Anyone who I’ve shared a pour with knows that the center of my whiskey world lies with the higher proof bourbons that have become so prevalent on the market. Almost every major brand has an expression labeled cask strength, barrel strength, barrel proof – if there’s a creative way to label a bourbon to call out its proof, it’s been done. As with my last column featuring five easy to find bourbons under $60, I will try to stay away from the allocated and ultra-rare bottles – Weller Full Proof, Blanton’s SFTB, EH Taylor Barrel Proof, and so on. While those bottles are certainly (if you know, you know) MORE than worthy of this list, it’s fairly unlikely that you’re going to stumble across one in your local bottle shop without paying three to five times MSRP – if you are lucky. While some of the bottles I chose for this list can occasionally be found marked up, I have found all of them just sitting on a shelf for retail at one time or another in recent months. I’d expect if you do your homework, you’ll be able to find one or all of these out there in the wild. For this list, I counted a higher proof bourbon as anything above the “Bottled-In-Bond” level of 100 proof and capped it at a reasonable number – I tried to stay away from the ‘hazmat’ level that takes a little more experience to get used to. Some of you may not consider 104 proof a higher proof bourbon (see Small Batch Select) but for some of you tequila drinkers, that 104 will pack quite a punch! So, without further ado, let’s get this introduction to the world of higher proof bourbons started!
Four Roses Small Batch Select – $54.99 – 104 Proof
I included the Four Roses SBS on this list for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s a fantastic pour that serves as a reasonable (and delicious) gateway to the land of the higher proofs. Secondly, I originally intended to include it on my list of easy to find bottles under $60 – but I happened to be out of it and was eager to get the article done. So, now that I have gone out and grabbed a new bottle, I’m free to talk about it. I first discovered this bottle on a trip to the Four Roses Distillery in September 2019. At the time it felt like a real score because it wasn’t available in Illinois yet – and quite a score it turned out to be. SBS, in my humble opinion, is the true gem of the readily available Four Roses releases – a (minimum) 6-7 year old blend of 6 of their recipes. Blending bourbon is a true art form and they created a real work of art with this expression. It’s got a nice spice to it, especially on the minty finish, with lots of fruit, vanilla, and just the right amount of oak which you’d expect to find in a Four Roses blended bourbon of this age. If Small Batch Select is in your market – pick one up. It’s currently in 18 states (according to the Four Roses Website) and being rolled out to more all the time. You won’t be disappointed.
Smokewagon Uncut Unfiltered – $79.99 – 113.6 proof
I stumbled across the Smokewagon Uncut Unfiltered Bourbon sometime in 2019 at my local shop and decided take a chance on it. I liked the bottle, and the proof and price were right, so I grabbed one and cracked it later that night at my regular poker game. Needless to say, it was love at first dram. Every bottle I’ve tried (there are almost 40 batches now, not that I have tried them all) has been a total winner. Using a blend of various ages (rumored to be 4-8 years) of MGP high-rye bourbons, Nevada Distilling Company does a wonderful job of selecting and blending their barrels. The mouth feel is the true gem of this pour, rich and creamy enough that when the heat kicks in it’s a welcome addition. Rich and sweet on the palate, the rye spice that you’d expect given the mash bill is present throughout but is never overwhelming. As mentioned above, there’s a few dozen releases of the UCUF at this point, so there will be variance based on which batch you find, but I’ve found this to be a reliably fantastic pour regardless of proof or batch. Oh, and by the way, Smokewagon’s Instagram and Master Distiller Aaron Chepenik are must-follows and a constant source of entertainment and education for the bourbon enthusiast.
Bardstown Bourbon Company Discovery Series #4 -$129.99 – 115 Proof
If you are not on the Bardstown Bourbon Company train, it’s time to get on board. MANY of their releases over the last couple of years have been nothing short of exceptional. The Discovery Series, now on its fourth release, is a fantastic blend of three sourced Kentucky bourbons aged 10 (8%), 15 (37%) and 13 (55%) years. It’s a hit to your wallet at $129.99, but is worth every penny – the master blenders at Bardstown Bourbon Company are truly miracle workers. It’s also a nice touch (and a rare thing in the industry) that they tell us, right on the bottle, the bourbons inside and what % of the blend they each make up. The 13-year bourbon included in the blend is a high-rye expression, and you’ll taste that spice throughout the pour. Lots of fruit, oak and smoke balance it out, and the finish is exactly what you’d expect from a blend of older bourbons – long, enjoyable and extremely well-balanced. I’ve been singing the praises of the BBC for awhile – and I highly suggest you grab one of these bottles if you can find it at your local bottle shop.
Old Ezra Aged 7 Years Barrel Strength – $40 – 117 Proof
Alright, let’s get a couple of things out of the way. First, the bottle pictured is one I’ve had for a while, and there is a new label floating around out there. Second, yes, you read that right, $40. (Although I paid $69.99 for mine when I bought it). OE7 is one of the better values in barrel strength bourbons, though it can be tough to find based on how affordable it is. Coming out of the Lux Row Distillery, it’s a sourced Kentucky bourbon (rumored to be from either Heaven Hill or Barton) that clocks in at a spicy 117 proof. Get ready for a hearty pour, with lots of fruit and sweets on the nose followed by spice, cocoa and brown sugar on the palate. You’ll find a lasting, enjoyable finish with hints of vanilla and the spice that’s been present throughout. None of us in the bourbon world currently know what is in store for Lux Row Distillery given the merger with MGP, but I am sure this expression won’t be leaving us anytime soon – so happy hunting!
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch A121 – $59.99 – 123.6 proof
Elijah Craig has been releasing Barrel Proof bourbons as long as almost anyone – the series goes back to 2013 and 25 releases total. The latest of these expressions is the A121, which clocks in at 123.6 proof – simultaneously the highest on this list and the 2nd lowest in the ECBP series. With a stated age of 12 years and featuring (for my bourbon nerds) some cool bottle updates including adding Barrel Proof to the bottle itself instead of just on the label, this one continues the tradition of excellent barrel proof bourbons from Elijah Craig and the Heaven Hill Distillery. ECBP’s are always one of the best values in higher proof bourbons at $59.99. This one is really (as is very common with higher proof bourbons) helped with a couple of drops of water to open it up – the depth really begins to stand out. You get lots of cinnamon, cherries and dark fruits on the palate. Hints of vanilla can be found throughout the pour. A thick, creamy mouthfeel and an extended, tasty finish round it all out. This bottle is an excellent addition to the ECBP lineup and is unquestionably a “buy it if you see it” bottle for any high proof bourbon lover.
That’s a wrap on this list of enjoyable, (somewhat) attainable, proofed up bourbons. Honorable mention to the Old Forester Barrel Proof store picks out there in the world – only excluded because store picks vary SO much and my writeup likely wouldn’t match the one you find. The market for higher proof bourbons has absolutely exploded over the last couple of years, so if you can’t find these, I encourage you to branch out – I have no doubt that the shelf at your local shop is filled to the brim with excellent options to try in their place. Enjoy them neat, with a drop of water, or even a rock or two – remember, bourbon is meant to be enjoyed as YOU like it. Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org or over on my Instagram at @subourbonbourbondad. Your suggestions, requests or feedback are always welcome!