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On The Goodness That Is Barrel Proof Bourbon

Barrel proof bourbons are all the rage these days, but why?  It seems as though every distillery is in a rush to release the next hot barrel proof offering into a market that was dominated by 80-100 proof offerings just a few years ago.

If you were to Google “first barrel proof bourbon” you’d find lots of stories about Booker’s, named for former Jim Beam Master Distiller Booker Noe.  While he was certainly responsible for bringing barrel proof bourbon into the modern market, his reasoning was based on history.

Long before consumer-packaged bourbon, the primary sale package was the barrel.  Taverns and drug stores would purchase an entire barrel of bourbon, and if you wanted some to take home, you would pay to fill up your ceramic jug from the barrel.  Everyone drank barrel proof bourbon, and many people added a splash of water to proof it down.  Booker Noe, according to his son Fred Noe, believed there were enough consumers who were nostalgic for the bourbon they remembered drinking in the old days that he pushed for a barrel proof offering in 1989.

Barrel Proof Bourbon
Some barrel proof bourbons (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Now almost every major bourbon brand offers multiple barrel proof bourbons, and some are even starting to offer barrel proof rye whiskeys, as well.  The 2015 Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition will be barrel proof, and Maker’s Mark’s Cask Strength went from a one-time thing to a regular offering.  In addition to Booker’s, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, George T. Stagg, Angel’s Envy, Blanton’s, E.H. Taylor, Elijah Craig, William LaRue Weller, and many others offer barrel proof bourbons.

The challenging thing about barrel proof offerings, though, is each bottling run requires its own TTB label approval, as the proof varies in each barrel of bourbon.  It’s difficult for distilleries to go through this process every time they want to bottle a new offering, but so far consumer demand has made it worthwhile.

The proofs I’ve seen range from around 110 to just under 150, with most falling in the 130 to 140 range.  These bourbons are great to sip as they are, though at a certain proof they will anesthetize your tongue and you just won’t taste them as well.  It’s best to add a splash of water and/or an ice cube.  They will also make lovely cocktails- remember you don’t want to mix a drink with anything you wouldn’t drink straight.

When you drink barrel proof bourbon, especially one that’s not chill-filtered, you’re drinking bourbon very similar to that which our ancestors enjoyed.

Maggie Kimberl

One night during Derby week, I was working in the liquor store while Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge was doing a tasting. I kept trying to make my way over to talk to him, but we were super busy (did I mention it was Derby week?) and I didn't make it in time. Dejected, I went back to the break room and started eating my lunch. The next thing I knew, Rutledge came through the door, saying, "You didn't get to do my tasting!" He sat down and explained how to taste bourbon, the ten recipes of Four Roses, and how it was different than other distilleries. I had liked bourbon before that point, but Jim Rutledge made me care about it. That's the beautiful thing about the bourbon industry- the people love what they do, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Now here we are. :)

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