In a whiskey world where nearly every major brand can now be expected to release a cask-strength/batch proof variant at some point, it becomes fascinating to compare the standard-strength releases we see on store shelves every day to the more burly, intense LE’s (limited editions). Some, such as Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig, seem to follow a conceptual through-line, where you can taste and understand that the barrel proof version mirrors most of the same flavors found in the everyday product, given more strength and verve. Others, however, seem to undergo a total transformation from one form to the next, and Woodford Reserve Batch Proof falls into this camp. The final product is powerful and intriguing, but it sure as heck doesn’t remind me of the standard Woodford Reserve.
Some of that difference is certainly explained by a significant jump in proof. The standard Woodford Reserve clocks in at a fairly approachable 90.4 proof, but the 2020 bottling of Batch Proof cranks that up to 123.6—not necessarily at the highest end of cask-strength releases, but a jump of more than 33 points from the flagship product. Like the flagship Woodford Reserve—and most other Brown-Forman bourbons, such as Old Forester—this barrel proof release is also non-age-stated, so they’re definitely leaning on that proof as justification for a premium price tag of around $129.99. That does seem a bit high in comparison with other non-age-stated, cask-strength bourbons—after all, the likes of Stagg Jr. are often available for less than $80, and even as low as $50-60. However, it is what it is, and the Woodford Reserve Batch Proof does at least come in a lovely, bell-shaped decanter bottle.
I must confess that as far as the Brown-Forman bourbons go, Woodford is rarely one I find myself turning to. Although it’s a perfectly adequate, down-the-middle bourbon profile, I typically find myself more drawn to the slightly different house style of Old Forester, which I find a bit more appreciably rough-and-tumble. That’s just a matter of personal taste, though, and when I turned to this Woodford Reserve Batch Proof, my ultimate takeaway was just how different the liquid was from the Woodford I’d sampled in the past.
On the nose, this one is dark and deeply caramelized—further than caramel, really and more molasses-like, with hints of dark fruit (cherry, blackberry) and a spiciness that distinctly makes me think of cola or root beer spice. Interestingly, the heat really doesn’t show up much here on the nose—even without water, it doesn’t sting in the least. The ethanol has been well hidden.
On the palate, this is very interesting, and not really what I was immediately expecting. It’s a surprisingly savory bourbon, with plentiful tobacco leaf/cigar wrapper/old oak notes, some earthiness and molasses richness that veers almost into “burnt sugar” territory. The dark fruitiness (black cherry) is also there, but it too goes even further into dried fruit, with raisin being a major component. Likewise, the cola spice is here in a big way—this might be the most I’ve ever been thinking “kola nut” while drinking a bourbon. Despite that, though, the residual sweetness is really only moderate—it isn’t as rich as it first appears it would be. Heat, likewise, is surprisingly hidden on the front end, but eventually comes roaring back in the finish. Throw in a notably viscous, oily mouthfeel and you have a very interesting bourbon to be sure.
To be honest, this one actually has me a bit stumped. It’s strangely easy to drink, at least on the front end, and drier than most barrel-proofers, with an interesting combination of dark fruit, savory, oaky and spicy impressions. Adding a bit of water, a more traditional caramel-and-baking-spices profile began to emerge, but it lacks the more unique nature of the undiluted spirit. As I return to the undiluted dram, its idiosyncrasies are growing on me, and I think those who enjoy spicy (but drier) barrel proof expressions may find this of particular interest. With that said, the $129.99 price tag will put it out of the reach of some, but it’s something to keep an eye out for at the whiskey bar.
Distillery: Woodford Reserve (Brown-Forman)
City: Versailles, KY
Style: Barrel proof straight bourbon
ABV: 61.8% (123.6 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $129.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.