There's nothing quite like the utterly sublime experience of sipping a barrel-proof or cask-strength whiskey. In fact, it's the closest you'll get to drinking whiskey straight from the barrel aside from, well, literally drinking whiskey straight from the barrel.
These releases are uncut, meaning no water is added to the liquid before bottling, as is normally done to lower the proof. And sometimes they are even unfiltered, which means you might find a little bit of char at the bottom of your glass – just look at it as some extra flavor.
The ABV of these whiskeys is often high, in the range of 55-65 percent, so it often helps to add water or a large ice cube that will melt slowly – this brings down the proof a bit and opens up the flavor.
Barrel proof whiskey gives you "all the flavors that are natural in aging," says Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell, "such as the fatty acids and proteins, and the flavors are very robust and not watered down." But these extra boozy spirits can also be used in cocktails.
"High proof spirits really add an element of complexity and a wide range of possibilities to a cocktail," says Doug Kragel, Bulleit national brand ambassador.
"The bold and full bodied nature of the whiskey acts as a great base for bartenders to really play with large flavors that may not hold up to a more delicate whiskey." He recommends a cocktail called "Tradition" made with Bulleit Barrel Strength:
1 oz. Bulleit Barrel Strength
1 Dash Aromatic Bitters
1 Dash Dry Curaçao
1 Bar Spoon Gomme Syrup
Directions: Stir ingredients and pour over ice. Garnish with a lemon peel.
Of course, there's no better way to enjoy your whiskey than straight from the bottle into the glass, perhaps with a splash of water or ice cube, depending on your preference.
With that in mind, here are ten of the best barrel-proof whiskeys you can drink right now.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
The current release of Wild Turkey Rare Breed comes in a newly designed bottle, but the 116.8 proof whiskey within is as good you'd expect from past releases. The signature Wild Turkey flavor is amplified with even stronger hints of spice and vanilla in this blend of 6, 8, and 12-year-old bourbon.
Knob Creek 25 Anniversary
A quarter century ago, Jim Beam Master Distiller Booker Noe created the Knob Creek brand for the Beam Small Batch portfolio. To commemorate this momentous occasion, Booker's son and current Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe made this special 25th Anniversary Limited Edition. This bracingly fine bourbon is uncut and filtered only to remove the barrel char. It's a single barrel release, so bottles of 12 to 13-year-old whiskey vary slightly in proof, ranging somewhere between 120-125.
Booker's Blue Knights Batch 2017-02
Booker's is another Jim Beam release, but this one is all barrel-proof all the time. This particular batch is just over six years old, and clocks in at a hefty 127.4 proof. The bourbon is another creation from former Beam master distiller Booker Noe, who it is named after, and this batch is also a tribute to a motorcycle club he was fond of.
Maker's Mark Private Select
Maker's Mark released a cask-strength version of its wheated bourbon back in 2015. The distillery also has a Private Select program where you can essentially customize your own bourbon. Participants can choose from a variety of oak staves, each of which imparts a different flavor, that are then put into a single barrel of Maker's for an additional period of time. The result is a cask-strength whiskey that is created in a similar way to Maker's 46.
Bulleit Barrel Strength
The popular Bulleit Bourbon came out with a barrel strength expression that was only available in Kentucky, but fortunately it's rolling out in cities around the rest of the country now. It's not overpoweringly strong at just above 119 proof, but the flavor and complexity is definitely far beyond what you expect from regular Bulleit.
Redemption Whiskey Barrel Proof
The MGP-sourced whiskey from Redemption is always a solid and affordable bet, especially the rye and the high rye bourbon. Originally released as a more expensive limited edition offering, as of last summer Redemption has a few barrel proof options that are more widely available. There's an 8-year-old Straight Rye, 9-year-old Straight Bourbon, and 9-year-old High Rye Bourbon. The proofs range from about 109 to 122, depending on which expression you choose.
Spade & Bushel 10 Year Old Cask Strength Irish Whiskey
The Connacht Whiskey Company has started distilling and is currently aging its whiskey in warehouses on the Emerald Isle. In the meantime, the distillery has managed to source some fine aged whiskey and is bottling this single malt at cask strength (115 proof). If you enjoy Irish whiskey, you'll love this bold but still smooth and malty dram.
This under appreciated Speyside single malt Scotch is one of the best, with its intense sherry flavors and sweet yet slightly spicy bite. "A'bunadh" means "the original" in Gaelic. The whisky is aged in Oloroso sherry butts for an unspecified length of time, but each batch contains whisky both young and old. Batch 56 clocks in at about 121 proof, and is an eternally enjoyable sipping dram.
Nadurra is the only cask-strength Scotch in the Glenlivet catalogue, and it's also one of the best from this best-selling whisky brand. There are several different types of Nadurra – first fill, Oloroso matured, and peated. The ABV for this range hovers between 54 and 58 percent, adding some kick to the light and enjoyable Glenlivet flavor.
Kavalan Sherry and Port Series
These Taiwanese whiskies are not cheap – the cheapest is $299, the most expensive $699. But if you're game to drop the cash, this cask-strength, single barrel collection will surely satisfy whisky drinkers looking for interesting flavors that come from experimenting with different casks. The proof ranges from 100 – 120, and there are four different kinds of sherry cask expressions and one port cask whisky available as of this spring.