There’s nothing better than visiting a distillery warehouse and sampling some whiskey straight from the barrel. The heady smell that surrounds you, the cool, musty temperature, the high-proof, unfiltered taste of the liquid … for whiskey fans, this is a divine experience. Fortunately, many brands try to give consumers the next best thing by bottling barrel-proof expressions that have not been watered down to lower the alcohol before bottling. Some barrel-proof whiskeys are minimally filtered to remove bits of char left over from the cask, while others are completely unfiltered.
The great thing about barrel-proof whiskey is not that it’s going to get you drunk really fast, although that’s certainly true. No, the joy in these whiskies is that the flavor and nose are not tamped down by the addition of water, making this the ultimate whiskey drinking experience. Of course, you can lower the ABV of barrel-proof whiskey yourself if you wish by adding some water or ice. But it’s best to at least taste it on its own first — even the hottest whiskeys ranging above 130 proof can be surprisingly easy to drink if they are high-quality spirits. Here are nine barrel-proof American whiskeys to drink now.
Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig expression is a reliable and inexpensive bourbon choice, even though the 12-year-old age statement was removed a few years ago to the dismay of many bourbon fans. The Barrel Proof version of Elijah Craig, however, still retains that age statement, and is non-chill filtered with a proof that ranges from the 120s all the way up to the mid-130s, depending on the batch. There are a few batches released every year. The higher proofs can be a lot to handle, but even with that much heat and bite they are still generally very drinkable, and an ice cube or a bit of water can bring it down to your preferred level.
The final batch of 2019 Booker’s, called Beaten Biscuits, was just released. Every year there are several batches that hit store shelves, and to be honest they are all pretty similar — barrel-proof, uncut, unfiltered Jim Beam bourbon aged for around six years and hovering somewhere around 122-126 proof. But what these releases lack in diversity they make up for in quality. Sure, there are minor differences — a bit more vanilla here, a touch of spice there, some stronger candied fruit notes now and then. Overall, this is dependable cask-strength bourbon for those who like it hot and heavy.
Texas is a big whiskey state, but Andalusia Whiskey Co. is a small distillery there making some very good whiskey. There are three expressions, all 100 proof single malts — Revenant Oak (lightly peated), Stryker (made with malted barley smoked with oak, mesquite, and applewood), and the core Triple-Distilled expression. This trio is available as a gift set at the distillery, with a twist — all are finished in PX sherry barrels and bottled at cask strength, giving some sweet candied fruit and spice notes to the whiskey along with a nice dose of heat. Future barrel-proof releases will include whiskey finished in Mount Gay Rum and Haak Madeira barrels.
Garrison Brothers is another Texas distillery with a hearty barrel-proof expression. The 2019 release of its Cowboy Bourbon clocks in at a very hefty 137.3 proof, so drink this with care. The whiskey was selected by master distiller Donnis Todd from barrels distilled in 2012-2014, which were pulled for the distillery’s single barrel program after four years of aging. From these, Todd picked 140 barrels which he calls “piggy banks,” and these were emptied and mingled for six months last March. Look for notes of Manhattan street-cart roasted walnuts, pipe tobacco, and Arabica coffee, according to Todd. 6,440 bottles were released.
Penelope Bourbon is a young, non-chill filtered whiskey (2-3 years old) distilled at MGP in Indiana and blended and bottled at Castle & Key in Kentucky. This is a pretty easy drinking whiskey, with a barrel proof of 116.6. The recipe is comprised of four grains instead of the more common three, adding wheat to the corn, rye, and malted barley recipe, and is a blend of three different MGP bourbon mash bills. Experienced bourbon drinkers may be looking for something a bit more complex, but this is a good entry point for beginners in the barrel proof whiskey category.
Barrell Bourbon continues its successful run of sourcing and blending bourbon with this latest batch of bourbon, number 22. This one is a bit younger than your usual Barrell release, at just five years old. But that’s just further proof that age doesn’t necessarily equal quality in whiskey, as these Kentucky and Indiana-distilled bourbons pulled from four separate lots are blended together to create a rich and fruity flavor profile with a proof of 116.6.
Angel’s Envy’s latest annual cask strength release was finished in port barrels, as is the core expression, and bottled at 122.4 proof. The finish adds dry spice and sweet prune notes to this already tasty bourbon, which is released in limited quantities. Fans of regular Angel’s Envy looking for a bit more flavor should try this, as the higher ABV brings out a bit more depth of flavor and intensity than the regular 86.6 proof version.
Yes, Templeton has gotten a bad rap over the years for not being forthcoming about where the whiskey is sourced from, acting like this was the same recipe that Al Capone used to drink, etc. That’s sort of changed, although a look around the website doesn’t immediately indicate the fact that the whiskey is distilled at MGP (something that should be a source of pride — MGP makes great whiskey). There is a new distillery up and running now, which is producing whiskey that will be bottled a few years down the road. In the meantime, you can sip some of this 115.8 proof rye that has all the hallmarks of good MGP rye — spicy, fruity, sweet, and full of caramel and oak notes.
This barrel-proof bourbon from Brown-Forman returned this summer for its second release as a 15-year-old whiskey bottled at 131.3 proof. This is another rich and fierce cask-strength bourbon, full of caramel and oak flavors. The brand is based on an old name acquired by B-F in the 1930s and discontinued in 1968, at which time it was a blend. Now it’s back at full volume, and according to master distiller Chris Morris future release volumes will be determined based on the availability of barrels.
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