It’s a safe bet that a barrel-proof version of already-well-regarded bourbon is sure to be a hit. As the palates among the bourbon community mature, higher proof and stronger flavor profiles are often sought after. That means there are a lot of barrel-proof bourbons hitting shelves at break-neck speeds these days, especially as we plow headfirst into the holiday season. So we thought, “Let’s throw some new bottles of barrel-proof bourbon into a blind taste test and see how they stack up.”
Barrel-proof bourbon is a bit of a muddy category. The idea that “barrel-proof” automatically means “super high proof” is patently incorrect. It can mean anything from 40% ABV (80 proof) to well over 70% ABV (140 proof), which is into Hazmat whiskey territory. Basically, we’re talking about whiskey that is batched, bottled, and then labeled with the mean proof of those barrels/casks. Or, in the case of a single barrel bottling, the proof of that single cask when bottled.
Moreover, “cask-strength” or “barrel-proof” does not mean “full proof.” The latter refers to the proof that the whiskey went into the barrel. So Weller Full Proof is blended to be 114 proof since that’s the proof that that hot juice went into the barrel. 1792 Full Proof, on the other hand, is blended to hit 125 proof in the bottle, and so on. There absolutely are cask-strength or barrel-proof whiskeys that hit the low 80 proofs (and below) simply because that’s how they came out of the barrel after maturation. All of this is to say that “barrel-proof” bourbon whiskey casts a very wide net, ABV-wise.
That makes them a lot of fun because there’s really something for everyone.
Our lineup today is:
- Kentucky Peerless Double Oak
- George T. Stagg Uncut/Unfiltered 2022
- 291 HR Colorado Bourbon Whiskey Aspen Stave Finished
- Oak & Eden Anthro Series Bourbon Whiskey Finished with a Coffee Soaked Oak Spiral
- Nashtucky Special Release Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 8 Years
- Horse Soldier Reserve Barrel Strength Bourbon Whiskey
- Starlight Distillery Carl T. Huber’s Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Pineau des Charentes Barrels
- Redwood Empire Pipe Dream Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength
Okay, let’s dive in and find you a great barrel-proof bourbon for late fall sippin’!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
Part 1: The Tasting
The nose is beautifully deep with salted butter, old soft leather gloves touched with menthol, soft vanilla beans, and toffee candies dipped in walnuts and dusted with dark chocolate powder. The palate hits on deep yet soft woody spices — allspice berries, star anise, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods — while dark cherry tobacco in an old pine box mingles with salted caramel, black tea leaves, and more of that soft leather. The end mixes dark berries and spiced honey with old porch wood and a moist vanilla white cake with a hint of spiced mint lurking in the background.
This is f*cking delicious. That vanilla cake note at the end was the perfect counterbalance to all the woody and warm spice. Moreover, this didn’t feel hot at all. There was spice and warmth, sure, but it was so well-balanced.
There’s a warmth to the nose here that mingles with sweet waffles, salted dark chocolate, woody maple syrup, and a mocha-vanilla latte with a whisper of sour cherry, old leather, and mulled wine spiciness rounding things out. The ABVs hit the palate with an immediate buzzing numbness that eventually reveal woody winter spices — cinnamon sticks and clove buds especially — next to an eggnog latte with a heavy roast coffee underneath it and dusted with dark chocolate powder and maybe some dried red chili. The end turns the cherry into syrup-y pie filling with a tobacco spiciness just kissed with that dark chocolate and layers with old cedar bark and more of that ABV buzziness that doesn’t taste like burning but isn’t too far away.
This is hot stuff. It’s good but, wow, this really needs a rock to calm it down a bit.
This opens with a rush of fruitiness that leans into candied citrus rinds, apricots, peaches, and maybe some raisins next to butterscotch candies, a touch of nuttiness, and maybe a little cedar wood. The palate leans into that cedar with a cinnamon stick vibe underneath, a touch of toffee, and more stone fruit with a slightly dried edge. The end is lightly fruity with a dried oak vibe and more of those woody spices.
This was pretty woody and fruity. It’s clearly a crafty bourbon. There wasn’t any real heat, which was nice. But this felt kind of like the hazy IPA of whiskey.
The nose on this one is pretty tannic with bitter wood notes and a plasticky version of black licorice Twizzlers next to a whisper of used drip coffee filters and Hersey’s Kisses. The palate adds a little darkness to the waxy chocolate with a hint of dark coffee (still drip) and a hint of menthol tobacco. The end is short and bitter and those plasticky Twizzlers make a comeback.
This is a pretty hard pass from me. It felt more like a flavored whiskey than a bourbon whiskey.
Old lawn furniture and Christmas cookies mingle on the nose with a beautiful mix of old figs, sticky toffee pudding, plenty of mulled wine spice, apricot jam, and a whisper of white pepper warmth. The palate has a nice warmth to it that leans into the spices in a fig pudding and Christmas cake or gingerbread panel next to dried wild sage and cedar bark with a hint of berry tobacco. The end kicks the warmth up with sweetness via a Hot Tamales candy sensation next to old stewed pear jam next to a hint of salted dark chocolate tobacco in an old leather pouch.
This is really freakin’ good. The way it expresses the ABV warmth via Hot Tamales (or Red Hots depending on what you grew up with) and the spices in sweet and earthy holiday cakes is a masterstroke.
There’s a light sense of oatmeal cookies with plenty of cinnamon, walnuts, and raisins next to lemon pepper, vanilla-honey wafers, mulled wine with a slightly sour note next to dark winter spices, freshly chopped firewood, and a hint of saddle soap on the nose. The palate leans into classic caramel sauce with a Vanilla Coke essence next to spiced apple crumble, gingerbread, orange blossoms, and a touch more of that dry firewood. The end brings back those moist oatmeal cookies with plenty of cinnamon, nuttiness, and dark brown sugar ambiance.
This feels like a pretty classic bourbon with a very slight crafty edge. The barrel-proof was hardly noticeable thanks to a solid flavor profile from top to bottom.
The nose opens with a soft sense of sultanas soaked in brandy with an echo of an old cheese cellar with cob-web-strewn oak beams, delicate vanilla wafers with floral honey pressed between them, almond crescent cookies, soft and sweet cinnamon powder, freshly grated nutmeg, and orange and clove stewed marmalade with a hint of savory scone bespeckled with dried currants. The palate builds on the nose with layers of dark berry fruit leather, spiced holiday cakes with dates, allspice, and plenty of almond (and maybe some walnut) next to chestnut chutney cut with orange, pear, sultana, and a good dollop of winter spices with a hint of caramelized dark ale lurking underneath it all. The end is a supple landing in softly spiced and dark fruity bourbon notes by way of a luxurious holiday cake soaked in brandy.
This wins hands down.
It’s just delicious, deep, dark, complex, varied, and … yet … welcoming, familiar, convivial, and easy-drinking enough to really beckon you back for more.
There’s a nice sense of soft leather and dark cherry bark with a velvety vanilla base, plenty of classic bourbon caramel, and a hint of pecan waffles covered in cinnamon butter and maple syrup. The palate has a creamy honey sweetness that leads to Cherry Coke, rich toffee, roasted almond, and Mounds bars. The end leans into woody dark winter spices with a hint of sour cherry, marzipan, and dark cherry tobacco wrapped up with dark chocolate and cinnamon cookies.
This is really nice. Classic. Easy-Drinking.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. Oak & Eden Anthro Series Bourbon Whiskey Finished with a Coffee Soaked Oak Spiral — Taste 4
This new line of whiskeys from Oak & Eden is all about the collaboration between actors, musicians, and artists. In this case, that’s Yellowstone actor Forrie J. Smith. This expression is Oak & Eden’s barrel-proof bourbon whiskey — that’s about four years old and from MGP of Indiana — that’s bottled with an oak spire that’s been infused with coffee.
This just didn’t hit for me at all today. It was so bitter and had real flavored whiskey vibes. This is a pretty hard pass for me.
7. 291 HR Colorado Bourbon Whiskey Aspen Stave Finished — Taste 3
291 HR Bourbon is the Colorado distillery’s “High Rye” bourbon. The whiskey was made when a double dose of malted rye was added to the mash. Once distilled, the hot juice was barreled in new oak with aspen wood staves right in the whiskey. In this case, the whiskey was bottled as-is once it hit just the right spot.
This was very crafty on the fruity end (it’s not grainy really at all). If you’re looking for a young, fruity bourbon, then this is going to be your jam. I can also see this pairing really well with a fruity hazy IPA.
6. George T. Stagg Uncut/Unfiltered 2022 — Taste 2
This year’s return of the Stagg is hewn from whiskey distilled all the way back in 2007 with Kentucky corn, Minnesota rye, and North Dakota barley. The juice was filled into new white oak from Independent Stave from Missouri with a #4 char level (55 seconds). Those barrels were then stored in the famed Warehouse K on the first and fifth floors over 15 years, wherein 75% of the liquid was lost to the angels.
Finally, the barrels were batched and bottled as-is.
This was very nice once you got past those ABVs. It’s just a little too hot to really shine. There’s a lot of great stuff going on with this whiskey’s flavor profile, don’t get me wrong. It’s just a little too overpowered for my taste without a rock to calm it down.
5. Horse Soldier Reserve Barrel Strength Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 6
The bourbon in this bottle was contract distilled in Ohio at Middlewest (but it’s now being made in Kentucky too). The juice is a wheated bourbon that spent eight years mellowing before bottling. Each barrel was hand-picked before being married into a barrel strength expression that’s bottled as-is.
This was a nice whiskey that had a solid balance of warmth and flavor on the palate. Overall, this felt like a great cocktail base that works on the rocks too.
4. Redwood Empire Pipe Dream Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength — Taste 8
This uncut and unfiltered version of Redwood Empire’s beloved bourbon is a four-grain whiskey built from a blend of California, Kentucky, and Indiana whiskeys. The mash ends up being 74% corn, 20% raw rye, 4.5% malt barley, and a mere 1.5% wheat. The barrels in the final blend range from four to 12 years old with the older stuff coming from the Ohio Valley.
This was a classic bourbon with a nice warm middle. I really want to make an old fashioned or whiskey sour with this.
3. Nashtucky Special Release Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 8 Years — Taste 5
This whiskey is part of the new line from the famed Nashville Barrel Company. In this case, barrels were filled in Kentucky and then sent down to Nashville to age for eight years, colliding the worlds of Kentucky bourbon with the Tennessee climate. The results are bottled as-is one barrel at a time.
This is where we get into the “wow” bottles. This is a very well-made whiskey that has serious refinement and depth. It’s also classic and fun. Lastly, the ABVs don’t overshadow the profile like some whiskeys on this list (ahem, Stagg).
2. Kentucky Peerless Double Oak — Taste 1
This whiskey from Kentucky Peerless is around five to six years old and comes from one barrel that lets the grains shine through before it goes into another barrel that lets the oak shine through. That final barrel is bottled at cask strength, as-is, allowing all that beautiful bourbon and oak aging to shine brightly.
This is another great whiskey that has a wonderful balance between those higher ABVs and a deep and almost festive flavor profile. It’s exciting and complex while still feeling like something easy to drink and nostalgic.
1. Starlight Distillery Carl T. Huber’s Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Pineau des Charentes Barrels — Taste 7
This new whiskey from craft-distilling darling Starlight up in Indiana is a masterpiece of distilling and aging. The juice is made from a high-corn mash with a touch of rye and malted barley in the mix alongside local water. The hot spirit goes into new white oak Canton barrels for about four years before it is refilled into hand-picked Pineau des Charentes casks from France (that’s a light grape-forward fortified wine) for a final maturation.
This is delicious. If you can find a bottle, you’ll be in for a real treat that takes extremely well-made bourbon to new heights with subtle and lavish French oak notes.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Interestingly, the lower-proofed barrel-proof bourbons won the day. There’s a real numbing buzziness that can be a lot to get past on some of the higher-proof bourbons out there, especially when tasted neat. Otherwise, the top six bourbons on this list were all really freaking good, don’t get me wrong. Each one had a nice nuance and a very solid flavor profile.
Still, that Starlight finished in Pineau des Charentes Barrels was such a clear standout. I’m still blubbery about how good that flavor profile is. It sticks with you and there’s always something new when you go back in for another nose and taste. Give it a shot if you can!