If you’re new to bourbon, the higher-proof bourbon whiskeys out there might be a little intimidating. Or not. Maybe you’re already used to 100 proof vodkas, over-proofed rums, and even absinthe. Either way, as you spend time imbibing bourbon, your palate begins to change and there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to level up to higher-proof whiskeys. Soon, 80 proof expressions will begin to taste “thin.”
Since higher-proof bourbons are often filled with nuanced and complex flavors, it takes some effort to sort the wheat from the chaff (or the kernels from the cob, as it were). To do so, I selected eight well-known bourbons that hit 110 proof and higher. The below bottles range from barrel-proof bourbons that haven’t been cut with any water to high-proof bourbons that have been cut with water but still kept those ABVs pretty high.
Since we hope that our blind taste test will make you want to do one of your own, we selected bottles that can be found at your local liquor store (although some are a little more difficult to source than others). If you don’t want to meander through the aisles, you can also click on the prices to order any of these bottles online.
Part 1: The Taste
For this blind taste test, I used the following expressions.
- Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
- 1792 Full Proof
- Larceny Barrel Proof
- Old Grand-Dad 114
- Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
- Wild Turkey Rare Breed
- Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
Let’s get this party started!
I took time to take in the scents of heavy wood char, candied orange peels, and vanilla beans before taking my first sip. There was a mineral quality to the flavor that greeted my palate immediately. This was followed by more woody flavors well as dried fruits and caramel. It ended with a nice bit of heat that reminded me “hey, it’s higher proof.”
A decent whiskey, but definitely not exceptional and almost too light.
The first thing I noticed were the scents of charred oak, spicy cinnamon candies, toasted vanilla beans, and a subtle hint of smoke. The flavor was all vanilla, caramel, charred wood, and a nice nutty sweetness that permeated throughout. The finish was long and warming.
In my notes, I wrote: “A really great sipper and one that I will definitely return to.”
This is a bold nose and I like it. There’s a lot of pepper, vanilla, and charred wood. It’s bold and brash like a high-proof bourbon should be. But it’s not too much to take in. The flavor was surprisingly complex with notes of pipe tobacco, candied orange peels, buttery caramel, and a nice herbal, warming, cracked black pepper finish.
While there was a good deal of heat, the vibrant pepper and caramel flavors make this a great sipper.
The first thing I noticed was the alcohol smell. It was pretty “in your face.” After that, there was corn sweetness, vanilla cookies, and a great deal of charred oak. The palate was better than the nose, with hints of dried fruits, vanilla beans, and a lot of spicy cinnamon. The last few sips were on par with Red Hot candies with a lot of alcohol-fueled heat.
This whiskey leaves little doubt it is high proof and that’s not such a great thing.
Although there wasn’t a ton going on with this whisky, I smelled hints of brown sugar, cinnamon, and a musty rickhouse. The palate was more of the same. There were a lot of spicy cinnamon flavors as well as a bit of caramel and vanilla. But mostly a lot of heat and just a bit of oak at the end.
Overall, not something I’d sip neat.
Nosing this whiskey revealed nostalgic caramel apples, charred wood, dried fruits, and a nice kick of vanilla. The flavor was classic bourbon with notes of Werther’s Original butterscotch candies, cinnamon sugar, and just a hint of cracked black pepper. The finish was long, lingering, and filled with warmth.
All in all, it’s a decent whiskey. I just… I feel like I need to come back and try this one again — it feels like it’s missing something.
From the initial nosing, this was by far the most aromatic. Notes of charred oak, treacle, vanilla cookies, and candied pecans are present. When I sipped it, I entered a world of vanilla beans, butterscotch candy, dried cherries, more nuts, and just a hint of spice. This easy-to-drink, mellow whiskey ends with a nice mix of heat and sweets.
It’ll be hard to top this whiskey in overall flavor.
A lot was going on in the aroma department. First, I smelled wood char, spicy cinnamon sugar, maple candy, and toasted vanilla beans. There’s not a lot of heat on the palate. There are flavors of raisins, buttery caramel, more vanilla, and a nice kick of spicy cinnamon. The warming, cinnamon sugar flavors carry on long after your last sip.
Overall, an extremely pleasurable sip.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. Old Grand-Dad 114 — Taste 5
Average Price: $29
Along with Old Overholt, the Old Grand-Dad expressions fall under the “Olds” range from Jim Beam. This high-rye bourbon is called 114 because that’s the proof (57 percent). It’s bold, filled with cinnamon heat, and highly mixable. But the flavor is a little too much to consider this bottle as a sipper.
This is the kind of bottle that people keep on hand for mixing, especially if you’re making cocktails with bold flavors. The 114 proof stands up in these cases. But I wouldn’t suggest it as a sipper and that’s why it landed so low on my list.
7. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength — Taste 1
Average Price: $40
If you’re a bourbon drinker (or any type of drinker), you’ve probably had your fair share of Maker’s Mark. Its leveled-up Cask Strength version falls between 110-114 proof, depending on the batch. It’s high corn (70 percent corn, 16 percent wheat, and 14 percent barley). The lack of rye (and the wheat presence) means that even though this bourbon is fairly high in alcohol, it still has a soft, mellow flavor.
While this whiskey ranked much lower than expected, it shouldn’t really be that surprising. For the high alcohol content, this is one of the cheapest whiskeys on this list. It’s a decent sipper, but nothing to write home about.
6. 1792 Full Proof — Taste 4
Average Price: $60
This award-winning bourbon from 1792 doesn’t disclose its mash bill, but it’s assumed that (especially due to the flavor) that it’s around 75 percent corn. This means that, even at 125 proof, this specially filtered, rich, and decadent whiskey is as sweet as it is potent.
This whiskey had more going on with it than Maker’s Mark, but it was also a lot more potent in the heat department. I really had a tough time ranking these two. But this one beat Maker’s out because it was slightly more flavorful.
5. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof — Taste 6
Average Price: $79
The highest proof in this tasting was Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. This uncut, unfiltered, bold bourbon has won numerous awards over the years and this bottle lives up to the hype, for the most part.
I’m a big fan of Elijah Craig, so I was a little bummed that this landed here. It lacked a bit of the flavor-to-heat combination that some of the higher-ranked bourbons had. Given that, I would definitely sip this one neat again and see if I enjoy it more the next time.
4. Larceny Barrel Proof — Taste 8
Average Price: $70
While this list is comprised of easier-to-find bourbons, Larceny Barrel Proof is a little trickier to find than others, depending on where you live. If you get your hands on a bottle, you’ll be treated to an award-winning, wheat bourbon that’s non-chill filtered, small-batch, barrel proof, and aged between 6 and 8 years.
Larceny has made a name for itself in the whiskey world in the last decade. While you can’t go wrong with any of the brand’s expressions, we suggest grabbing this bottle. It’s equally as great as a mixer as it is a sipper.
3. Wild Turkey Rare Breed — Taste 3
Average Price: $49
This award-winning bourbon is a favorite of both bartenders and whiskey aficionados. It’s well-regarded for its reasonable price, high proof, and even higher quality. It’s uncut, robust, and surprisingly smooth for such a high-proof whiskey. It finds a place behind both amateur and professional bars due to its sippable, mixable ability.
The spicy, cinnamon, and rye flavors should appeal to both high-proof bourbon fans as well as rye whiskey aficionados. It’s great for cocktails, but we prefer sipping it in a rocks glass with a single ice cube while we enjoy the mellow, warming heat.
2. Booker’s — Taste 2
Average Price: $109
When it comes to Jim Beam’s Small Batch collection, Booker’s is by far my favorite. It’s uncut, unfiltered, and cask strength. One of the most eagerly awaited whiskey releases, each new batch has its own name and specific flavor profile. The proof changes based on the batch. The 2021 version is called “Donohoe’s Batch” and it was made to pay tribute to a long-time, retired Jim Beam employee.
One of my favorite high-proof whiskeys, this expression landed on this list right where I thought it would. Even with the uncut, unfiltered, bold nature of this bourbon, it’s surprisingly smooth and very easy to sip. I definitely wouldn’t use this as a mixer.
1. Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve — Taste 7
Average Price: $49
When it comes to value, it’s difficult to beat Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. Aged for nine years in charred, oak casks, this 120-proof whiskey is made up of hand-selected barrels that are blended together to create a nuanced, rich, easy-to-sip whiskey.
It should come as no huge surprise that this expression took the top spot (though I wouldn’t have predicted a #1 finish). Made from hand-picked barrels that are aged to perfection before being blended together to make the perfect flavor, this is a highly complex whiskey and a natural fit as a sipper.
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