The average bottle of whiskey is around 40 proof. That’s 80 percent alcohol for those new to this game. But with the proliferation of whiskey, it’s not hard to find bottles that push those boundaries higher and higher with high proof whiskey (often referred to as “barrel proof” or “cask proof” on the label).
Whiskey is usually lowered to 80 proof (40 percent ABV) by adding water to “cut” the whiskey down to proof. It’s become more and more common for distillers to offer high-proof expressions as a mainstay of their lines these days, especially with the single barrel programs out there. In fact, if you spend some time perusing the whiskey aisle, you’ll find a wide selection of high proof whiskeys from some of the most recognizable names in the whiskey game.
“High Proof is a tough category,” says Jim Richard, chef at Red Fish Taco in South Walton, Florida. He continues, ” There are just so many well-made options.” So, where do you start? We’ve got your back.
From Weller to Noah’s Mill to Booker’s, the category is loaded with nuanced, smooth, crowd-pleasers. To find the right bottle for you, we decided to ask the experts for their advice. That’s why we asked some well-known bartenders to tell us their favorite high-proof whiskeys.
Weller Full Proof Bourbon
Pete Stanton, head bartender at Ai Fiori at The Langham in New York City
My favorite high proof whiskey is the Weller Full Proof. It’s so bright and fruity with a little oily texture. It’s probably the easiest drinking “high proof” whiskey. I also love Russell’s Reserve Bourbon and Rye for an inexpensive everyday barrel strength whiskey that isn’t impossible to find. An honorable mention has to go to Elijah Craig barrel proof.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon
Jim Richard, chef at Red Fish Taco in South Walton, Florida
I enjoy Woodford. The “Double Oaked” sips well from the bottle around an open bonfire on the beach or at the hunting camp. On the other hand, I find The WhistlePig in an LED rocks glass with one large ice cube brings out subtle nuances that lend well to social occasions.
J. P. Wiser’s 23-Year-Old Cask Strength Whisky
Gord Hannah, head bartender at The Drake Hotel in Toronto
The J.P Wiser’s 23-year-old Cask Strength Blend from their rare cask series comes in at a whopping 63.4 percent ABV. It’s part of Corby’s latest Northern Border collection and I fell in love with it almost instantly. Cask Strength whiskies amplify every ingredient that goes into making a spirit. Any mistake or imperfection is immediately recognizable to even an untrained palate. The 23-year-old is a masterclass in Canadian farming, distilling, aging, and blending. The high ABV is a power play. It’s as close as you will ever get to a Canadian showing off.
Old Line Cask Strength Whiskey
Ian Clark, bar supervisor at Topside in Baltimore
Old Line Spirits’ American Single Malt Whiskey Cask Strength from Baltimore is my current favorite high-proof whiskey. This whiskey is dense. The brown sugary nature of the malt they use for this whiskey is an excellent complement to the heat from the high proof of this whiskey. Served on a big ice cube or with a splash of water really brings out the complexity and boldness of this whiskey.
Noah’s Mill Bourbon
Tim Wiggins, co-owner and beverage director at The Lazy Tiger Cocktail Bar in St. Louis
I fell in love with Noah’s Mill while working with my wife at a whiskey bar so it will always have a special place in my heart. I love lots of overproof bourbons but none of them are as nostalgic for me as Noah’s Mill.
Brandi Carter, beverage manager at Elvie’s in Jackson, Mississippi
Booker’s True Barrel Bourbon is a great high-proof whiskey because you get all of the burn on the nose but it is very smooth on the palate. It’s pretty much the main bourbon think of when I’m looking for high proof whiskeys.
Old Forester 100 Proof Bourbon
Brooke Baker, general manager at Underdog in New York City
For high proof, I love Old Forester 100 Proof. It’s my go-to for standard old fashioneds and pretty much any other whiskey-based drink. It has enough spice and oakiness to punch through any staple whiskey drink.
Blanton’s Straight From The Barrel Bourbon
Catalina Borer, bartender at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia
Blanton’s Straight From The Barrel high-proof, without hesitation. Picture this, sitting on a rocking-chair, in a peach orchard in Kentucky while enjoying a good ol’ lit American tobacco and sipping honey citrus tea but with a massive kick at over 120 proof. That’s what it tastes like.
Willett Family Estate 4 Year Rye
Westin Galleymore, spirits director at Underbelly Hospitality in Houston
There have been many high-proof whiskeys that could easily make a run for my favorite high-proof whiskey., But as for something recent that one could possibly find without sacrificing their firstborn, it would have to be Willett Family Estate 4 Year Rye. Now, some of the barrel picks really show the absolute infinite badassery that Drew Kulsveen and Willett is capable of. The standard release of the 4 Year Family Reserve Rye is pretty impressive, along with everything else.
Akashi 5-Year Sherry Cask Whisky
Kira Webster, beverage director at Indo in St. Louis
Akashi 5 year Sherry Cask. I’m allergic to alcohol, so my body can’t process it correctly. However, with most rice-based liquor, I don’t tend to flush. Akashi is a rice-based whisky ending with delicious nutty, fruity notes, and doesn’t even taste like it’s 100 proof. So, even if I drink a few glasses of it (which I normally do), I don’t break out.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon
Piero Procida, bartender at The London West Hollywood in Los Angeles
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It’s 120 proof and aged for 9 years in new, charred American oak barrels. It’s a wonderful Whiskey that maintains its character despite higher alcohol content which in itself could have been overpowering. Its age certainly adds more character.
Four Roses Single Barrel Private Selection Bourbon
H. Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor of ELIXIR in San Francisco
Single barrel Four Roses private selections are some of the best bourbons available today. We’ve about sold out of all of ours, but I’m looking to get more and even buy some from other bars and spirit shops that need help liquidating their purchase commitments on those. Usually clocking in around 60 percent across 10 different recipes, you just can’t go wrong. An OBSV (mash bill) is what the standard Four Roses Single Barrel product is (at 50 percent) so to find that at 60 percent it’s amazing. As is the OBSK (my favorite), but every barrel is different.
Stagg Jr. Bourbon
Hayden Miller, head bartender at Bodega Taqueria y Tequila in Miami
This bourbon is all business. You can either take the enamel off your teeth or tone it down with some cubes. But, either way, the 130+ proof is sure to get the job done. This bourbon has a lot of heat straight from the bottle but when you add some water to the equation, the flavors really pull through. It also makes a mean one-and-done old fashioned.