One of my earliest reviews was of Belle Meade’s Sour Mash Bourbon Whiskey, and it was pretty good. About on par for what I’d expect a bottle at that price point; a solid workhorse. But Belle Meade doesn’t just make one version of their whiskey. They also have a thoroughbred racehorse in their stable: the Reserve.
Originally founded in the late 1800s, the first Belle Meade bourbon was one of around thirty different labels of bourbon produced by Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Greenbrier, Tennesee.
Manufactured in cooperation with the owners of the Belle Meade horse plantation (whose horses’ bloodlines would include Seabiscuit, Man o’ War, Secretariat, and others), the bourbon gained a reputation for being a solid and economical choice for local drinkers. When prohibition came to Tennessee in 1909, the distillery stopped production and ended the brand.
Belle Meade was resurrected in 2015 by Andy and Charlie Nelson, descendants of the eponymous Charles Nelson who gave his name to the original distillery, after the brothers stumbled onto the remains of their family’s old distillery while on the road to the butcher’s shop back in 2006.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
Much like how the original Belle Meade brand was made by the Nelson Distillery and not actually a Belle Meade product, the new Belle Meade brand is made from a blend of four different whiskies produced by MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
The specifics of those distilled spirits aren’t disclosed, but some other reviewers have nailed down the recipe to an aggregate grain bill of 64% corn, 30% rye, and 6% malted barley. That higher rye content, similar to the Bulleit Bourbon reference spirit we use here, should give the bourbon a more complex taste than a straight corn mix, for example.
Once the blend is produced, it is transported to the Greenbrier Belle Meade facility where it is placed in charred oak barrels and aged between six to eight years.
For the Reserve bottling of their bourbon, Belle Meade hand selects barrels from their storehouse that are of superior quality and combines them into a small batch for bottling. This version was previously marketed at cask strength (with the alcohol content being whatever came out of the barrel that day), but they seem to have proofed down this latest version to a more consistent 108.3 proof (or 54.15% alcohol by volume), which is about 10 points higher than usual.
Overall, the bottle just isn’t remarkable. It’s a fairly standard shape and size of a whiskey bottle.
What’s interesting to me is that the label isn’t some faux historical reproduction. The Nelson brothers, when they were resurrecting the Belle Meade brand, actually found the original artwork for the label and have been using it on their bottles ever since. The two horses on either side are illustrations of the famous breeding stock from Belle Meade who went on to win multiple triple crowns. And for their reserve version, the colors have been altered a bit so that the golden horses are on a black background instead of a white one.
This is a good change from the original. Their standard bourbon features a more “faux aged” look and feel, but the black background is much more modern. It’s clean and sharp, like a mixture of old and new traditions.
I called the aroma coming off the standard version of this whiskey “creme brulee”, but there’s a little more going on in this version. I get a good rich helping of caramel and some vanilla, but there’s a citrus note chiming in that’s like a touch of orange or lemon zest. Definitely adding a bit of needed acidity.
Straight out of the bottle, you’ll notice that this is a little more “high test” than a standard whiskey thanks to the 108.3 proof rating. That means well over half the contents of the bottle are actual alcohol, probably a good 25% higher than a typical whiskey. So you’re going to have a good bit of alcohol burn, and that’s to be expected.
Once you get past that initial punch of alcohol there are some good rich flavors in here. The first thing that strikes me is some dark chocolate, followed by a toffee caramel, and then a touch of smoke or charred wood. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything to balance those flavors so the experience remains richer and darker than normal. There’s some bitterness associated with that dark chocolate item, but at the end the whiskey finishes relatively smoothly with a black pepper spice lasting for a couple minutes afterwards.
Usually, when I drop a couple ice cubes in my whiskey I’m mourning the loss of the more delicate and lighter flavors. However, the good news here (sort of) is that there are no light flavors to mourn. Everything in the flavor profile was dark and rich and saturated, meaning that they stand up really well against the cold and the dilution.
The changes in this case are all for the better. There isn’t the same forceful alcohol punch in the face that we saw earlier, and instead a more refined and relaxed experience. The bitterness that accompanied the dark chocolate seems to have almost disappeared and what’s left is the same richness and depth of flavor — only without the harsher tones.
Also thankfully coming through is a bit of that black pepper spice from the rye content in the grain bill. That should come in handy for cocktails.
One thing that I didn’t note in any of my comments so far: sweetness. This isn’t a particularly sweet bourbon, instead leaning more on the dark-and-rich side of things. There probably is a good bit of sweetness from the corn content in the mash bill, but that’s already fighting a losing battle with the other flavors and doesn’t have much strength left for other endeavors.
I mention all of this mainly because, with this whiskey, an old fashioned is a cocktail where it’ll be passable if you just want to add the bitters… but it’ll truly be great if you add some sugar.
In terms of the flavors, there’s a lot here to work with. Those dark, rich flavors do a great job blending and balancing with the flavors in the angostura bitters, and the result is a rich and delicious cocktail that does quite well in sipping. As long as you don’t forget the sugar.
There are some days when I want a nice bright and refreshing mule. And there are some days when I wand a darker and more complex mule. This is definitely a cocktail for the latter situation.
Those the dark chocolate and toffee caramel flavors do an excellent job balancing out the bright and cheerful ginger beer. In fact, you could almost say they go the opposite direction — the ginger beer is fighting for dear life to balance out the whiskey! That adds a depth and a complexity that you don’t usually see with other bourbons (and especially not with clear spirits like vodka).
Beyond that, as usual with a higher rye content whiskey, that pepper spice comes in at the end and adds a clear kick to make things a bit more interesting. Definitely not overpowering, but enough of a notion that it’s enjoyable and noticeable.
This is a pretty darn good straight bourbon. There are a lot of great flavors in here, with some depth and richness that you don’t always seen done quite as well. And, especially thanks to that higher proof bottling, the flavors seem to hold up better and come through clearer in cocktails than normal.
The problem for this whiskey might be that they have priced themselves into a corner. The whiskey is good… but at near-as-makes-no-difference $60 price point, the competition is fierce and there are a bunch of other bottles out there that deserve my money more. This is still absolutely worth the money and getting a solid three stars, but either knocking the price down a bit or shaving off some of those sharper edges with the bitterness would see it improve in the rankings.
|Belle Meade Reserve Bourbon
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 54.15% ABV
Price: $59.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A solid, middle of the pack racehorse.