We, um, may have noted this before, but… there’s a lot of bourbon on the shelf right now. We wouldn’t say there’s too much, however. Especially not in this market — where competition drives quality. But we certainly understand if it all feels overwhelming when you’re strolling the aisles and there are 40 brands lining shelves.
And that’s just brands. Add in styles, proofs, single barrels, regions, age statements, and limited releases and… did we mention it’s a lot? Fear not, that’s why we’re here — to help you sift through it all by tasting as much as we can and letting you know what rises to the top. It’s a tough gig but someone has to do it.
This time around, we’re going back to the old “barrel proof” well of bourbons. We’re tasting 12 (!!!) new barrel proof bourbon whiskeys as a sort of part two to our tasting last spring. We’re not repeating any releases. All of these expressions are also 2021 specific, with a few coming directly from the distillery.
Here are our competitors in today’s blind taste test:
- Orphan Barrel Copper Tongue Aged 16 Years
- Traverse City Barrel Proof Bourbon
- George Dickel 15-Year-Old Single Barrel
- Stellum Cask Strength Bourbon
- Woodinville Cask Strength Bourbon
- Still Austin Cask Strength
- Larceny Barrel Proof Batch: B521
- Blue Run 13.5-Year-Old “The Honey Barrel”
- Blanton’s Straight From The Barrel
- Barrell Bourbon Batch #29
- A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Garrison Brothers Single Barrel
All in all, these were great bourbons. Some will be a little easier to find than others but that’s not really the point of this test. We’re here to rank whiskey based solely on its flavors — with label, legacy, availability, and price all being unknown variables. If any of these sound good to you, make sure to click on the prices to see if you can find a bottle in your neck of the woods.
Part 1: The Taste
This opens with a hint of buttery cornbread that immediately veers into cinnamon apple crackers in an old leather tobacco pouch. There’s a mild sense of eggnog spices next to vanilla cream with a clear note of old, musty cellar beams leading back to that warm tobacco chew.
Butterscotch, dried corn kernels, raw leather, orange peels, and sweet caramel lead the way. The taste is pure toffee hard candies with light touches of roasted almond, vanilla oils, and old oak. The end lingers for a while and leaves you with this hint of chocolate-covered almonds and sweet toffee.
This is all about the cherry pie with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream next to a slight apple-tobacco vibe. It’s also light on the nose and on the palate with red berries leading towards a cherry-choco soda pop, more vanilla cream, and a light touch of bourbon-soaked oakiness.
This is a nutty Christmas cake with hints of worn leather, red berries, and plenty of wood. The palate opens with a hint of dried fruits, but the real star of the show is an apple candy sweetness that leans into honey. The end holds onto the fruit and honey but hits you with a dried chili pepper flake warmth on the very end.
“Soft” is written in my tasting notes and with good reason. This is all about soft vanilla, soft salted caramel, and soft tobacco leaves with a hint of time-softened leather. The taste holds onto that softness with an apple/pear candy sweetness, a touch of rich dates, clove and nutmeg, and a twinge of cinnamon candy.
Cedar greets you and forms a foundation for choco-cherry candies with a hint of dried mint. The taste moves into a blackberry feel with rich vanilla cream and plenty of cinnamon. The end takes on a warmth that feels more like a dried chili pepper than alcohol heat.
This is another soft bourbon with touches of maple syrup next to cinnamon sticks soaked in hot apple cider and a bit of a buttery croissant. That butteriness drives into the palate with a brandy butter note next to bruised apples, eggnog spices, and dry tobacco leaves. A touch of red fruits with more buttery bread powers the end towards a warm Kentucky hug of spices, tobacco, and ABVs.
This is also buttery, but more in the sense of a bespoke toffee next to a bright red cherry with vanilla lurking in the background alongside a little old leather and wood. The taste brings on a touch of bitterness thanks to a dark cocoa note, more vanilla, and date-heavy sticky toffee pudding. The end reads completely differently, as cherry candy leads to dry reeds and a final hint of green pepper.
Complex, exciting, and just beguiling enough to thrill the senses.
The nose is full of nutty nougat, pecan pies, red berries, and salted caramel. The vanilla kicks in and draws a straight line towards cedar boxes full of cherry tobacco next to a big pot of floral honey. The warmth is tied more to the mild woody spices than any alcohol warmth on this velvety sip.
This opens with spicy oatmeal cookies next to fresh leather notes, a touch of orange oil, and a douse of new honey sweetness. The body of this is all plums, honey-roasted nuts, toasted coconut mixed with dark chocolate, and … an almost salty, dry bread. The end is light and soft — with a green edge that edges winds towards fresh and savory herbs.
This is hot. There’s a vanilla cream and toffee sweetness under the high ABV, plus a clear touch of woodiness. Berries come through loud and clear through all that buzzy alcohol next to candied apples (the kind with the bright red covering) and a direct note of cedar and tobacco. The end lingers — with the berries and apple while the heat builds and pretty much blows out my palate.
Hello, Texas! This opens with a clear note of butterscotch next to milder notes of cherry, caramel, and Red Hots. A vanilla kicks in on the palate and drives towards more butterscotch, chocolate oranges, old cedar, and a touch of bitter black tea.
Part 2: The Ranking
12. A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 11
Average Price: $100
The A. Smith Bowman Distillery is a Sazerac distillery that hardcore whiskey nerds know of but the average whiskey drinker has probably never even heard of. Their line is primarily filled with experimental small-batch releases. That changed this year, with A. Smith Bowman’s release of their new permanent expression — A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength.
The juice is a ten-year-old Virginia bourbon that somehow stayed at a bafflingly high ABV of 70.55 percent.
This was just too hot today. It really blew out my palate (partially due to it being the eleventh taste). I ate some celery and came back to it and I stand by this ranking. That being said, this will be going into a lot of cocktails for maximum ABVs going forward.
11. Orphan Barrel Copper Tongue Aged 16 Years — Taste 1
Average Price: $174
This release from Diageo’s Orphan Barrel program is from Cascade Hollow Distilling Co., better known as George Dickel. The juice is a marrying of two 16-year-old bourbon barrels that were hand-selected by Dickel Master Distiller Nicole Austin. The ABVs are very low for a “barrel proof” bourbon.
This was really nice but didn’t jump out at me. It’s weird to say given that this is a really tasty and easy-drinking whiskey. But again, we had a great lineup today.
10. Traverse City Barrel Proof Bourbon — Taste 2
Average Price: $80
This Michigan bourbon is all about the grain-to-glass experience with Michigan’s unique terroir, weather, and access to freshwater. This expression is comprised of single barrel selections of Traverse City’s much-lauded straight bourbon. The juice goes into the bottle uncut and unfiltered at barrel proof.
This was, again, perfectly fine. It’s just that nothing really stood out and drew me back in for more. This is quality, crafty bourbon that hits all the right marks.
9. Still Austin Cask Strength — Taste 6
Average Price: $48
Still Austin is getting a lot of love for their very crafty (and fruity) bourbon, The Musician. This is that — but as cask strength and released as a limited offering. The juice in the bottle is a local, grain-to-glass operation that utilizes the best grains and water Texas has to offer.
I’m not quite on the Still Austin train yet. Their bourbon is still very green (overly fruity) but this expression promises something bigger and bolder coming down the road for this crafty distillery.
8. Garrison Brothers Single Barrel — Taste 12
Average Price: $120
This single barrel expression from Hye, Texas’ Garrison Brothers is all about highlighting the craft distillery’s grain-to-glass process. The juice is made from a mash of 74 percent local white corn, 15 percent estate-grown soft red winter wheat, and eleven percent Canadian malted barley. That spirit is then rested for three to five years, or until it’s just right to be proofed and bottled.
This was so clearly Texas bourbon just from the look of that syrupy juice in the glass. Still, this was a fine sip of whiskey that offered something a little different. It didn’t quite pop like I thought it would amongst some of the huge bourbons on this list. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile bourbon to have on your bar cart.
7. Stellum Cask Strength Bourbon — Taste 4
Average Price: $55
Stellum Bourbon is the new kid on the block. The bottle grabs your attention immediately by having a super low-key design in a classic wine bottle. The juice in that bottle is a cask-strength blend of whiskeys from Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. This whiskey is all about the blending process that Stellum employs to make this special and award-winning juice.
This bourbon is really growing on me. The dram really stood out on this flight. It’s refined, clear about its flavor notes, and very silky. Yet… this isn’t even the top five.
6. George Dickel 15-Year-Old Single Barrel — Taste 3
Average Price: $70
This whiskey from the famed Cascade Hollow is a very old whiskey, all things considered. The juice is from single barrels and the proof varies accordingly (sometimes it’s cut with water too). The whiskey is all about showcasing Dickel’s vast warehouses and the gems they have hidden deep on those ricks.
This tasted like a very refined and well-aged Tennessee whiskey (which is bourbon, remember) with all that bright yet dark fruit. In the end, this was an extremely silky sip of whiskey that felt more complex than old while still being very easy to drink from start to finish.
5. Larceny Barrel Proof Batch: B521 — Taste 7
Average Price: $77
These barrel blends from Heaven Hill are meant to highlight the precise quality of the distillery’s prowess from grain to bottle. This small batch of wheated bourbon is derived from barrels between six and eight years old. The juice then goes right into the bottle with no cutting or filtering, allowing the masterful craft to shine through in every sip.
This is really starting to win me over as a sipper. It’s so damned refined yet does pack a pretty big wallop on the senses. With big ABVs, I can also see pouring this over some rocks next weekend and not complaining for a second.
4. Woodinville Cask Strength Bourbon — Taste 5
Average Price: $85
Woodinville continues to be at the top of the craft distilling game. Their Cask Strength Bourbon (available at the distillery) is their award-winning bourbon bottled at barrel proof, allowing the Eastern Washingto-based aging to shine through.
This is so soft and delightful. It’s a really easy and rewarding sipper, and it still only hit the fourth spot on this list.
3. Blanton’s Straight From The Barrel — Taste 9
Average Price: $400
Blanton’s is “The Original Single Barrel” bourbon, and this expression is the purest form of that whiskey. The juice in this case is from the barrels that need no cutting with water and are perfect as-is, straight from the barrel. All the barrels will come from Warehouse H (where Elmer T. Lee stored his private stash of barrels back in the day) and arrive with varying proofs.
The through-line is the excellent taste of that single, unadulterated barrel in each sip.
I changed two through five about ten times while ranking these. This is where Blanton’s ended up and I don’t have a really good excuse why it’s here instead of two or five or four. This is a freakin’ delicious whiskey and it’s almost hard to believe that it’s cask strength, given how easy-drinking it is.
2. Barrell Bourbon Batch #29 — Taste 10
Average Price: $105
This new release from Barrell Bourbon is a blend of whiskeys from Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. The final mix is a blend of six, seven, nine, ten, 14, and 16-year-old barrels that are vatted and then bottled at barrel proof.
These blends rarely disappoint and this one lives up to the hype. It’s refined, super engaging, and has a soft and easy demeanor. This is a great sipper.
1. Blue Run 13.5-Year-Old “The Honey Barrel” — Taste 8
Average Price: $230
Jim Rutledge’s new project after leaving Four Roses is one of the most sought-after new bourbons on the market (we’ll be doing a live tasting soon). The juice in the bottle is hand-selected by Rutledge and barreled as a single barrel at cask strength. That also makes each bottle unique… and fleeting.
While the rest of the top five were a struggle to rank, this was a no-brainer. This whiskey is one of the most delicious (new) drams I’ve tasted in a long, long time. If you can find a bottle, grab as many as you can. Whiskey like this doesn’t come around all that often.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
I’d like to say I was surprised by this or that on these rankings. But… this is pretty much how I would have called it. There were a few bottles that felt hard to rank, sure. But, a lot of this was really splitting hairs and I mean really. In fact, seven through two could have all been a tie for varying reasons. In the end, these get harder to rank the closer the whiskeys get in quality.
Even though that Blue Run is near perfection (for my palate), I still reach for Larceny, Barrell, Woodinville, and Dickel more because of habit (and price). If I had a case of Blue Run 13.5 sitting around, it’d be my go-to for the rest of the year.
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