In the whiskey world, there are a few cut-and-dry phrases. These include terms like Bottled in Bond and small batch. The former means the whiskey in question follows the guidelines created in the Bottled In Bond Act of 1897. This includes aging the whiskey in a federally bonded warehouse and bottling it at 100 proof, among other rules. The latter means whiskey was made by mixing a small number (this number is debatable) of barrels together. One phrase that is open to discussion, however, is barrel proof.
Barrel proof can mean a lot of different things depending on the marketer in charge. “Nominally, it means it’s the exact liquid coming straight from the barrel, uncut with water, and that every drop of liquid in the bottle was previously in a barrel,” says Paul Hletko, founder and master distiller at FEW Spirits in Evanston, Illinois. “In practice, marketers don’t always understand that and apply the term to any bourbon that is over a ‘normal’ proof.”
In the simplest terms, barrel proof or cask strength is used to refer to a whiskey that hasn’t been diluted much (if at all) using water after the maturation process. This results in a high-proof whiskey in the 60- to 70-proof range.
The appeal of barrel-proof whiskey
“There’s a number of reasons drinkers like barrel-proof bourbons, ranging from a desire to add their own amounts of water to a desire to only purchase liquid that was in the barrel,” says Hletko. “Others claim high proof carries the flavor of whiskey better, which is true, but only to a point.”
Many barrel-proof whiskeys aren’t for everyone, though. Because of the high alcohol content, some aren’t great for sipping unless you add a few drops of water. “The alcohol is simply too high to allow most people to savor the flavor after the first sip that blows out their palate,” says Hletko. “They can be great for mixing as the high alcohol levels will stand out more in cocktails if the same volume is poured. Other mixers might just reduce volume in their cocktails and keep the same final alcohol level in the cocktail with smaller poured volumes.”
Now that we know a little bit about barrel-proof bourbons, it’s time to drink some. To help you on your boozy journey, here are 10 of our favorites right now.
10 Barrel-Proof Bourbons to Drink Right Now
1. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
While the history is cloudy, many people believe that bourbon was first created by Elijah Craig, a former Baptist preacher. Specifically, when he decided to age his corn whiskey in charred barrels. Regardless of whether or not this story is true, the brand that carries his name makes one of the best, well-priced barrel-proof bourbons on the market. They release this award-winning bourbon in batches twice per year. While the overall flavor, proof, and recipe changes slightly depending on the batch, you can guarantee you’ll get flavors like fresh leather, toffee, vanilla, and spicy cinnamon sugar.