When it comes to “toasted barrel finished” bourbon or rye whiskey, one name dominates the conversation — Michter’s. Michter’s spearheaded the movement nearly 10 years ago with the release of their Toasted Barrel Bourbon. Fast-forward to 2023 and every major and minor distiller and bottler has a toasted barrel whiskey of some kind. Meanwhile, Michter’s pushed the trend fourth by releasing toasted barrel versions of their acclaimed Sour Mash and Rye whiskeys in limited edition versions over the years, including a brand-new Toasted Barrel Rye that just dropped (it’s on the panel, don’t worry).
Before we get into the blind tasting, let’s get on solid ground when it comes to defining these whiskeys. The average whiskey barrel is generally made from lumber (slats) that have been air-dried and then toasted and charred once assembled. The air-drying seasons the wood with the elements in our air, weather, and local biome. The toasting is a low-heat activation of the sugars in the wood. The charring adds a layer of carbon on the inside of the barrel that filters the whiskey as it processes through the wood during aging.
With me so far? When the industry labels a whiskey as a “toasted barrel finish” or “toasted rye” or “toasted” in some way, they’re talking about a finishing barrel or secondary maturation. The whiskey (bourbon and rye in today’s case) was still aged in new charred oak for several years like all American bourbons and ryes. Select barrels are then batched and then that whiskey goes into a new barrel that’s only been toasted but not charred. Since the barrel doesn’t have that layer of charcoal on the inside, the wood sugars that are imbued into the whiskey are bold. There’s no carbon for filtration so the whiskey is getting the full brunt of those wood sugars. Because of this, a toasted barrel finish is a very quick process — sometimes only days, mostly only weeks, rarely is it months.
The process of finishing in a toasted barrel adds sweet wood notes, dry wood notes, and extra spice, and often accents tobacco and chili/fruit flavors with deep, you guessed it, woody tannic notes. These whiskeys are for the oak heads out there.
I personally think this finishing style works much better with grassy and funky rye whiskeys over sweet, fruity, and caramel-forward bourbons. That’s just me. But I’m going to test that in today’s panel by putting both bourbons and ryes with toasted barrel finishes against each other.
That makes our lineup today the following bottles of toasted barrel finished bourbons and ryes:
- Jefferson’s Reserve Very Rare Twin Oak Custom Barrel Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Michter’s US*1 Limited Release Toasted Barrel Finish Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Ryder Cup Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in European Toasted Oak Barrels
- Wheel Horse Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Toasted Barrel Finish
- Penelope Straight Rye Whiskey Heavy Toasted Barrel Finish
- Michter’s US*1 Barrel Strength Toasted Barrel Finish Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
- Woodinville Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished with Toasted Applewood Staves
- Barrell Vantage A Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys Finished in Mizunara, French, and Toasted American Oak
- Blackwood Toasted Rye Whiskey Barrel Strength
- Michter’s US*1 Limited Release Toasted Barrel Finish Kentucky Sour Mash Whiskey
- Starlight Distillery Carl T. Huber’s Bottled-In-Bond Double Oaked Bourbon Whiskey Toasted Series
- Shortbarrel Toasted 101 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
For the ranking, I’m looking at two factors: Overall taste and depth and how the toasted oak comes through and balances the overall profile. After all, if you’re reaching for a whiskey that says “toasted barrel finished,” it had better use that extra woodiness well. Sound good? Let’s dive in!
- The 100 Best Bourbon Whiskeys From Kentucky, Ranked
- The Absolute Best Bottle Of Whiskey From Each Of The 50 States
- The ‘Smoothest’ Bourbons On The Market, Blind Tasted And Ranked
- The 100 Best Bourbons That *Aren’t* From Kentucky, Ranked
- The 100 Best Bourbons Under $100 Right Now, Ranked
Part 1 — The Toasted Barrel Finish Whiskey Blind Tasting
Nose: Oak comes through with moments of firewood, cedar, and woody winter spice accented by vanilla pods and honey Graham Crackers.
Palate: That oak stays bright and toasted on the palate as woody apples and grainy malts lead to woody braids of cedar, tobacco, and sweetgrass are accented by soft vanilla and caramel sauce.
Finish: That cedar, tobacco, and sweetgrass braid starts to smolder on the finish as the toasted oak takes on a cellar earthiness late on the finish.
This is clearly toasted wood finished with a bold tannic woodiness that is barely in balance, leaning toward the wood over the whiskey’s overall profile.
Nose: This opens with a pecan pie vibe that’s nutty, dry, and full of dark Caro syrup sweetness with a hint of candied orange peels with a touch of cinnamon and dry cedar bark.
Palate: The palate holds onto the sweetness as it leans towards a campfire roasted marshmallow, a touch of saffron and clove-stewed pears, a pile of sappy firewood, and creamy nuances of vanilla pudding all meander through your senses.
Finish: The end has a light savory nature that leads back to the pear, vanilla, and marshmallow on a very slow fade toward a pile of fresh firewood piled high on soft black soil.
This is balanced. The wood is there for sure but adds layers to an already solid whiskey.
Nose: Crème brûlée pops on the nose with a vanilla oiliness next to salted caramel with a hint of malted chocolate and dry pear/apple cider that’s just kissed with winter spice, cedar, and candied dry red fruits.
Palate: Those fruits take on a sweet and almost tart vibrance on the palate as moist marzipan cut with pear brandy leads to more spice barks dipped in mulled wine, apple cider, and cream soda with a hint of tobacco spiciness lurking in the background.
Finish: That tobacco ascends on the finish with a cedar woodiness as the spices refine toward powdery cinnamon and allspice with a hint of eggnog nutmeg and walnut loaf cut with dried cranberries and cherries.
This is pretty well balanced as a clearly creamy and darkly fruity bourbon. There are hints of woodiness but they’re far in the background. Tasting this blind, I don’t even think it is a toasted finish, just a really good bourbon.
Nose: Sweet and creamy toffee mingles with candied apple and ginger hot cider with a sense of warming winter spice barks, applewood bark, and a hint of old oak.
Palate: There’s a salted caramel vibe to the taste that leads to walnut shells, winter spice cakes, vanilla pods, orchards full of fall leaves, and old leather tobacco pouches with a whisper of smudging sage.
Finish: The end takes on toasted oakiness with a dry cedar vibe next to buttery eggnog pudding, mulled wine, and dark fruit leather tobacco.
This is pretty good overall. There’s a bold woodiness throughout and it’s balanced.
Nose: The nose opens with a leathery sense of old winter spice barks, rich caramel, and vanilla pudding cut with butterscotch and orange rinds.
Palate: There’s a sense of singed marshmallows and dark orange zest on the palate that leans into hints of minty tobacco and cedar bark.
Finish: A hint of salted caramel and dark chocolate oranges drive the finish toward a soft old oakiness and a touch of smudging sage.
This is good but a tad thin all around. Still, the wood and whiskey are balanced and clear-cut.
Nose: This has a spicy and sweet nose that’s just like a buttery, candied and dried fruit, and nut-filled holiday cake that’s been drenched in good whiskey and left to sit for a month to really amp up those flavors while a flutter of dry cedar kindling dipped in dark chocolate sneaks in.
Palate: The taste has a clear sense of black-tea-soaked dates, creamed vanilla honey, black walnuts, wet brown sugar, and a touch of salted dark chocolate with a whisper of bitterness that feels like vanilla pods still on the branch and old smoking hickory just kissed with brisket fat.
Finish: The mid-palate dries out towards that pitchy yet dry woodpile with an echo of dirt from the bottom of that woodpile on the finish before the roasting herbs and soft dark berries arrive with a whisper of dark chocolate tobacco and leather.
This has everything. It’s deeply hewn with beautiful Kentucky rye flavors (dark fruit, herbal, creamy) that are perfectly accented with fresh wood. This is the pour to beat!
Nose: The nose opens with bold graininess — think sweet grits cut with honey and butter — next to vanilla beans, apple cider with a lot of cinnamon, and applewood barks that are just kissed with heat.
Palate: The palate leans into caramel apple stewed with winter spice barks and berries before veering into that sweet grit porridge again.
Finish: The finish lingers with good warmth, more sweet grits, and a good dose of spiced apple cider with a touch of caramel candy cutting into that porridge vibe.
This tastes like a really good apple-forward craft whiskey. I don’t know that I’d call it out as a toasted finish though.
Nose: The nose opens with a sense of chili pepper-infused dark chocolate pudding next to a hint of toasted coconut, dry ginger next to root beer, and an echo of pineapple stems that lead to palm bark and fall orchard leaves.
Palate: The palate is full of orchard wood and espresso cream next to a hint of lush eggnog with plenty of nutmeg and a dash of some green, herbal, and savory — kind of like tarragon.
Finish: The end lets the spice amp up toward red peppercorns as plum cake counters with a soft and sweet finish that revels in toasted oakiness, cedar bark, and old dry tobacco with a leathery edge.
This is wonderfully balanced with just the right amount of woodiness to accent the deep flavor of the whiskey.
Nose: The nose is a straight-up classic with a sense of cherry and cinnamon tied to fresh and chewy tobacco with a sense of old cedar bark braided with dry sweetgrass and smudging sage with a light sense of pear candy and cream soda.
Palate: The taste leans into spiced cherry tobacco and stewed pear with a hint of marmalade and peach cobbler next to a hint of black-tea-soaked dates, salted whiskey-laced toffee, and clotted cream before a red chili pepper spiciness kicks in with a sense of cinnamon and cherry bark.
Finish: The woodies of the orchard fruit and spice drive the warm finish — but never hot — toward a luxurious and creamy end full of sharp yet sweet tobacco, a whisper of dank resin, and echoes of old fruit orchards.
This is pretty good stuff overall.
Nose: There’s a soft sense of a pile of firewood cut from an old fruit orchard next to dark chocolate oranges with a flake of salt and a drop of honey with a hint of vanilla cake frosted with apple-cinnamon butter frosting.
Palate: The palate has a lightly smoked cherry vibe next to clove and allspice with a sense of lush and creamy eggnog and vanilla-cherry tobacco stuffed in a slightly pitchy pine box.
Finish: The end really leans into the cherry tobacco with a layer of mild chili spice and more of that soft and sweet orchard firewood.
This is damn good too. I have a feeling there’s going to be a middle section of this ranking with a lot of “look, this is really good but didn’t wow” reactions.
Nose: The nose opens with a sense of soft apricot leather next to dark fruit layered with dry spice barks and berries, toasted oakiness, and fluttering moments of woody tobacco imbued with red chili pepper spice.
Palate: There’s a clear dry cedar kindling vibe that leads to creamy eggnog, plenty of moist winter spice cakes, and black tea cut with creamed honey on the palate.
Finish: The dark fruit darkens on the finish as dry kindling, sweet oak, and rich chewing tobacco dance with dates, figs, and plums with a distinct almond shell nutty/woody feel that ends on a warm hug of a fireplace on a cold fall day next to a fallow orchard.
This is delicious, balanced, and transports you to a warm and comforting memory. This is a winner.
Nose: There’s a classic bourbon nose with dark cherry and maple syrup countered by Almond Joy, salted apple chips, and a hint of old oak staves in a musty old rickhouse.
Palate: The palate has a sense of pecan waffles and cinnamon toast next to Honey Nut Cheerios, vanilla cream, and burnt orange.
Finish: The end has a peach pie vibe with plenty of cinnamon and nutmeg next to dark cherry tobacco dipped in buttery dark chocolate tobacco.
Hey, this is pretty good too. It’s not a “wow,” but it’s nice.
Part 2 — The Toasted Barrel Finish Whiskey Ranking
12. Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Ryder Cup Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in European Toasted Oak Barrels — Taste 3
Average Price: $99
This whiskey was created to commemorate the “greatest team contest in golf” happening this year in Rome, Italy. The actual whiskey in the bottle is classic Elijah Craig Kentucky bourbon made with a mash bill of 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley. After around four to six years, some of that bourbon was batched and re-barreled into toasted new European oak barrels from the wine-growing region around Rome, the state of Lazio. Once just right, those barrels were batched and left to rest before proofing and bottling.
This is good bourbon. I didn’t feel the toasted finish that much though and that’s what dinged it today. Overall, this feels like a great cocktail base.
11. Woodinville Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished with Toasted Applewood Staves — Taste 7
Average Price: $107
This whiskey starts with Woodinville’s award-winning five-year-old bourbon barrels. Once those barrels are batched, the whiskey is re-barreled into standard barrels and toasted applewood staves are added to the barrel for a final rest. Those barrels are then batched, proofed, and bottled.
This was good too, but didn’t pop as a toasted barrel finish. It did feel very apple-forward though, which really worked well for the crafty (grainy) bourbon. Still, this feels more like a one-off than a new standard.
10. Penelope Straight Rye Whiskey Heavy Toasted Barrel Finish — Taste 5
Average Price: $70
This is made with 100% Indiana rye whiskey. The whiskey was then re-barreled into fresh heavily toasted barrels (with a tiny bit of char) before batching and bottling with a touch of proofing water.
This was nice enough but pretty thin on the finish. I think this will work perfectly well in cocktails or on some ice for someone who’s looking for a hint more oak in their whiskey but nothing more.
9. Shortbarrel Toasted 101 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 12
Average Price: $80
This Kentucky whiskey is aged through a few years before it’s vatted and re-barreled into new toasted oak barrels. After 21 days, those barrels are blended and the juice is just kissed with water before bottling.
This is very similar to the above. It’s perfectly fine whiskey with a hint more of oak. That’s it. Use it cocktails.
8. Blackwood Toasted Rye Whiskey Barrel Strength — Taste 9
Average Price: $150
This rye is sourced from expertly picked barrels for a very small batch offering. The mash is a classic 95/5 rye/malted barley bill. The barrels were close to seven years old before a handful came together to create this barrel-strength bottling of only 620 bottles.
So this is where we get into the good stuff. This is a nicely balanced rye with a clear toasted finish. It needs a little ice to let it really bloom though.
7. Michter’s US*1 Limited Release Toasted Barrel Finish Kentucky Sour Mash Whiskey — Taste 10
Average Price: $286
This release takes Michter’s signature Kentucky Sour Mash — which doesn’t have enough corn or rye to be either bourbon or rye whiskey — and finishes it in toasted barrels. In this case, those barrels are first air-dried for 18 months and then lightly toasted barrel before the whiskey is filled in. Finally, the booze is batched and bottled with a good dose of that Kentucky water.
This is tasty whiskey with a nice dose of woodiness. Overall, I can see this shining in cocktails or over ice.
6. Wheel Horse Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Toasted Barrel Finish — Taste 4
Average Price: $42
This limited release just dropped in spring 2023 with only 2,000 bottles. The whiskey in the bottle is a four-year-old Kentucky bourbon that’s finished in new toasted oak barrels for a spell before batching, proofing, and bottling.
Again, this is nice bourbon. It’s a good solid standard sipper with a nice hint of extra oakiness.
5. Jefferson’s Reserve Very Rare Twin Oak Custom Barrel Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $110
This special single barrel from ReserveBar and Jefferson’s takes their classic bourbon and re-barrels it in a custom-designed “wave barrel” for a final maturation run. The “wave barrel” is toasted and then heavily grooved with wavy grooves to create more surface space for the whiskey to interact with the wood.
This is getting into the truly well-rounded toasted oak finish vibe. Overall, this one might lean a little too heavily toward the oak but is a nice sipper overall. Plus, you can calm down that tannic woodiness with an ice cube if you need to.
4. Barrell Vantage A Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys Finished in Mizunara, French, and Toasted American Oak — Taste 8
Average Price: $77
This new release from Barrell Craft Spirits really leans into unique and rare finishings. The blend is a mix of Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky bourbons finished in three different oaks separately before blending. In this case, that’s Japanese Mizunara casks, French, and American oak. Different toast and char levels were used for the barrels to achieve a unique palate that builds on the heritage of Barrell’s other triple cask-finished whiskeys (Dovetail, Seagrass, and Armida).
This is some deep whiskey. Again, I feel like this needed a little water or ice to truly appreciate everything that’s going on.
3. Michter’s US*1 Limited Release Toasted Barrel Finish Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 2
Average Price: $400
Michter’s originally dropped this back in 2014; it has since become a mainstay of their release schedule. The whiskey is standard bourbon that’s then finished in a toasted barrel from the famed Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville. They build these barrels by hand from 18-month air-dried white oak and then lightly toast the inside before the aged whiskey goes in.
This is excellent bourbon with a damn-near-perfect woody finish. I do think this plays better over ice, and that’s the only reason it’s third instead of first.
2. Starlight Distillery Carl T. Huber’s Bottled-In-Bond Double Oaked Bourbon Whiskey Toasted Series — Taste 11
Average Price: $79
This starts off with Starlight’s high-corn bourbons that are four to six years old. Once batched, the whiskey is refilled into new toasted oak from France for an additional six to eight months.
This was as close as you can get to perfect with a great balance of classic bourbon notes and bold woodiness. This drank excellently as a neat pour and beckoned me back for more. Still, I’d argue by the end, the sweet bourbon vibe took over from the toasted oakiness. So if you’re looking for a great sweet bourbon balanced with bold toasted oakiness, then this is going to be the bottle for you.
1. Michter’s US*1 Barrel Strength Toasted Barrel Finish Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 6
Average Price: $520
This whiskey is Michter’s standard rye that’s finished in a second, toasted barrel. In this case, those barrels are air-dried for 24 long months before being lightly toasted and loaded with the rye. The whiskey then goes into the bottle at barrel strength.
This is it. It’s perfectly balanced between funky and fresh rye and a bold oakiness that has layers and depth. This was a perfect neat pour that made me excited to try this whiskey in a ton of new and fun ways.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the Toasted Barrel Finish Whiskeys
If you’re looking for a good toasted oak finished whiskey, any of the top 10 will do. Yes… I know that’s vague.
Brasstacks, The Starlight Bourbon and Michter’s Rye (numbers two and one respectively) are the winners. Those are the whiskeys that you want to chase down from this list. They’re both perfect in their own ways. If you have more of a sweet tooth, then go for the Starlight Bourbon. Though to be fair, the Michter’s Toasted Barrel Bourbon was basically tied for number two — it’s excellent too.
If you like the grassy, funky, and bold ryes, then the Michter’s Toasted Barrel Rye is a must-have.