High Proof Bourbons For Summer


When The Mercury Goes Up, Try These Six Ballsy Bourbons On Ice

By Richard Thomas

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
(Credit: Heaven Hill)

My tastes in whisk(e)y change with the seasons, and one of the things I reach for once the summer heat well and truly sets in is high proof or cask strength Bourbon. This inclination to go with big, bold, strong Bourbon from about mid-June to mid-September each year was instinctive rather than a conscious choice, but upon reflection I could see at least three very sound reasons (that my sub-conscious must have realized): Bourbon generally does well when its chilled; high proof Bourbon can stand the dilution of two or three ice cubes and retain all its flavor; there are plenty of cask strength and high proof Bourbons to choose from.

With that in mind, here are six high octane Bourbon whiskeys that offer big flavor, are actually available on store shelves with at least some regularity, and have plenty of kick.

1792 Full Proof (125 proof; $45)
This offering from Barton 1792 down in Bardstown presents the 1792 Bourbon at its entry proof strength. Hence, it’s not cask strength, but instead “full proof.” It’s very much the middle of the road option for high octane Bourbons.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (130s proof, $80)
There is a lot to love about Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. It’s big and ballsy, as well it should be as a cask strength whiskey that routinely weighs in at over 60% ABV. It also continues to be a 12 year old expression, a survivor of the shift of the original, flagship Elijah Craig 12 Year Old to NAS status. Hence, it retains the woody, spicy aspects that Elijah Craig was known for, only in blockbuster proportions. The downsides are that it’s not easy to find (although certainly not impossible), and it’s a bit expensive.

Knob Creek Single Barrel and a cigar

Knob Creek Single Barrel + an Ashton
(Credit: John Rayls)

Knob Creek Single Barrel (120 Proof, $45)
As with Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, one of the big virtues of Knob Creek Single Barrel is a relatively new one: the standard Knob Creek has gone NAS, but the Single Barrel, high octane version remains a 9 year old. Yet this Knob Creek was always the best one, because it was a single barrel and the typical bottle was better for more than just being 20 proof points higher than the small batch original. It might sit in the middle of the strength  and price ranges here, but it’s the best all around bang for your buck choice of the lot.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength (110s proof, $55 for 750 ml)
If you need a wheated Bourbon with an outsized flavor and don’t want to go hunting for it or fork over a painfully large wad of cash to get it, then Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is the way to go. There is nothing fancy to this expression, beyond simply not cutting the Bourbon when it comes out of the barrel. The main advantage of a high proof “wheater,” in my opinion, is avoiding the interplay between spice and heat as the ABV rises. Some might complain that it’s not Weller, but its an uphill struggle to buy a bottle of William Larue Weller. Besides, Maker’s makes wheated Bourbon, and just wheated Bourbon, and they are very good at it.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Wild Turkey Rare Breed
(Credit: Campari)

Stagg, Jr. (130s proof, $50)
This stuff is what the name says it is: whiskey from the same Buffalo Trace ultra-low rye mash bill stock as George T. Stagg. Like the elder Stagg, it is bottled at cask strength. Unlike big daddy Stagg, it is not aged for 15 years-plus, but instead comes in at eight or nine years. Also unlike Stagg, Sr., you can get it pretty much on demand and won’t need to come up with several hundred dollars to do so.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed (116.8 proof for latest batch, $45)
The House of Russell is known for liking their whiskey to have some heft to it. Whereas other distillery flagships are 80 proof or 90 proof, Wild Turkey’s standard bearer is 101 proof. Despite that, Rare Breed hovers just a little above that 101 level, and some bottlings would be the lowest proofed whiskeys on this list. While that is true, it’s also the cheapest of the six Bourbons listed here. What is more, I think Wild Turkey’s flavor profile sits very well on the 100 to 120 proof band, and forget the ice cubes, because this stuff still goes down great if you keep it cold in your freezer.


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