Cask-strength, also known as barrel-proof or barrel-strength bourbon, is high-proof whiskey — and it’s not for the faint of heart. Straight from the barrel, these bourbons are uncut and typically unfiltered, with no water added, resulting in intense, concentrated flavors — and high alcohol content, upwards of 55 percent ABV, and climbing as high as 80. But their appeal is not all about high-octane booze. Whiskey lovers seek out these bottles for their purity, which allows the ability to customize the proof by adding water or ice.
VinePair asked bartenders from coast to coast which well-priced whiskies they turn to when looking for bottles that pack a punch. Cost is relative when it comes to cask-strength, as this undiluted expression often demands a premium price. But, as these experts can attest, some bottles are worth springing for.
“Right now, I’d say the best ‘bang-for-your-buck’ cask-strength bourbon would be the Four Roses Private Selection Single Barrel. Four Roses releases a yearly cask-strength edition of their Small Batch, which can run you a pretty penny, but the Private Selection Single Barrel is an exclusive release for BevMo, personally selected by Jim Rutledge, master distiller for Four Roses Bourbon. At 56.1 percent ABV and right around $100 for a 750-milliliter bottle, it’s definitely one to snag while it lasts!” — Stephanie Reading, Bar Manager, Birdie G’s, Santa Monica, Calif.
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“I think Stagg Jr. is the best bang for your buck for cask-strength. It’s a little more pricey than Knob Creek or Elijah Craig or Maker’s [Mark] Cask Strength, but it is so much better. It is well-balanced, has a beautiful finish, and packs just the right amount of heat. This bottle is for the connoisseur, either to use in high-end, at-home cocktails, or to sip on a cold night by the fire.” — Hannah Brunner, Bartender, Lost Lake, Chicago
“I am a big fan of Wild Turkey Rare Breed. It has a special place in my heart from when I managed a whiskey bar, and often drank pours while cleaning up the bar. It has such a creamy mouthfeel without being too hot or heavy.” — Tim Wiggins, Co-owner/Bar Manager, Yellowbelly and Retreat Gastropub, St. Louis
“Barrell Craft Spirits are in the ‘cask-strength’ business. It’s what they do. All of their limited-edition bourbons are totally pure, without chill filtration and at barrel strength, to bring you as close as possible to the experience of drinking from the cask. There’s an array to choose from, and all come in under $100, so you can pick one that hits all your preferences, or get a little adventurous!” — Maureen Shannon, Head Bartender, In the Valley, Philadelphia
“Smooth Ambler Old Scout Single Barrels have been popping up all over. The older, 10-plus-year-old single barrels are incredible, and the newer, 5-ish-year barrel-strength picks have been calling my name when I get home from a shift lately. [They’re] easy drinking for being high proof, and incredibly affordable, usually around $50 to $55.” — Zach Cable, Bar Manager, Leon’s Full Service, Decatur, Ga.
“Most of my favorite cask-strength bourbons are a bit pricey, so it’s hard to pin down a great ‘deal.’ That said, the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is pretty hard to turn down. It’s relatively easy to find, and despite the high proof, it’s actually remarkably balanced. Oftentimes, a high-proof bourbon just ends up tasting like ethanol, especially cheaper options, but this one maintains the aromatic complexity that I want in a bourbon, and has quite a nice palate. It does pack quite a punch, though!” — Gavin Humes, Bartender, Scratch | Bar & Kitchen, Los Angeles
“Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is one of my favorite bang-for-your-buck, cask-strength bourbons. I like that the roundness of the wheated base of Maker’s is given more complexity by enhancing the oak and spice notes with its increased proof. I also love that Maker’s unique bottle design, with its hand-dipped wax top, was designed by a woman of whiskey, Margie Samuels, its co-founder. It’s reasonably priced, delicious, and has a wonderful story behind it.” — Crystal Chasse, Beverage Director, Talk Story Rooftop, McCarren Hotel, Brooklyn
“If you can find it, Weller Full Proof has been my favorite cask-strength release of the past several years. When you take the typical Weller flavor profile of green apple or honey and concentrate it, it begins to take on these delightful cherry and medicinal notes [of] anise or mint. The wheat content makes this far softer than most cask-strength releases on the market, so this is a delight to sip straight out of the bottle. Add ice if you please, but only a few drops of water are necessary.” — Andrew Nichols, Head of Mixology, Atlas Restaurant Group, Baltimore
“Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is one of my absolute favorite bourbons, regardless of price. It has a robust nose of caramel and oak, and the finish is spicy and sweet. It also has the unique ability to be cask-strength [without] letting the ethanol shine through — I think mostly due to aging it 12 years.” — Sean Umstead, Owner, Kingfisher and QueenBurger, Durham, N.C.
“If I’m going to pick a bang-for-your-buck, barrel-strength bourbon, I would say Larceny’s Barrel Proof. It’s wheated and offers toasty bready notes with some cinnamon on the nose. On the tongue, it won’t dry you out and has cherry [and] vanilla hints. It drinks easy for a barrel-proof.” — Gregory Huston, Lead Bartender, Elm & Good, Dallas
“Cask-strength bourbons wear their hearts on their sleeves, leaving no flavor to the imagination. I keep going back to Kings County Barrel Strength Bourbon for its truly powerful and seemingly endless string of palate-tickling deliciousness. Dried cherry, dried cranberry, and roasted chestnuts on the nose melt into a palate of ripe fig, black plum, walnut, and Madagascar vanilla. The price is under $100, but they offer multiple bottle sizes, so you can adjust to your budget and snag it for a tasting.” — Jeremy Fowler, Wine and Beverage Director, Zuma, NYC
“I’m going to fudge the rules a little bit on this question, but I think it’ll be OK. My favorite cask-strength bourbon is the Angel’s Envy Cask Strength, which is finished in lovely port barrels and comes in a gorgeous wooden box but sets you back a couple hundred bucks. So while I love it, I don’t suppose it qualifies for the ‘bang-for-your-buck’ category. Not many great cask-strength bourbons do. But one that I love for its high-rye mash bill and have utilized behind the bar for years is Old Grand-Dad 114 — technically not cask-strength, as it is slightly diluted for consistency’s sake, but it’s very high-proof nonetheless and clocks in at around $30. You really can’t beat that in the high-proof category.” — Kristel Poole, General Manager, Corpse Reviver Cocktail Bar, Durham, N.C.
“Personally, I choose Laws as my favorite bang for your buck cask-strength bourbon. Why? Well, it’s delicious, with wonderful notes of vanilla, leather, caramel, and so many other flavors and aromas I search for in a great bourbon. But what you can’t find in most other bourbon is the care and effort the team at Laws puts in. [They’re] a team of dedicated people, doing things the right way, with the right ingredients, making something that is one of my favorite bourbons around. You can replicate flavor, but you can’t replicate hard work and the time it takes to make something special.” — Joseph Shirghio, General Manager and Master Mixologist, Bowen House, Dallas
“Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. I love the pronounced fruit and caramel flavors with a nutty finish that lend themselves nicely to stirred classics. This is a must-have for someone who is looking for a full-flavored, rounder bourbon. It’s rare to see an unallocated bourbon with over 10 years of age at an everyday, mid-shelf price.” — Pete Stanton, Head Bartender, Ai Fiori at The Langham, NYC
“For barrel-proof bourbon, I really like Wild Turkey Rare Breed. It’s got some really complex notes on the nose — anise, burnt sugar, and rye spice — and the higher proof really lengthens and extends the complex palate.” — Laura Newman, Owner, Queen’s Park, Birmingham, Ala.