For true connoisseurs, there’s nothing better than unadulterated whisky. That means straight from the barrel, with minimal filtration, and certainly not proofed down by water. Admittedly, some whiskies are simply not polished and refined enough to be handled this way, tasting too “hot” when served in the 50% ABV and above range. (And some whiskies are deliberately bottled at minimal proof, a choice their makers vigorously defend.) But others truly soar straight from the cask, retaining a pleasing, oily mouthfeel, a potent aroma, and a heightened flavor profile.
Learn the Basics of Barrel Proof
Bourbon and rye both excel at more potent proof levels, and there are numerous examples to be found on store shelves, including private-barrel picks. (You won’t see some of the most coveted American barrel-proof releases, such as George T. Stagg and William Larue Weller, on this list due to their limited availability.) Cask-strength single malt and Irish whiskey releases are in shorter supply, though those that are offered are typically remarkable and of excellent quality.
When shopping for cask-strength whisky, bear in mind that ABV will vary from batch to batch, as there’s no way to control what proof a barrel’s contents end up at. For this list, we chose widely available cask-strength whiskies that are $80 or less and scored higher than 90 points.
Go Big on Proof and Bigger on Flavor With These Bottles
Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch—93 points, $70
This is Islay amped up to 11, a venerable peaty mainstay at its most extreme. The aroma is all Laphroaig, with iodine, Band-Aids, and a kiss of lemon. A thick, chewy mouthfeel bolsters the palate of smoked meats, brine, and just a bit of mocha. The finish offers earthiness and sweet campfire notes. Batch 010 (58% ABV) ranked No. 7 in the 2018 Top 20.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Straight Bourbon—93 points, $50
While regular Maker’s is often seen a gateway bourbon (a bit simple, a tad thin), the same whiskey at barrel proof is a revelation. Usually bottled between 54%-57% ABV, there’s a pleasing oiliness on the tongue, while the palate is liquid caramel, with notes of raw honey and cotton candy—though it remains in balance with its leather and tannic backbone. The classic Maker’s Mark cinnamon note translates to a long, sizzling finish. (For more barrel-proof Maker’s, look for Private Select picks at retail stores and bars.)
Redbreast Cask Strength 12 year old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey—95 points, $80
An incredibly fruity nose, this hews toward dark dried fruits like figs, dates, and raisins, though there are some floral and vanilla hints as well. The palate is oily and spicy, edging toward a decadent, flamed dessert, like Baked Alaska. The finish is heavy on cinnamon and oak—dry, but not tannic. (Batches typically fall in the 57%-59% ABV range.)
Knob Creek Cask Strength Straight Rye—94 points, $70
No. 2 in our 2018 Top 20, this 9 year old rye is limited-edition, but can still be found on shelves. Made by Jim Beam, it has the distillery’s signature peanut aromas on the nose, though it’s brighter than usual, like an expressed lemon peel over a Sazerac. The palate leans more toward caramel and s’mores, backed by a ton of cinnamon and black pepper. An unfiltered release at 59.8% ABV, the finish is long and spicy, and the mouthfeel is quite beefy.
Old Ezra 7 year old Barrel Strength Straight Bourbon—93 points, $40
The quality, price, and proof (around 58% ABV) on this Luxco product make it one of the best values in all of bourbon today—plus it’s 7 years old. A rye lover’s bourbon, this boasts an explosion of spices—primarily cinnamon—on the nose, alongside leather and oak. The palate is sweeter, with notes of butterscotch, toasted coconut, and a little cherry pie. The finish pumps in more spice, as well as a pleasing, lingering cigar note. Though a bit rough around the edges, at this price, you can afford to add some ice or use it in cocktails.
Lot No. 40 12 year old Cask Strength Canadian Rye—94 points, $60
Cask-strength Canadian whisky is a bit of a rarity, but this release shows why it shouldn’t be. While Lot No. 40 has traditionally acted as a 100% rye flavoring whisky for blends, here its full power is unlocked, bottled in the 55%-60% ABV range. Spearmint, flowery perfume, and tropical fruits on the nose build toward a palate of warm rye bread, peanut butter, and a stinging amount of spice. A massive finish lingers in your mouth.