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Craig LaBan picks the best whiskeys for the holidays

Powerful cask-strength spirits with proofs in the triple digits are this year's full-flavored trend.

An assortment of whiskeys
An assortment of whiskeysRead moreMonica Herndon / Staff Photographer

There was some extra octane in the snifters this year when the research began on my annual holiday whiskey list. As my trusty panel of neighbors, friends, and spirits geeks gathered to sip and sift through the candidates, we were looking at a surprising number of new labels boasting triple-digit proofs. That’s because American whiskies bottled at “cask-strength” — uncut, straight from the barrel — have become a trend, reflecting the maturing of both our domestic craft distillers and an audience now demanding the best spirits in their purest, most flavorful form.

“You’re just paying for extra water,” says Robert Cassell of Kensington’s New Liberty Distilling, explaining the difference between a standard 90-proof whiskey diluted to 45% alcohol vs. the cask-strength spirits at my tasting that range between 110 and 126.5 proof. “Ten years ago, distributors told us cask-strength wasn’t commercially viable. But enthusiasts have driven this now, saying, ‘I’m going to water it down my way, pour it over a big ice cube, wait 30 seconds, and start sipping.’ ”

» READ MORE: A pop-up liquor store is selling small-batch spirits in Philly and bypassing the PLCB

We did plenty of sipping (and sniffing and spitting) as we considered more bottles than ever — 53! —for this final list of 16 recommendations. They aren’t all high-proof. But they’re all currently available retail in Philadelphia or South Jersey, and they’re diverse in prices, styles, and origins. There are a handful of intriguing bottles from abroad. But this year’s bourbon-heavy selection also makes the case that American distilling has come into its own, with vivid corn terroirs reflected in bottles from Iowa to Pennsylvania and Texas, and exciting growth in other malt-based spirits simply characterized as “American whiskey.”

Grab a snifter, your big ice cubes, and read on.

Bourbon America

Cedar Ridge Iowa Straight Bourbon

“This is bang-on my grandmother’s Thanksgiving corn pudding,” said one taster after a whiff of the cob-fresh flavor powering this bourbon from Iowa corn country. The Quint family winery-turned-distillery is one of several new indie makers recently brought into Pennsylvania by Andrew Auwerda’s new BOTLD company. It’s brighter and lighter than some other bourbons, but there’s also a sweetness on the palate and bright imprint of the fresh corn that’s grown and milled on the Quints’ farm. Cedar Ridge Iowa Straight Bourbon, 86 proof, 750ml, $35, available at the BOTLD tasting room, 119 S. 18th St., Phila., or online at for Pa.-only shipping.

Makers Mark Cask Strength Bourbon

A red wax-sealed bottle of Maker’s Mark has long been the summer porch sipper in my family. The cask-strength version amps the volume on all its signature wheated bourbon flavors — vanilla, orange, and spice — with enough balance heat to make it ideal for sipping by a winter fire, too. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon, 109.7 proof, 750ml, $42.99; (PLCB item #97041)

Old Tub

Until 2020, Old Tub was a special edition sold only at Jim Beam’s distillery gift shop. But I’m glad it’s been released to the wider public. It’s essentially a variation of standard Beam, but bottled-in-bond at 100 proof and unfiltered for extra flavor. It’s sweet on the nose like marzipan, with a minty note and heat on the palate. It won’t win a collector’s heart, but for a holiday party bourbon, there are few values that can top its backstory and flavor for $20. Old Tub, Bottled-in-bond, 100 proof, 750 ml, $19.99 (PLCB item #35990).

Bowman Brothers Virginia Straight Bourbon Small Batch Whiskey

This bourbon is twice distilled in Kentucky then distilled again in Virginia, where it ages on charred new oak, resulting in a fruity, floral, and custardy rich spirit, with hints of dry spice and peppercorns to keep it interesting. Bowman Brothers Virginia Straight Bourbon Small Batch Whiskey, 90 proof, 750 ml, $34.99, (PLCB item # 30488).

Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Boot Flask

Leave it to a Texas distillery to bottle bourbon in a flask designed to fit a boot. Garrison Brothers, which grows its own winter wheat and uses its well water, produces a whiskey worth taking on the road. Its brown sugar pecan praline nose segues into cinnamon-spiced apples and tobacco on the palate. Turns out this handy flask fits a Christmas stocking, too. Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Boot Flask, 94 proof, 375ml, $45.99 (PLCB item #88168).

New Liberty Bloody Butcher Cask Strength 100% Pa. Bourbon

New Liberty’s Bloody Butcher bourbon has been a progressive experiment in Pennsylvania whiskey terroir since 2017, using heirloom red corn from Castle Valley Mill and Dancing Star Farms, along with malted rye and barley from Deer Creek Malthouse. Distiller Robert Cassell has now secured the local loop by sourcing Pennsylvania oak barrels, which add extra caramel and nuttiness to the existing flavors of plummy stone fruits, chocolate, and spice. A cute 200ml bottling of the 95 proof version makes a nice stocking stuffer at $24.99. But this is one example where the added sticky toffee intensity of the 110.5 proof cask-strength edition is even more persuasive: Pennsylvania can make a truly great whiskey. New Liberty Bloody Butcher Cask Strength 100% Pa. Bourbon, 110.5 proof, 750 ml, $69.99; available at New Liberty’s Kensington tasting room, website, or the Pennsylvania Libations store in Reading Terminal Market.

Old Forester Straight Bourbon Sampler — 1897, 1910, 1920

Whiskey fashions evolve, and this trio representing different eras of Old Forester is like sipping a bourbon time capsule. From the fresh Bing cherry and milk chocolate notes of the oaky 1897 (100 proof to commemorate the Bottled in Bond Act), to the stewed fruit and dry spice of the 1910, and a cask-strength 1920 that starts herbal then blooms like dark chocolate cake, this one is a fascinating delight. Old Forester Straight Bourbon Sampler 1897 (100 proof), 1910 (93 proof), 1920 (115 proof), three 375ml bottles, $94.99 (PLCB item #97378).

American Whiskey

Michter’s US-1 Unblended American Whiskey

Michter’s is a Kentucky brand with old Pennsylvania roots, and is consistently a favorite producer. Their American whiskey has an obviously corn profile but can’t be called bourbon because it’s aged in old bourbon barrels instead of new American oak. The result is bourbon-like but softer, with a honeycomb sweetness, graham cracker grain notes, and subtle salty finish. US-1 Unblended American Whiskey, 83.4 proof, 750ml, $49.44 (PLCB item #9428; 49.99).

Santa Fe Spirits Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey

Easily one of the most distinctive whiskies we tasted, this single malt from New Mexico tastes like Scotland-meets-Santa Fe. Mesquite smoke replaces the peaty malt flavor typical of Scotch, and lends a wonderful tang to a deep amber spirit that shows fruit, pepper, and candy cane sweetness with a long smooth finish. Santa Fe Spirits Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey, 92 proof, 750ml, $60, at the BOTLD tasting room, 119 S. 18th St., or online at for Pa.-only shipping.

Copperworks Distilling Co. American Single Malt Whiskey Single Cask No. 347

This stand-out indie distiller (and brewer) from Seattle is newly available in Pennsylvania, and this whiskey made from Washington-grown malt is exceptional. The pot-stilled liquor is impressively smooth considering its cask strength, and delivers a complex blend of caramel and fruit — like a candied apple — wrapped up in notes of buttered pecan, coffee, smoke, and spice. Copperworks Distilling Co. American Single Malt Whiskey Single Cask No. 347, 115.9 proof, 750ml, $90 at the BOTLD tasting room, 119 S. 18th St., or online at for Pa.-only shipping.


Kyrö Straight Single Rye Malt Whiskey

The grain and wood aromas are so vivid in this 100% Finnish rye, “it reminds me of walking into a barn,” said the veterinarian on my panel. On the palate, it’s intriguingly delicious, with a creamy body that opens with juicy pear and lime zest flavors, then unspools in a rye spice finish that tickles your nose. Kyrö Straight Single Rye Malt Whiskey, 94.4 proof, 750ml, $65 at the BOTLD tasting room, 119 S. 18th St., Phila., or online at for Pa.-only shipping.

Dad’s Hat Founders’ Reserve Cask IV Single Barrel Pennsylvania Straight Rye Whiskey

Avoid open flames when you uncork this 126.5 proof powerhouse, but I was impressed by how drinkable and well-shaped this single barrel selection is in its undiluted form. Lots of boldly spiced Pennsylvania-style rye up front, but rounded with stewed fruit, cocoa, and pipe smoke. Dad’s Hat Founders’ Reserve Cask IV Single Barrel Pennsylvania Straight Rye Whiskey, 126.5 proof, 750ml, $69.99, available at the distillery, its online store, or its Mill Street Tasting Room (131 Mill St., Bristol).

Scotland, Ireland, and Japan

Glen Moray 12-year-old Speyside

Scotch values are always worth touting, and this Glen Moray is a gem for under $40. It’s a classic from Elgin, which produces the peatiest of Speyside’s malts, but also has a lightness of orchard fruit and vanilla cream one taster referred to as “a proper lunchtime Scotch.” Glen Moray 12-year-old Speyside, 80 proof, 750ml, $36.99 on sale for December in Pennsylvania (PLCB item #1559).

Laphroaig Càirdeas Warehouse 1 Edition

Laphroaig remains one of the standard-bearers of Islay smoke, and this year’s edition of Càirdeas, its annual single barrel release, is lovely. It’s as savory with fumes as brisket burnt ends, but with a buttery texture that, at cask strength, glides into a mouth-filling wave of Laphroaig’s trademark sea salt and peat. Laphroaig Càirdeas Warehouse 1 Edition, 104.4 proof, 750ml, $99.99 (PLCB item #44952).

Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Whisky

This elegant whiskey from Ichiro Akuto, founder and master distiller of Chichibu, is truly a blend from across the globe, including Akuto’s own Japanese malt with doses from the United States, Canada, Scotland, and Ireland. This straw gold spirit is smooth, with vanilla biscuit notes of sweet almond, tropical fruits, rye spice, and a gingery finish that tingles. Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Whisky , 46.5% $99.99 at Benash Liquor Store in Cherry Hill.

Glendalough 7-Year-Old Single Malt Mizunara Finish

This elegant single-malt combines the understatement of an Irish whiskey with the complexity of Japanese mizunara oak barrels, which layers on notes of sandalwood and cinnamon spice to a toasty, caramel spirit that finishes with a hint of salt. Glendalough 7-Year-Old Single Malt Mizunara Finish, 92 proof, 750 ml, $99.99, available in South Jersey at Total Wine & Spirits, Tomar’s Discount Liquor, and Wegman’s Wine, Liquor, and Beer.