As autumn slides into winter and the wind turns from brisk to chilly, bourbon drinkers’ reach more and more for the warming, full-bodied experience offered by cask strength bourbon.
Usually filtered only to the extent necessary to remove particulates (like bits of barrel charcoal, aka man cave potpourri) and uncut by water, this is as close as most can get to the experience of drinking directly from the barrel.
Barrel proof bourbon is potent stuff, so much so that even the most ardent diehard finds it necessary to dial some expressions down by adding water. That is the main virtue of barrel strength bourbon, in fact: you get to dial down the heat and decide where the best balance between full-bodied flavor and raw ballsy-ness is for yourself. Whether you take barrel strength whiskey down a notch or not, however, you’ll find it puts sufficient warmth in your belly to greet the iciest February day. In a cocktail, you can count on barrel proof whiskeys to stand out and show their character, whatever else you put in the glass with them.
1792 Full Proof
Ironically, my first choice isn’t barrel proof; instead, it’s full proof. The distinction ‘full proof’ bourbon is cut back to the strength at which the new make bourbon originally entered into the barrel. For 1792, that is 125-proof, still very high octane and higher than some other barrel proof bourbons. Moreover, 1792 Full Proof got the “World Whisky of the Year” crown in Whisky Bible 2020.
Named by legendary Jim Beam Master Distiller Booker Noe after himself, batches of Booker’s these days are roughly 6 ½ years-old and come in at between 121- and 132-proof. In recent times this bourbon has been released in four distinct batches per year (the current is “Beaten Biscuits,”) each named for an aspect of Booker Noe’s life and career. This makes it a lot easier to identify individual batches, which can vary quite a bit in terms of both strength and flavor profile.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
For purists, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof represents much more than just being a stronger expression of Heaven Hill’s premium bourbon. When the company turned Elijah Craig from a 12-year-old into No Age Statement bourbon in 2016, they left the Barrel Proof version as is. It’s discretely stated, but Elijah Craig Barrel Proof remains a 12-year-old, and thus middle-aged, as well as pretty strong bourbon, and a throwback to what the brand was when first created back in the mid-1980s.
Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon
Cowboy Bourbon is the Texas-sized bourbon from one of the forerunners of craft whiskey. As they go about preparing other releases, the folks at Garrison Brothers set aside barrels that show promise for extra aging. These become the barrel proof Cowboy Bourbon, and it’s such an anticipated whiskey that the annual release at the distillery in Hye, Texas, has grown into the kind of event that fans camp out for.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Among bourbon brands, Wild Turkey is arguably the one most associated with strong whiskey. Whereas the flagship bourbons of their peers are 80- or 90-proof, Wild Turkey’s mainstay is 101-proof. Rare Breed is their barrel strength expression, taking what was meant to be fairly strong and going all the way with it. Batches in recent years have floated between 112- and 117-proof.