A friend of mine is in the process of doing a routine purge of his liquor cabinet, and I was lucky enough to be around when he was trying to find a new home for some of his bottles. Among the ones I didn’t recognize was an older looking bottle labeled as a Belle Meade Bourbon. I was intrigued, and more than happy to find it a new home.
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.
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.
As a “sour mash” whiskey, one of the requirements is that a sample of the yeast strain used to ferment the previous batch is used to ferment future batches, preserving the lineage of the yeast and theoretically developing it over time. It is noted that at least two different strains of yeast are used in the production of Belle Meade’s constituent spirits, although how many of the four whiskies used that sour mash process is not disclosed.
Once the blend is produced, it is transported to the Greenbrier Belle Meade facility where it is placed in charred oak barrels and aged for between six to eight years.
Overall the bottle 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.
As a history nerd, I appreciate the nod to their past and the older style of the label, but it in my opinion it looks far too similar to “bottom of the shelf” brands and might cheapen the perceived value of the product. But when I first saw the bottle I definitely thought that it was made by a company started a little further back than 2015, which I think is what they are going for and does indeed work.
On its own the liquid is a beautiful caramel brown color, and the initial scent is a mixture of caramel and vanilla. It almost smells like a warm creme brulee, but instead of a pleasant creamy flavor behind that initial impression the Belle Meade only offers a bit of alcohol.
At a hair over 90 proof, there’s quite a bit of alcohol in the spirit which gives it a good weight on the tongue. It’s halfway between water and maple syrup, which is pretty much on point for a brown spirit. In the mouth, there’s a couple extra flavors added — including some oakyness and a bit of spice from that high rye content in the grain bill.
What’s interesting is that, despite the low price point and relatively high alcohol content, there really isn’t any unpleasantness even without an ice cube. There’s a bit of an alcohol burn on the finish but not more than you’d expect.
Add a little bit of ice and whatever little burn was left is completely gone as far as I can tell.
Where the vanilla was the most prominent taste before, now the most prominent taste is the oak from the barrels the bourbon was aged in. The charred oak taste is delicious without being overpowering. The more subtle flavors like the caramel sweetness have almost disappeared.
With that ice cube what once was a herd of flavors is down to a one taste pony, which is a bit disappointing.
If you’re looking for a good inexpensive base spirit for your cocktails then this seems to be a solid choice.
The addition of some orange bitters to the oaky rich spirit balances the drink nicely and creates a deliciously drinkable mixture. In some instances the bitters can overpower the spirit but here I think the extra rye content in the bourbon lets it shine through.
Even with a stronger mixer like the ginger beer in a Kentucky mule, the spirit still makes itself known. This isn’t a case of making a watery mule, there’s some actual depth to the drink.
This is why I’m usually a fan of the higher rye content bourbons. When you start mixing it with other things, be it an Old Fashioned or a Kentucky Mule the spirit still shines through thanks to that added spice.
I’m a fan. Compared to the reference spirit (Bulleit Bourbon) this is pretty much on par. It has some of the same flavor profile and ability to make a great mixed cocktail without losing itself to the mixer.
The biggest complaint I have about this spirit is the source. It’s yet another MGP produced spirit that has been aged and bottled with a historical label. Looking at their distillery it appears that they do have a still and other distilling capabilities on site, so I’m really looking forward to the day that I can taste an authentic bottle of their product that is actually made, matured, and bottled entirely on site. Until then this is a fine tasting bottle with a good label that is still 100% worth the price tag.
Belle Meade Sour Mash Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Owner: Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery
Production: Nashville, TN
Classification: Blended Bourbon
Grain bill: 64% corn, 30% rye and 6% malted barley
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $34.99/ 750ml ($0.0467 / ml)
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Overall Rating: 3/5
It’s every bit as good as Bulleit Bourbon and even potentially a bit better, but the price tag and the provenance of the spirit brings it back down to par. Absolutely worth the price.