If you’re new to the world of whiskey, you might be confused by the various terms listed on bottles of bourbon, rye, single malt Scotch, and other whisk(e)ys. And for bourbon, there’s one designation in particular that can draw some questions: cask strength.
What Is Cask Strength Bourbon?
At first glance, it seems fairly obvious. Cask strength refers to a whiskey that hasn’t been diluted with water to lower the proof. It’s also sometimes labeled barrel strength or barrel proof, and by law it must be no more than two degrees lower than the proof when it was taken out of the barrel. That two degrees doesn’t really matter to the drinker, but it does to the tax man and the distilleries being taxed, as the proof may see a slight variation from when it’s measured to be taxed versus when it’s put in the bottle.
How Strong Is Cask Strength Bourbon?
Within that obvious definition of a bourbon that comes straight from the barrel there’s quite a bit of variation in the percent alcohol. Rather than the standard 80 proof that most spirits in the United States are diluted down to, cask strength bourbon will typically range between 100 and 130 proof—and sometimes even more.
The higher proof means more than just a stronger spirit. Cask strength bourbon is also not chill-filtered. Chill filtration is a process used by many whiskey producers to remove proteins, fats, and other random floaters that you might otherwise find in your whiskey. It makes for a consistently clear spirit no matter the temperature, as the average drinker usually doesn’t want to see anything suspended in their whiskey. However, there are purists who believe this process also removes flavor. The higher alcohol and lack of dilution in cask strength whiskey is a natural deterrent when it comes to any cloudiness.
Is Cask Strength Worth It?
While there’s nothing wrong with drinking a whiskey that was proofed down to 80, there’s something special about cask strength bourbon. Since they come straight from the barrel (or are a blend of bourbons straight from the barrel), they taste like bourbon in the most pure form without removing or adding anything.
Less dilution means less liquid, however, so cask strength bourbon will often be more expensive. That said, there are many award-winning, high-quality, nuanced cask strength bourbons under $100.
The Best Cask Strength Bourbons Under $100
Old Ezra Barrel Strength
If you don’t know about the value-to-flavor ratio of Old Ezra, you’re really missing out. Old Ezra is corn, barley, and rye-based whiskey that’s matured for a minimum of seven years in new, charred American oak barrels before bottling at 117 proof. The result is complex, nuanced bourbon featuring caramel corn, vanilla beans, spicy cinnamon, and rich oaky wood notes.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
When it comes to value bourbons, it’s difficult to beat the wide range of expressions from Wild Turkey. One of its best bourbons is its Wild Turkey Rare Breed. This cask strength, 116.8-proof bourbon is a blend of bourbons aged for six, eight, and twelve years respectively. No water is added to dilute it and the blend is added straight to the bottle. The result is a warming, memorable whiskey with notes of dried fruits, honey, vanilla caramel, oak, and wintry spices.
Still Austin Cask Strength
Still Austin Whiskey Co. is doing great things in the artisanal spirits world. While Still Austin rye is undeniably worth having on your bar cart, bourbon fans will want to reach for Still Austin Cask Strength Bourbon. This award-winning, 118-proof whiskey is a blend of complex, hand-selected barrels. It has a nose of dried cherries, vanilla, and cinnamon and palate of candied pecans, toffee, vanilla, oak, and spices. Pour it into a glass and add a few drops of water to open it up before taking a sip.
Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Cask Strength
Jefferson’s has become a big name in the whiskey world in the last few decades because of its unique maturation that takes place aboard a boat as it traverses the globe. This cask strength bourbon crossed the equator four times and visited five continents before it was bottled. It’s known for its bold flavor profile featuring hints of toasted marshmallows, candied fruits, salted caramel, brown sugar, and oak.
Dettling Cask Strength
You might not immediately think of Alabama when you imagine bourbon, but the folks at Dettling intend to change that. The Dettling Cask Strength Bourbon is matured for at least four years in American oak #3 charred casks. This bold, high-proof whiskey is known for its flavors of oaky wood, caramel corn, orange peels, candied nuts, and a sweet, warming finish.
Laws Four Grain Cask Strength
Colorado’s Laws Four Grain Cask Strength gets its name because it’s made using (you guessed it) four grains: corn (60 percent), heirloom wheat (20 percent), heirloom rye (10 percent), and heirloom malted barley (10 percent). Laws works with Colorado farmers to source heirloom grains that define the flavor in its grain-to-glass whiskeys. It’s aged for at least three years in charred American oak barrels before being bottled at cask strength. It’s known for its memorable flavor profile featuring caramel, vanilla beans, cinnamon, ginger, dried fruits, and peppery rye.
1792 Full Proof
While 1792 doesn’t list its mash bill, it’s generally assumed that this is a high-rye bourbon. Its age also isn’t listed but it’s believed to be around 10 years old. Mysteries aside, 1792 Full Proof is a highly potent 125 proof whiskey that’s beloved for its dried cherries, raisins, toasted vanilla beans, oak, and spices. The finish is oaky, warming, and lightly spicy.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Whether or not it’s actually true, many people believe that Elijah Craig (the man) invented bourbon in 1789 when the former Baptist minister-turned-distiller decided to age his corn whiskey in charred oak barrels. Elijah Craig (the brand) pays homage to this innovator by making myriad great expressions, including the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. While each batch is different, they’re all cask strength and feature uncut, unfiltered whiskey that was matured for at least 12 years, creating a bold sipper with vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon, and spicy, peppery rye.
Larceny Barrel Proof
This wheated bourbon (similar to the wildly popular Pappy Van Winkle whiskeys) is only released three times per year from Heaven Hill distillery. It’s non-chilled filtered and bottled at cask strength after maturing between six and eight years in new, charred American oak barrels. The result is a high-proof whiskey that is sublimely soft, mellow, and loaded with flavors like maple candy, dried cherries, vanilla, molasses, and oak. The finish is a warming mix of sweetness and spice that will leave you craving more.