Do you like bold bourbon? Look no further than Sazerac, which has put out one of the boldest bourbons of the year — A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength Batch 1 release. The whiskey from Virginia is all about that ABV and clocks in at an eye-popping 70.55 percent or 141.1 proof. That’s well above absinthe’s average ABV of 65 percent.
This is so high-proof that it’s in its own category. This is what people in the know call a “Hazmat bourbon.”
Even if you’re only tangentially into bourbon, it’s likely you know what “high-proof” means. Very quickly, high-proof expressions are those bourbons that reach above bottled-in-bond’s 100 proof (or 50 percent ABV) towards 101, 110, 120, and even up to 139 proof. Generally, these are whiskeys that are purposefully cut with less water to achieve a higher-proof final product.
It’s important not to confuse high proof with “cask strength,” which is on the label of this expression. Cask strength (or barrel proof) spirits go into the bottle at the cask strength of either the single barrel or the batch of barrels vatted for the release. That doesn’t always mean they’re high proof, though. We’ve reviewed cask strength bourbons on this site that rang in at only 44.9 percent (89.8 proof). That’s well below even bottled-in-bond when it comes to ABV.
Then there are Hazmat bourbons. “Hazmat” is the term for whiskeys that ring in at 140 or more proof (or above 70 percent ABVs). Never heard of this before? It’s okay. We’re in super niche territory here and there are very few whiskeys that are released at this ABV range. That’s largely due to the fact that it’s illegal to fly with these bourbons because they’re too volatile. No, that’s not a joke.
For folks who are down to expand their palates by trying super-hot expressions, there’s definitely some allure in testing the Hazmat waters. Here’s our review of this particular launch, one of the highest ABV expressions on the bourbon market.
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A. Smith Bowman Limited Edition Cask Strength Batch 1
Average Price: $100 (MSRP)
This release from Sazerac is all about the boldness of the Virginia spirit. The juice is from a few hand-selected ten-year-old barrels from Master Distiller Brian Prewitt from the lowest ricks in warehouses A and A1 at the A. Smith Bowman Distillery. The juice is vatted and then bottled as is, at what is clearly an extremely high cask strength.
I’m not going to lie, the ethanol is absolutely there on the nose. But … it doesn’t overpower the deeply rooted flavors — starting with buttery pie crust that’s well toasted leading towards a few layers of toasted and honeyed pecans, dark Caro syrup-soaked brown sugar, and toasted off dark spice-filled streusel. The spice really leans into very woody cinnamon sticks, plenty of old leather pouches that held decades of tobacco, dry cedar bark ripped from the woodpile, and … the creamy vanilla base and toasted coconut from a coconut cream pie. That creamy mid-palate leads towards a very dry and charred finish that’s cut with bitter espresso oils and the darkest of chocolates that turns into a burnt caramel sweet/bitter heat that torches you down to your soul.
These Bowman releases have a great, bespoke bottle. The stopper is a heavy-duty cork with a wooden top. The label is embossed, allowing the juice within to take center stage. This is one of those bottles that you can’t miss.
Look, this is hot. It’s a hazmat bourbon. So that’s the whole point. Does that heat overpower the tasting experience? Yes, it does. And for many inexperienced palates, it may completely derail it. But I still found a lot of nuance at play beyond the heat.
Ultimately, this is unique and full of flavor — all while being hot as hell. But don’t get it twisted, I did like it. Alas, I can’t see drinking this regularly outside of a very slow glass on a lot of slowly melting rocks, in a highball, or in a very big cocktail.
90/100 — For a bourbon with this much punch, it’s kind of amazing how nuanced it still is. I’m eager to mix up some Manhattans with the stuff!