High-proof spirits may only seem useful for those wanting to get their buzzes faster, but in fact, there’s a more artisanal reason why whiskey enthusiasts would want their liquor to be at cask strength. While most distilleries dilute their moonshine after it leaves the barrel to either save money or lessen the ABV percentage to make the bourbon more drinkable, some serious drinkers prefer to dilute or customize their bourbon to their own liking. There’s a school of thought that actually argues that the flavor of bourbon whiskey is enhanced, not marred, by adding some water. In fact, the science is there to back it up, with water shown to open up the taste of the liquor. So then it’s understandable why faithful connoisseurs would want that power in their own hands.
Bourbon, by regulation, must be a minimum of 40% ABV when bottled, but cask-strength — or barrel-proof — bourbon is typically between 52 to 66% ABV. Higher than that may be considered “still strength.” Additionally, to combat false advertising, government stipulations permit cask-strength labels from carrying bourbon that’s any more than 1% ABV less than when it left the barrel. Of course, enjoying a hotter alternative to regular bourbon whiskey is also preferred by some drinkers. If you’re on that same level or simply want to dip your toe into the hot water, check out our guide to the best cask-strength bourbons to drink.
Old Grand-Dad 114
As the name implies, Old Grand-Dad’s 114 is indeed 114 proof. With its 80-proof variety ranking as one of the top ten best-selling straight whiskeys on the market, this Jim Beam subsidiary has been at it since the 1800s with budget bottles that look like something your old man — or his father — would imbibe upon. Made in Kentucky, this barrel-proof version has a higher rye percentage in its mashbill, showcasing notes of orange peel and tobacco on the nose and palate, with heat coming from the alcohol percentage and a notable spice coming from the rye.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
There’s a certain magic that happens when you take Wild Turkey out of the barrel after a few years and don’t do anything to it. With a high-proof whiskey on the lower end of the spectrum at just under 113 proof, Rare Breed blends 6-, 8-, and 12-year barrels for one of the most drinkable cask-strength bourbons you can find without having to dilute it with water. The nose opens with floral tones, as well as hints of black pepper, honey, and almonds before expressing a warm and smoky grain on the tongue, giving way to a long spice-filled finish.
Bulleit Barrel Strength Bourbon
Bulleit’s high-proof version of its flagship high-rye bourbon was conceived as a chance to taste one of the most beloved moonshines in the country straight from the cask. The result is this award-winning Barrel Strength bottle, which possesses a surprising complexity considering that its alcohol content lies somewhere between 120 and 25 proof, depending on the batch. Not surprisingly, the 200-year-old distillery has given us one of the best cask-strength whiskeys on the shelf, displaying notes of maple, oak, and nutmeg, with a long finish of toffee and oak.
Barrell Bourbon Batch 023
The folks over at Barrell are purists when it comes to their bourbon. Each bottle released by the distillery has nothing added to it, not even water for dilution. While all of its batches are incredibly crafted, sourcing ingredients from all over the world while marrying moonshines from across several states, Batch 023 is one of the best it’s ever concocted, blending 10-, 12-, and 15-year old barrels from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana. This unique approach also allows for one of the most interesting profiles out there, with notes ranging from currant to black licorice, and even catnip. Bottled at under 108 proof, this is one cask-strength whiskey you can definitely sip neat.
Since 1987, Booker’s Bourbon has routinely made some of the best small-batch bourbon whiskeys in the country. However, few outsiders know its name simply because of the distillery’s refusal to advertise or partake in social media. Another purist, the Kentucky-based label was launched by Jim Beam Master Distiller Booker Noe II, shortly before he coined the term “small batch bourbon.” All of Booker’s Bourbons are bottled at cask strength, with the distillery releasing only a few batches per year, accompanied with every bit of detail on each one.
Any diehard bourbon fanatic will tell you legends of George T. Stagg, one of the most highly-coveted whiskeys you can get your hands on — if you can get your hands on it. Stagg may cost you a pretty penny, but its cask-strength “son,” Stagg Jr., is slightly more within range. With a single batch released each distilling season (2 per year) since 2013, this high-proof runs the gamut of 126 to 134.4 proof. As an offshoot of George T. Stagg, this hotter alternative displays similar notes of chocolate, brown sugar, cherries, cloves, and undeniable smoke.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Named after the father of bourbon himself, and the first man to char the inside of his barrels, Elijah Craig is a Kentucky-based distillery with quite a lot of superb whiskeys. Perhaps its best label is the Barrel Proof, likely due to how it’s able to put its finger on what makes the brand so incredible, letting us taste the essence of the moonshine itself. Aged for 12 years and made in small batches, this bourbon burns at around 125 proof, depending on the batch, but has hit as high as 140.2 (ouch!). This high-octane hooch features an aggressive palate with notes of vanilla, butterscotch, black pepper, and cinnamon, with a layered finish.
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon
Founded by the creator of Woodford Reserve and Gentleman Jack, Angel’s Envy is Lincoln Henderson’s only-ever independent label. For ten years now, the Kentucky-based distillery has released an annual cask-strength version of its flagship straight bourbon, which has become recognized for having a unique profile thanks to its port barrel finish and selling out rather quickly upon going live. A bouquet of apple, banana, and stone fruit leads to palate notes of leather, apple, toffee, vanilla, and oak, with a finish of tannins and black tea.
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel
Already one of the archetypes of high-end bourbon, Kentucky’s own Blanton’s has taken its single-barrel model, which it popularized back in the ‘80s, to a new level with Straight from the Barrel, with bourbon whiskey deriving from the same warehouse as its coveted private reserve label. With an alcohol content of around 125 proof, this cask-strength bourbon was made for connoisseurs of high-proof whiskey in mind, featuring a bouquet of dark chocolate, caramel, and butter on the nose, with notes of vanilla, oak, toasted nuts, butterscotch, and honey on the palate, leading into a deep finish.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof
Named in honor of Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr., a 19th-century whiskey maker who launched O.F.C. and Carlisle, the progenitors of today’s Buffalo Trace, Colonel E.H. Taylor has become a high-end Kentucky staple for its single-batch bourbons from hand-selected barrels. The company’s cask-strength variety very much expresses how and why those barrels are hand-selected, with an unparalleled process that yields smooth, yet fiery moonshine which bears notes of vanilla, oak, pepper, and spice, giving way to a long and strong rye and fruit finish.
The 10 Best High-Rye Bourbons to Drink
If you’re exploring some alternative bourbon styles such as cask strength, you should also peruse our guide to the best high-rye bourbons to drink.