For many whiskey lovers, there’s nothing better than the taste of bourbon straight from the barrel: unfiltered and uncut, and as close to untouched as you can get at retail. While 80 proof (40% ABV) is the lowest legally allowed alcohol level for bourbon, and many releases are less than 100 proof, barrel-proof or cask-strength bourbon is typically in the range of 110 proof and higher.
Some bottles, like certain bottlings of George T. Stagg, even soar above so-called hazmat levels—140 proof, which legally can’t be brought on an airplane (even in your checked luggage).
Many of the top barrel proof bourbons are highly acclaimed limited releases—meaning they can be tough to find and cost a pretty penny. But luckily, a few distilleries offer a widely-available taste of their full-strength products at a reasonable price.
Yes, $75 may seem a tad high for an everyday whiskey, but remember, you’re getting more bang for your buck. Few folks want to drink a barrel-proof bourbon as-is; the point is that you can add water to proof it down to your own taste. If you use our handy calculator to determine exactly how much water to add, you’ll be able to stretch your bottle and ensure you’re getting the perfect pour every time.
Note: As barrel-proof offerings will naturally vary from barrel-to-barrel and batch-to-batch, the below list represents the most recent reviews from our Buying Guide. Generally, newer or older batches will have a fairly similar ABV, flavor profile, and price.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof—94 points, $65
A 12 year old bourbon from Heaven Hill, this whiskey is released in batches three times a year. It offers an incredibly flavor-packed combo of leather, caramel, nougat, and a certain nuttiness, with just a hint of chocolate, leather, and allspice. More spiciness appears in the finish, though the product never gets out of balanced and remains surprisingly easy-sipping. (Whisky Advocate ranked Batch B517, which was 62.1% ABV, as number one in the 2017 Top 20.)
Booker’s—92 points, $73
One of the first ever barrel-proof bourbons on the market when it was released in 1988, this Jim Beam Small Batch Collection whiskey remains one of the most easy-to-find in the category. It comes out four times a year; the most recently rated batch, 2017-04 “Sip Awhile,” clocked in at 64.05% ABV. Strong notes of peanut butter pervade on the nose with just a hint of dark cherries and caramelized sugar. On the palate you’ll find pecan pie, butterscotch, and Reese’s peanut butter cups. This is a bold and potent bourbon with an incredibly long finish.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength—93 points, $50
A fairly recent release for Maker’s Mark, this high-octane wheater (56.6% ABV) shows a maturity and complexity not found in standard Maker’s. A ton of vanilla and caramel on the nose leads into a body whose wheaty sweetness makes the bourbon sippable and smooth despite the high proof. Notes of cinnamon, leather, and a touch of charcoal keep it from becoming cloying. The finish is pleasant, with just a hint of heat.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed—90 points, $45
While Wild Turkey has several high-proof offerings, Rare Breed is their only widely available barrel-proof bourbon. It comes out in periodic batches and is typically a blend of 6, 8, and 12 year old barrels; the 2017 release has an ABV of 58.4%. The whiskey boasts a nose of dark caramel, butterscotch, and cinnamon. On the palate, cinnamon, mint, and citrus peel creep in with a touch of rye on the backend. The finish is long and warming, with just the right amount of tannin.
Stagg Jr.—83 points, $50
With George T. Stagg having become one of the most ballyhooed—and impossible to find—bourbon releases each year, most drinkers who don’t know a guy will have to opt for George’s little brother. That’s not so bad—Stagg Jr. (67.2% ABV when last reviewed) is nearly as bold, flavor-wise, and a tad more aggressive due to its youth. A spicy, charred nose leads into a body that is heavy on the cacao nibs with cherries, blackberries, and just a touch of char. The finish is leathery and drying.
Store Private Barrel Picks—$55 and up
Many retail stores—both national chains and tuned-in mom and pop operations—offer their own single barrel “picks” from popular distilleries, many of which are bottled at barrel proof. Major chains which frequently offer these include, but are not limited to, Total Wine & More, Binny’s Beverage Depot, BevMo, and the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. Look for private picks of Four Roses Private Selection (which are offered in recipes that differ from the standard single barrel release), Maker’s Mark Cask Strength (which have often been customized with finishing casks made of bespoke staves), Smooth Ambler Old Scout, and Barrell Bourbon. Store picks can offer excellent value and exciting variety as there’s always something new to taste.