Cask-strength bourbon, sometimes labeled barrel-proof or barrel-strength, is a potent, uncut, and unfiltered subcategory beloved by whiskey aficionados. Bottled straight from the barrel without the addition of water, the resulting product is as close to a pure, untouched expression as you can find.
With an alcohol content greater than 50 percent ABV, these punchy treasures are coveted by bartenders for their bold and concentrated flavors that shine in cocktails. For those who prefer to sip their whiskey straight, cask-strength bourbons are typically diluted with ice or water to fit the drinker’s desired strength.
Often released in small batches, high-proof bourbons can often come with intimidating price tags. To find out which brands experts turn to for that sweet spot in between price and value, we asked bartenders from around the country to share their go-to bottles. Keep reading for their recommendations.
Cask-Strength Bourbons That Offer the Best Bang for Your Buck:
- Old Grand-Dad 114
- Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof
- Booker’s Bourbon
- Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
- Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
- W. L. Weller Full Proof
- George Dickel Single Barrel 15 Year Old
- Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof
- Laws Whiskey House Four Grain Straight Bourbon Cask Strength
- Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon Finished in Port Wine Barrels
- Brother’s Bond Original Cask Strength Straight Bourbon
“Bourbon that is heavy on the rye, Old Grand Dad 114 is remarkably smooth for its strength. Spicy with a touch of sweet, this spirit packs a punch and isn’t for the faint of heart.” —Karl Paredes, head bartender, Big Alma, San Francisco
“If we are solely basing ‘bang for your buck’ on proof versus price, you can’t go wrong with Old Grand-Dad 114, Jim Beam Distillery. This is a big, bold whiskey that, at 114 proof, can sneak up on you if you’re not careful. It can generally be found for under $30, but the complexity and rustic charm of this whiskey, due in part to a much higher rye mash bill compared to most bourbons in this range, definitely makes it a great bottle to add to any home bar.” —Mathew Resler, bartender, Bar Goto and Bar Goto Niban, NYC/Brooklyn
“I’m partial to Colonel E.H. Taylor Cask Strength for not just its price point value, but how it maintains a smoothness to the mouthfeel despite the higher ABV.” —Kai Wilson, beverage director, Mercat a la Planxa, Chicago
“Booker’s Bourbon: readily available, from an iconic distillery, and part of a range of small-batch bourbons that broke the category wide open long before it was cool to be above the regular bonded mark. Are there newer, cheaper ones on the market? Sure, but Booker’s is a legacy brand — and for very good reason.” —Iain Griffiths, creative director, Hidden Leaf, Midnight Cafe, and Midnight Theatre, NYC
“I’m a huge fan of Booker’s Bourbon. It is never too hot. It is always super balanced between baking spice, sweetness, and heat. It is always delicious, no matter the manner in which it is served (neat, rocks, with mixers), and it is always changing, as they make four to six different batches each year. Usually by the time I finish a bottle of one batch, the next batch is right around the corner, ready to provide a wholly different drinking experience. While I drink mine neat, drink it how you enjoy it.” —Charles Friedrichs, principal bartender, The Jones Assembly, Oklahoma City, Okla.
“It’s hard to beat Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. At 12 years old, around $70 at most retailers, this overproof bottle hits all those classic historic bourbon notes perfectly displayed in Heaven Hill products. Easy to find; easier to drink.” —Laura Unterberg, head bartender, The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club, Nashville
“Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon is the next step up from regular Maker’s Mark (a great entry-level bourbon with sweet and smooth flavors) with all the wheat-y goodness amplified.” —Mary Ellen Angel, owner, Angel Share, Houston
“My go-to for a high value, high proof is always Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. While some may think Maker’s is too sweet, those feelings are tempered by the heat of this 113 proof bourbon. The brand has their own water source on the property that renders a beautifully soft finished product.” —Clay Reynolds, beverage director, Uccello Lounge, San Francisco
“When it comes to best value, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is definitely my pick. It’s an incredibly rich bourbon, with flavors of caramel, vanilla, and oak. The flavors blend seamlessly, and it can easily be used in any of your favorite bourbon-based cocktails, from an Old Fashioned to Manhattan to Julep, or simply to sip on the rocks or neat. The ABV ranges from 108 to 114 proof, so it’s definitely not a beginner bourbon.” —Federico Doldi, director of food & beverage, Gansevoort Meatpacking, NYC
“I like W. L. Weller Full Proof (when I get my hands on it) for a reasonably priced cask-strength bourbon option. It comes in at 114 proof and is not chill filtered, which leads to a really unique bourbon. It has a lot of creamy pastry notes on the nose and strong oaky vanilly tones on the palate. It has a rich and opulent and round mouthfeel that has a bold, long finish. Overall, it’s a really balanced and unique bourbon, and it’s a real treat when it’s available.” —Michael Fifelski, bar manager, The Harvey House, Madison, Wis.
“I’ve always been a huge Dickel fan — the Single Barrel 15 Year is one of my favorite of their expressions. All bottled by hand at cask-strength. While each bottle may vary slightly in flavor, the core components of what makes Dickel special are able to shine super bright in their single barrel expressions. Bonus: It’s friendly enough to your checking account to not only sip with a big rock, but mix to enjoy a bolder cocktail.” —Phil Collins, beverage director, TableOne Hospitality (Mother Tongue, Los Angeles/La Société Bar & Cafe, San Francisco), NYC
“Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof: Bottled at 58.4 percent ABV, a slight increase from previous years, it’s a blend of 6- to 12-year-old barrels, which is known to be Jimmy Russels’s preferred age for bourbon. I think it’s one of the longest-running barrel-proofs on the market. With its price tag running around the $40 to $60 dollar mark, it’s safe to see why people come back to this expression. Notes of orange, citrus, tobacco, and leather intertwine with toffee and maple. Sit back and savor the goodness!” —Darron Foy, bar manager, The Flatiron Room, NYC
“Wild Turkey Rare Breed: To me, bang for your buck means the best versatile spirit at the best possible price without sacrificing quality, strength, or character — something you can really enjoy on its own without breaking the bank. Wild Turkey Rare Breed does exactly that. On the nose, you get a bouquet of aromatics predominantly consisting of spice, toasted vanilla, and cracked black pepper with lingering toasted wood mid-tones. Caramel and peppery spice dominate the tasting notes, while heated spices and honey finish off this beauty and set it apart from the rest within its range.” —Cristian Ocampo, bartender and bourbon master, Alma Cocina Latina, Baltimore
“There are so many bourbons on the market these days, it can be hard to pick a horse to put your money on. When in doubt, I always reach for the tried and true. Originally released in 1991, Wild Turkey Rare breed has changed proof over the years but remains a top choice for me when reaching for a barrel-proof bourbon. I like that this whiskey is on the lower end of the 125 cask-strength limit. I love enjoying this with a few rocks after a long shift, and it’s not going to end my night after one. It’s got great honeyed and almond notes on the nose with a long, spicy finish.” —David Muhs, head bartender, Sama Street, Brooklyn
“For me, Laws Whiskey House Four Grain Straight Bourbon Cask Strength is the best option, coming in at just below $100. I’ve been privileged with the opportunity to meet the team behind this beautiful bourbon — their distillery is actually a few blocks from my bar. To taste Colorado is to drink Laws, their grains being sourced directly from the Whiskey Sisters on the Eastern Plains and the Cody’s in San Luis Valley. Each expression is different due to the use of local heirloom grains, but the current bottle I have open has strong rye notes on the nose, with clove and ginger on the palate. Orange blossom and vanilla join for a lingering finish that perfectly captures the essence of Colorado.” —Michael Sievers, bar manager, Joy Hill, Denver
“Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey is my favorite whiskey that meets the mark of a great whiskey at a reasonable price. This bourbon is finished in ruby port casks, which subtly adds distinct flavor nuances that enhance the whiskey without challenging it. It’s a diverse bourbon that can stand alone, neat, and even perform nicely in your favorite whiskey cocktails like the Old Fashioned or Manhattan, and even makes a beautiful Whiskey Sour (don’t forget the egg). On the palate, you have notes of raisiny dark fruit, cocoa, peanuts, and baking spice. This is by far one of the best whiskeys you could sip on without breaking the bank.” —Angelo Medrano, beverage director, Mister French & Asiatique, NYC
“Brother’s Bond Original Cask Strength Straight Bourbon is made of exceptional quality and at the same time offers remarkable value. It’s made from three different mash bills to create a four-grain straight bourbon that is richly nuanced and harmonious — and unlike many cask-strength bourbons that scorch the palate, this bourbon strikes an exquisite balance with hints of honeysuckle and orange, along with a cereal grain profile that makes this bourbon feel familiar. Perfectly at ease at family barbecues or a companion on rugged adventures; pleasing on its own or in a mixed drink.” —Jason Hedges, certified sommelier and director of beverage, Laurent Tourondel Hospitality’s L’Amico, The Vine, Skirt Steak NYC, NYC