The 16 Best High-Proof Bourbons

While the term "ABV," or alcohol by volume, is now the most common way to define the strength of alcoholic beverages, it's not unusual to see "proof" used occasionally, especially in the world of American whiskey. Supposedly, the word came into use during the 18th century when sailors in the British Royal Navy would test their rum ration by mixing it with gunpowder and exposing it to a spark. If the mixture set alight, the rum had proven strong enough. 

There's a good reason for becoming familiar with "proof." High-strength bourbons are attractive to whiskey lovers for plenty of reasons. For instance, they tend to be more viscous and bolder. Plus, they showcase more flavors at a higher intensity. Despite the higher alcohol content, they can also be a smoother drinking experience, especially with a drop or two of water to open them up. However, before we look at some of the best high-proof bourbons on the market, it's important to differentiate terms like full proof, barrel proof, and cask strength.

After barrel aging, most bourbons are diluted with water to between 80 and 100 proof, with 80 proof being the lowest legal limit. Bourbons get stronger as they age, and full-proof bourbons are still diluted, but only down to the strength at which they first entered the barrel. Barrel-proof and cask-strength bourbons aren't diluted and are generally left unfiltered, while high-proof can refer to any bourbon considered stronger than usual.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

There's probably no better place to start than with a whiskey that bears the name of the "Father of Bourbon" himself, Reverend Elijah Craig. While the origins of barrel aging bourbon vary regarding how the good Reverend discovered the technique of aging his corn whiskey in new charred oak barrels, the fact remains that if you're a bourbon lover, he's the one to thank.

You can't go wrong with any delicious bottle in the Elijah Craig range, but the Barrel Proof expression is the purest and uncut version you can find. The proof varies from batch to batch, and you have to be quick to snatch up a bottle, as the distillery only has three allocated releases each year. The nose is huge but without much in the way of burn, and the palate is beautifully thick and leathery, with darker notes of chocolate, rye, and roasted vanilla complementing its caramel and butterscotch notes.

Blanton's Straight From The Barrel

When master distiller Elmer T. Lee of Buffalo Trace decided to dedicate a bourbon to the distillery's former President, Colonel Albert B. Blanton, he knew it had to be something special. The result was Blanton's Single Barrel, claimed to be the world's first hand-picked, unblended, single barrel bourbon.

After the Original and Gold versions were released, Buffalo Trace's third cask strength iteration was uncut and unfiltered, created with bourbon connoisseurs in mind. The aroma is reminiscent of butter, caramel, earthy cocoa, and a hint of hazelnut, with a huge taste profile to follow. Oaky vanilla, more toasted nuts, and a touch of rye spice interplay with honey and light toffee, culminating in a powerful, lingering finish intensified by the higher alcohol content. The proof of Blanton's Straight From The Barrel varies between batches but tends to sit around the 130-proof mark.

Booker's Small Batch

The Booker's brand first came about as a selection of bottlings hand-picked by Jim Beam's master distiller, the grandson of Jim Beam himself, Booker Noe. The bourbon that bears his name is now released in four batches yearly, with each batch and labeling inspired by moments throughout Noe's illustrious bourbon-making career.

As with many small-batch bourbons, the strength of Booker's varies, usually sitting somewhere between 120 and 130 proof. Each bottling boasts subtle differences, but the key notes remain the same. The nose is hot, not unusual for high-proof bourbons, but there's still plenty of oak beneath the burn. The taste is uncommonly sweet for a stronger bourbon, with raisin and vanilla complementing the candied wood aspects and giving way to leather and older oak. Booker's finish is long and lingering, with much of the intensity dissipating as you prepare for the next sip.

Knob Creek 12 Year Cask Strength

Like Booker's, Knob Creek is another of Jim Beam's high-end, small-batch bourbon brands and an ode to pre-prohibition American whiskies. Bourbons don't tend to age as gracefully as Scotch whiskies thanks to Kentucky's warmer and more varied climate, so older isn't always better, but the Knob Creek 12 Year Cask Strength certainly seems to hit the sweet spot.

Although Knob Creek 12 Year Cask Strength sits at the 120-proof mark, the extended aging does wonders when it comes to mellowing the spirit and reducing the harsher elements. The robust aroma and palate boast rich toffee, cinnamon, dark chocolate, hints of toasted coconut, and mature tobacco. The mouthfeel is both chewy and spicy, and the finish starts with a big hit of charred, smoky oak before becoming more subdued, leaving a pleasantly warm aftertaste of more cinnamon, a touch of mint, and subtle nutmeg.

W.L. Weller Full Proof

There are a few different criteria for a bourbon to legally be called a bourbon, one of which being the requirement that its mash bill consists of at least 51% corn. Traditionally, distillers would make up the difference with rye — at least, until W.L. Weller changed things up in the mid-19th century.

It's claimed that Weller was the first distiller to use wheat instead of rye in his mash bill, a recipe that results in a smoother, less sharp bourbon with a sweeter, less spicy profile. W.L. Weller bourbon is bottled at the same strength it went into the barrels  — 114 proof — and the wheat's milder characteristics do an excellent job of tempering the higher alcohol content. The nose, palate, and finish are heavy with rich caramel, sweet vanilla, and thick oak, making W.L. Weller arguably one of the best high-proof, wheated bourbons around.

Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof

Dedicated to another ex-military man who once helmed the famous Buffalo Trace distillery, Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof is a pre-prohibition style whiskey drawn from hand-selected barrels in the very same rackhouses Taylor built over 100 years ago. With batches bottoming out at 125 proof, this uncut and unfiltered bourbon is the perfect homage to the distiller who revolutionized the industry.

The nose starts with thick oak and cigar smoke, followed by candied elements of brown sugar, dark molasses, gingerbread, and cocoa. The lack of alcohol heat on the nose and palate is a pleasant surprise, allowing for citrus notes of lemon peel to come to the forefront, with flashes of fruit sweetness — plum, raspberry, and cherry — intermingling with the classic aged oak and rich caramel flavors. The finish is relatively short, with the sweet components intensifying before softly fading.

Larceny Barrel Proof

Given the nature of bourbon's Kentucky roots, the branches of the family tree of distilleries are somewhat intertwined. Shared histories and recipes inspire new brands with iconic characteristics, and Larceny falls firmly into this special category.

Larceny was born out of the Old Fitzgerald brand, famous for being the first bourbon to be sold in glass bottles. In turn, Old Fitzgerald was first produced by the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, the birthplace of W.L. Weller bourbon. As a result, Larceny is a wheated bourbon that has descended from the original, as evidenced by its superior quality. The standard Larceny Straight bourbon is excellent, but the Barrel Proof version – released three times a year – is the best way to experience it. The batches feature nuanced differences between them, but all are balanced yet bold, with a nose of cinnamon and maple, a viscous palate of molasses, hazelnut, and fig, and a smooth, oaky finish that's more delicate than you might expect from a high-proof bourbon.

1792 Full Proof

Named after the year Kentucky became officially recognized as a state of the Union, the multi-award-winning 1792 Full Proof is the strongest of the brand's premium bourbon range. While it has been diluted to its pre-aging strength, at 125 proof, it's just as strong as most other cask strength offerings.

This expression undergoes a basic filtering process but isn't chill-filtered, resulting in a smooth drinking experience with plenty of bite. It's worth mentioning that this bourbon definitely benefits from being allowed to rest for about thirty minutes to allow some of the excess alcohol to evaporate. Otherwise, the heat can be a little overpowering for some. However, after resting, you'll be met with an aroma of toasted oak and citrusy vanilla buttercream, followed by a thick and fruity rye-led palate and a finish with spicy hints of anise and cinnamon, and a touch of mint.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Although Wild Turkey bourbon has been around since the mid-19th century, it wasn't until about a hundred years later, when the "Buddha of Bourbon," Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, joined, that the brand's reputation began to soar. Between Jimmy and his son, Eddie, Wild Turkey has become synonymous with fantastic bottom-shelf bourbons.

The Wild Turkey product line proves that whiskey doesn't have to be expensive to taste great; Rare Breed is a prime example that the distillery can compete with premium brands. Uncut and unfiltered, Rare Breed is probably one of the most accessible high-proof bourbons for newcomers, with a proof of 117. The heat is present but not overwhelming, and the nose provides plenty of rye character, such as licorice, honey, and toasted bread. Taste-wise, the oak is ever present but doesn't steal the show from the caramel, apple, vanilla, and cinnamon notes, which remain through the finish.

Woodford Reserve Batch Proof

Many bourbon fans are familiar with the classic taste of Woodford Reserve, a premium, small-batch offering prized for its complexity and approachability. Unlike high-proof bourbons, Woodford Reserve Batch Proof doesn't mess with the mash bill or blend; it instead offers an unadulterated version of the classic edition.

This means its Batch Proof expression offers the familiar profile of classic Woodford: rich dried fruit, citrus, vanilla, toffee, cocoa, and toasted oak — in its purest form. At 124.7 proof, Woodford Reserve Batch Proof is worth resting to reduce the intensity of the alcohol, but you'll immediately notice a sweet aroma featuring vanilla, leather, baking spice, and marmalade. These are also present on the palate, with the addition of decadent fudge, dry oak, and subtle citrus. The finish is arguably the richest part of the experience, as the previous notes become amplified and notes of dark chocolate appear, lingering with a touch of spice.

Benchmark Full Proof

Benchmark's reputation was once that of a bottom-shelf bourbon with a quality that matched its low price. However, after the Buffalo Trace distillery picked up the brand, they eventually decided to overhaul the whiskey, creating a range of expressions that brought much greater value to budget buyers.

At 125 proof, Benchmark Full Proof is now arguably one of the best high-proof bourbons you can buy for less than $30. The nose isn't unpleasantly hot and features scents of nutmeg, vanilla, oak, and sweet caramel, which arise almost immediately. While the spicy heat is still noticeable on the palate, the classic bourbon flavors present in the aroma are met with rye characteristics, like brown sugar and dark cocoa. There's still some burn on the finish, but this dissipates relatively quickly to cinnamon and baking spice. While the finish lacks the depth of more premium bourbons, it's still extremely impressive for a budget high-proof bourbon.

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel

Named in honor of Wild Turkey's father-and-son Master Distillers, The Russell's Reserve small batch range showcases what over 100 combined years of bourbon-making experience can do. While it's hard to pick a favorite, the Single Barrel is perfect for anyone who likes whiskey with some extra bite.

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel is cask strength, but its low entry proof means the final bottling proof is less intimidating at 110, making it a perfect pick for bourbon lovers easing into stronger whiskeys. The aroma packs a decent punch of oak and caramel from the start, with a light smokiness. The rye in the bourbon's mash bill is noticeable on the palate, as rich toffee, tobacco, leather, and spice intermingle. Dark fruit flavors enter the mix at the finish, with the combined characteristics of the bourbon fading slowly, emboldened by its ever-present spice.

Bulleit Barrel Strength

Bulleit is one of the newer kids on the bourbon block, but that hasn't stopped its whiskeys from reaching international markets and worldwide acclaim. In the past, Bulleit Barrel Strength bourbon was tricky to get hold of outside of Kentucky, but fortunately, the distiller has now significantly increased availability.

The Barrel Strength edition ranges between 118 and 125 proof, elevating the classic Bulleit experience. It's a bourbon that admittedly benefits from a few drops of water to reduce some of the alcohol burn, but doing so opens up the nose to sweet caramel and maple, along with rye-led notes of brown sugar and spicy pepper. These are joined on the palate with cloves, nutmeg, and oak, with a long, dry finish of even more oak, vanilla, cinnamon, and delicate toffee. While there are arguably more complex high-proof bourbons, Bulleit Barrel Strength is perfect for anyone who loves classic Bulleit and wants to taste its purest expression.

Angel's Envy Cask Strength

Angel's Envy's American whiskeys are known for the deft use of secondary barrel finishes to enhance the flavor profiles and impart even more interesting elements into their products. Its Cask Strength edition is no different, making excellent use of port wine barrels to add extra nuance to the experience.

At 119.8 proof, the indulgent Angel's Envy Cask Strength boasts an aroma of classic leather, caramel, and brown sugar that gets bolstered with green apple, crème brûlée, and a touch of citrus. The palate is deliciously rich and creamy, almost dessert-like, with barrel oak and vanilla meeting peppery spice from the rye and a fudgy sweetness. The spice lingers throughout the finish; this is where the woody and tannic qualities of the port wine barrels shine through with grape-like, green fruit elements, ultimately rounding out a decadent, high-proof bourbon drinking experience that is not one to miss.

Four Roses Single Barrel

While the nature of Four Roses Single Barrel means each bottling has more variability than the Small Batch versions, we're yet to find one that doesn't impress. Despite the 100-proof strength being lower compared to most other high-strength bourbons, resting does wonders in terms of opening up its nuanced flavors.

Single Barrel has some subtle oak on the nose, but the predominant aromas are musty apple and citrus, a hint of mint, and classic caramel and vanilla scents rising quickly. The nose is fantastic but not especially deep compared to the palate, which pops with sweet apple, honey, dark cocoa, and butterscotch notes. Although the fruit aspects are ever-present, they're more of a backdrop to the classic bourbon characteristic flavors, melding into a long and lingering finish that shows touches of anise and slightly floral notes that contrast with noticeable barrel char, and a combination of fresh and aged wood.

George T. Stagg

We'd be lying if we said getting your hands on a bottle of the revered George T. Stagg bourbon is easy or inexpensive — but it's worth every penny. Dedicated to one of the Buffalo Trace distillery's founding fathers, this high-proof, limited release uncut — and unfiltered — expression is somewhat of a Holy Grail to bourbon lovers.

The proof of each batch varies but is known to get close to the 140 proof mark, making it one of the stronger bourbons around. Despite its intensity, George T. Stagg is remarkably smooth and approachable, with a boozy nose reminiscent of rum, cognac, amaretto, and sweet stewed apples. Thick oak and vanilla join the party on the palate, building up to a rich and leathery finish with elements of fruit molasses, barrel tannins, and a touch more of the nuttiness for which Buffalo Trace's bourbons are well known.