The ABV of barrel-proof whiskey keeps ticking higher and higher upwards, and it seems that there’s an audience for it. But at a certain point, is the alcohol burn so intense that it overpowers the taste of the whiskey? A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength Bourbon Batch #2 is proof that, despite any misgivings, flavor can shine through even in a true “hazmat” bourbon.
What does the term hazmat mean anyway? It indicates a spirit that’s bottled at over 140 proof, or 70 percent ABV, which the FAA has banned from carrying on on a plane or checking in luggage due to its flammability. For many people, that might not sound like something you’d actually want to put in your mouth. But whiskey fans love their barrel-proof hooch, and a small subsection are enthralled by these flamethrowerilevel expressions. I’ve thought a lot about this concept recently as more hazmat whiskeys have been released from distilleries like Jack Daniel’s, Frey Ranch and now A. Smith Bowman, a Virginia distillery owned by Sazerac. That’s the same company that owns Buffalo Trace, which has released some whiskey under the George T. Stagg line (part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection) that has approached 140 proof. But this new bourbon from A. Smith Bowman clocks in at 144.5 proof, or nearly three-quarters alcohol, which is definitely hazmat and arguably a gustatory challenge.
Of course, there’s a simple solution to that challenge—add some water to proof it down yourself, which for many is the joy of drinking barrel-proof bourbon, hazmat or not. This particular whiskey was aged for at least a decade and is bottled uncut and un-chill filtered to allow maximum “straight from the barrel” experience. “While last year’s inaugural Batch #1 boasted a more delicate profile that drank like a much lower proof bourbon (though it wasn’t), this year’s offering really roars,” said distiller David Bock in a press release. “Batch #1’s proof snuck up on you; Batch #2 slaps you in the char. Batch #2 also contains the last of the barrels Joe Dangler, former master distiller at A. Smith Bowman for over 30 years, laid down.”
So let’s dig into how that face slap actually feels. The color of the whiskey is a nice golden amber, but perhaps not as dark as you might expect from a whiskey this old and this undiluted. The nose is powerful—how could it not be—but not overwhelming. It’s more of a soft glove slap as part of a challenge to a duel, with some notes of cherry, apple pie, cinnamon and chocolate. Without any water added, the first sip makes your tongue feel more alive than it’s likely felt in a long time. There are notes of dried orange, milk chocolate, candied pecan and vanilla, with underlying spice and heat that is unescapable with a whiskey this strong. A splash of water softens the nose and really brings the sweet candy notes, spicy red hot flavors and oaky well-aged bourbon character together nicely—so much so that I’d venture to say this would make for an excellent, if intoxicating, Old Fashioned.
The extreme high proof of this whiskey can be attributed to the climate where it was aged, according to master distiller Brian Prewitt. Virginia has hot, humid summers and mild winters, and that means more water evaporates as part of the angel’s share than alcohol. And considering that the whiskey is initially distilled at Buffalo Trace in Kentucky and then sent to Virginia for a third distillation and aging, the maturation environment should be a defining factor for this whiskey. While not quite as strong as a bottle of everclear, this is some true hazmat bourbon so please exercise caution. But it’s surprisingly tasty at this strength and actually enjoyable to drink. Just remember, water is your friend here, so make good use of it.
What Our Score Means
- 100: Worth trading your first born for
- 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet
- 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram
- 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market
- 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable
- Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this
Every week Jonah Flicker tastes the most buzzworthy and interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back each Friday for his latest review.