. How does that happen? It all depends on the flavor profiles the distillers and blenders are looking for. Sounds strange but I promise it’s possible — there’s a wide world of whiskey out there, folks.
Today, our focus is on 10 water-touched high-proof bourbons, which I’m judging on taste alone. I’m blind taste-testing a few drams that I haven’t had quite a while — Maker’s 101, Noah’s Mill, Johnny Drum — and a few that are in my regular rotation — Wild Turkey, Garrison Bros., Knob Creek. It’s going to be interesting to see where these expressions fall when tasted without the familiarity of their labels!
Part 1: The Tasting
This opens with a mild buttery toffee next to vanilla and wood. That vanilla becomes a creamy pudding as a touch of butterscotch arrives with a mild warmth. The end has a dry tobacco vibe with a hint of holiday spice.
This is a bowl of stewed apple over vanilla ice cream that’s been drizzled with extra caramel. The taste really focuses on that caramel, with hints of oak next to roasted almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, and dry wicker.
That darkness can only mean one thing — Garrison Brothers. There’s a massive nose of new leather that covers notes of corn syrup pecan pie and a hint of cinnamon rolls. The taste holds onto the leather (dramatically) while hints of white chocolate ice cream mingle with Nesquik chocolate milk. More leather comes in late as hints of cedar and tobacco warm things up on the end.
Soft eggnog spices and creaminess is touched by a soft cedar. The palate is subtle and warms toward a cinnamon candy next to buttery toffee with a hint of dry wicker reeds. That creamy-yet-spicy vibe carries through the finish as a silky mouthfeel takes over, leading to a final burst of spicy and sweet cinnamon candy fireworks through the senses.
This starts out with an apple pie filling with a lot of cinnamon leading towards salted caramel. The taste has this mild orange feel with more cinnamon candy. The end has a lightness that feels like … sasparilla? Cream soda? No, it’s Dr. Pepper!
The end leaves you with fizzy and distinctly spicy Dr. Pepper.
This has a cherry-vanilla soda vibe with a hint of dry pine. The taste leans into the old wood while touches of old leather mingle with light pepper and a chewy vanilla/cherry tobacco. The end is silky smooth and not overly warm.
This has to be the Bootleg Series. It has a funky old hue that’s nearing forest green. The taste has this mix of dry coconut, cloves, and greenwood with a touch of .. cumin? It’s velvety smooth and touches on coriander with a sweetgrass vibe.
This feels like a classic bourbon with notes of vanilla cream mingling with buttery cornbread and a touch of orchard fruits. The palate has a mild worn leather next to a subtle dark chocolate orange all leading towards a bucket of buttered popcorn with a side order of Red Vines.
This opens with a buttery croissant with spicy plum jam next to flourishes of vanilla. There’s a rich toffee next to dark chocolate-covered marzipan, old cellar beams, and a mild vanilla tobacco chew. It’s light and soft.
This is just a straight-up classic. This has to be Knob Creek. There’s a vanilla/cinnamon/kettle corn feel that leads to touches of eggnog spice, orange zest, and very mild cherry. The end is a brioche dripping in brown sugar and brown butter cinnamon glaze next to a cherry tree, drooping with fruit.
Part 2: The Ranking
10. Heaven’s Door “Bootleg Series” Mizunara Oak Whisky 26 Year — Taste 7
Average Price: $550
This bottle is going to be hard to find outside of private collections. The 26-year-old whiskey is finished in Japanese Mizunara oak barrels. These barrels are made from trees that have to be at least 200-years-old and impart something truly unique into the juice.
To be 100 percent fair, this might be losing some of its luster thanks to the flask it’s in. Still, this is built to be a super funky and super old bourbon. It just didn’t feel like something I’d ever reach for other than to show off when I have friends over.
9. Eagle Rare 17 — Taste 6
Average Price: $1,395
We kind of come full circle with this whiskey. It’s largely the same juice as George T. Stagg. Except these barrels spend 18 years and three months in Warehouse P on the first floor, where the juice loses 59 percent of its volume. The bourbon is then blended, filtered, and bottled at a very accessible 101 proof.
HA! I cannot believe this! I like Eagle Rare a lot and order the 10-year-old all the time at a whisky bar I go to. I guess today it just didn’t stand out that much.
8. Garrison Brothers Balmorhea — Taste 3
Average Price: $196
This much-lauded Texas bourbon is the highwater mark of what great whiskey from Texas can be. The juice is aged in Ozark oak for four years and then finished in oak from Minnesota for another year, all under that blazing West Texas sunshine. The bourbon is then small-batched, proofed with Texas spring water, and bottled at a healthy 115 proof.
I just couldn’t get past that leather note on the nose and in the palate. I ended up nosing and tasting this one twice (and then again, just now). It’s still there.
That’s what’s interesting about tasting booze you love like this. When spped right after something entirely different, you never know what’s going to pop.
7. Wild Turkey 101 — Taste 1
Average Price: $26
A lot of Wild Turkey’s character comes from the hard and deep char they use on their oak barrels. 101 is a high-rye and high-ABV bourbon that leans into the wood and aging, having spent six years in the cask. A little of that soft Kentucky limestone water is added to cool it down a bit before bottling.
This feels right. Look, I love me some Turkey but this is an entry-level whiskey that’s made to be mixed.
6. Pinhook Bohemian High Proof 2020 — Taste 9
Average Price: $52
Pinhook’s contract distilled bourbon is all about refinement. The expression is made from 100 barrels that are matured for 34 months before being small-batched by Pinhook’s Master Taster Sean Josephs. The juice is barely touched with that soft Kentucky limestone water to take the edge off.
There’s a thinness to this that holds it back a little. I’m not saying this isn’t really tasty and well-crafted. It’s just missing that “grab your attention” x-factor that I want from a high-proof bourbon.
5. Johnny Drum Private Stock — Taste 5
Average Price: $40
Willett — or Kentucky Bourbon Distillers — makes this special label. As with everything at Willett, though, the cards on the aging, mash bill, and blending of this bottle are held pretty close to the chest. The juice is a marrying of varying barrels that are cut to 101 to compete with Wild Turkey. That’s about all we know.
This had that Willett “cinnamon candy” vibe, though it was dialed back. This really caught my attention for that journey from sasparilla to cream soda to f*cking Dr. Pepper. It felt almost insulting at first, then I just wanted more.
4. Knob Creek 9 — Taste 10
Average Price: $36
This entry-point to Jim Beam’s small batch Knob Creek is a nine-year-old classic. The juice is a low-rye mash that’s aged in new oak in Beam’s vast warehouses for a minimum of nine years. The whiskey is then vatted and cut down to 100 proof before being bottled in new, wavy bottles.
This felt both classic and right. There was nothing that jumped out as “oh my god, that’s life-changing!” But it was comforting, soft, and familiar. That went a long way amongst these high-proof bourbons. Oh, and it’s tastes really good.
3. Maker’s Mark 101 Travelers Exclusive — Taste 2
Average Price: $42
This is Maker’s Mark classic wheated bourbon that’s bottled at “a higher proof” to bring about a “richer flavor.” Well, that’s what the label says anyway.
This was just really damn tasty. It was complex yet refined and accessible. There was almost zero burn and that’s when taken neat. This feels like a great sipper that’s also going to be a go-to cocktail base going forward.
2. Pursuit United — Taste 8
Average Price: $62
This whiskey is a new-ish release from one of our favorite bourbon podcasts and whiskey reviewers, Bourbon Pursuit. The juice is a blend of three whiskeys hailing from Bardstown Bourbon Company in Kentucky, Finger Lakes Distilling out in New York, and an unnamed Tennessee distiller. The blend is crafted to be an accessible whiskey, or well-crafted table bourbon if you will, that’s high proof and very drinkable.
This keeps growing on me and I’m not surprised it nearly hit the number one spot. It’s just really well-put-together bourbon that hits my palate plumb and true every time I take a sip.
1. Noah’s Mill — Taste 4
Average Price: $60
This is Willett’s high-proof bourbon that’s barely cut down to a very high 114.3 proof. This is kind of like the big and bolder sibling of Willett’s Rowan’s Creek bourbon, which is cut down to 100.1 proof.
I can’t remember the last time I had a dram of this but it really popped today. The spicy cinnamon candy was a great throughline and the really high-proof didn’t hinder the sip at all. In fact, this felt smoother and cooler than lower-proofed high-proofs on this list.
Plus, it was pure silk on the senses and tongue.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Willett made a pretty good showing all things considered. I’m kind of surprised Noah’s Mill ended up on top. If I could have seen the labels, I probably would have put money on me picking Maker’s or Knob Creek.
The only real oddities were Garrison Brothers and Eagle Rare, which just didn’t click for me today. That being said, I ended up leaning towards much more affordable bourbons that are fairly easy to find. I didn’t try to, that’s just what I liked best. So there’s that.
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