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Belle Meade Single Barrel Cask Strength Honey Cask Finish (2021)

Belle Meade Single Barrel Cask Strength Honey Cask Finish (2021)
It was one week prior to the COVID-19 lockdown that I was standing in a line with 1,000 other people outside of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, home of Belle Meade Bourbon.  A buddy of mine and I were waiting to get our hands on a bottle of the biggest little secret among bourbon enthusiasts: Belle Meade’s famous Honey Cask bourbon.  I detailed the trials and tribulations of that 18-hour ordeal in another article, but that bottle is still among one of my most prized possessions setting on my shelf at home.  My friend ended up selling his for just under $1,000 on the secondary market, but I think I made the better choice by opening mine.
Fast forward to early 2021.  Bourbon enthusiasts began to emerge from our socially-distanced winter slumber to a world that still didn’t look and feel the same.  There had been a shift away from in-person lotteries and raffles to online versions.  Nelson’s Green Brier was one of the many distilleries to embrace that shift as they moved the release of their special Craftsman Cask series from in-person extravaganzas that had masses of people lined up, to online ones.  In May of that year, excitement piqued after an email was sent out on the next release of Belle Meade Honey Cask.  For that brief moment of time, everything felt normal again.
The 2021 release of Belle Meade Honey Cask was conducted with an online lottery system where everyone was given one entry.  Unlike 2020’s release, there would be only two barrels available instead of four.  The 105.3 proof barrel would be available only to members of the recently created “Cooper’s Craft Club” while a 106 proof barrel would be up for grabs to the public.  

Why is the Honey Cask so desirable?

For those who don’t know, what makes Belle Meade’s Honey Cask so desirable is that they were the first to really perfect the process of taking a barrel that had stored honey in it and finishing (MGP) bourbon it.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds because after a barrel has stored honey in it, the staves are in a slightly shriveled form and are prone to leaks. This is due to honey’s hygroscopic behavior.  Nelson’s Green Brier experimented with ways to revitalize these barrels through stream treatments, saran wrapping the barrel to swell the wood and other methods of storage which included consistently rocking the barrels whenever you walked past them.  
The end result was a bourbon that is as amazing as it is hard to obtain.  The honey does not over-sweeten the highly aged MGP bourbon inside.  Instead, it imparted its sweetness along with handfuls of floral bouquets to create a whiskey that is one of the most unique you’ll ever taste.  Many imitators have tried to recreate it, but after tasting those, I can confidently say that Belle Meade’s version still reigns supreme.  And thanks to a good friend, I’m getting the chance to taste one of the barrels from 2021.  Cheers to you, Steve.  I sampled this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Sweet honey cakes waft up to my nose followed by the unmistakable MGP bourbon scent of seasoned oak, barrel char and brown sugar butter.  Hints of cinnamon spice mingle well with the floral scents of clover, lilacs and mums.  A touch of vanilla can also be found.  The nose smells so unique every time I stick my nose in the glass and the depth it exudes is truly impressive.
Palate: Sticky sweet flavors are very noticeable but not enough to detract from the other flavors that I find here.  This is definitely sweeter than my 111.2 proof Honey Cask bottle from 2020 but that’s not a bad thing.  The oak is mellowed out a bit while leather and cinnamon come to the forefront.  Every flavor I can find is like it was enveloped in a tiny droplet of honey.  It’s just so unique.  As the session goes on, the floral tastes become louder.  The spice also becomes a bit bolder.  This is a complex sip that slowly unravels itself.
Finish: A lingering heat trickles down my esophagus giving the perfect “Kentucky Hug.”  I wonder if the added viscosity of the honey makes it last even longer than usual.  Meanwhile, the inside of my mouth is still coated in sweet honey flavors while the floral notes (coupled with a touch of mint) starts to bloom after I open my mouth.  Cinnamon, oak and some leather notes can all be noticed still lingering in the background reminding you that this bourbon has some age to it.  It’s a really well balanced finish to a great bourbon.

Score: 8.8/10

Belle Meade’s most recent Honey Cask release certainly has a lot to fall in love with.  All of the great honey flavors perfectly accent the aged MGP bourbon.  Compared to my 111.2 proof bottle from 2020, this 106 proof bottle is a bit sweeter overall. It’s hard to describe the sweetness, but it doesn’t overwhelm the bourbon profile and it doesn’t taste like alcoholic honey.  That’s the issue I have with other brands version of honey cask finished whiskies; they’re usually too sweet and don’t allow enough of the bourbon to shine through.  So whatever techniques Belle Meade uses obviously sets them apart from the competition.  The price you’re paying per bottle is higher than those other brands because they use older MGP bourbon and also because you’re paying for their expertise.

Final Thoughts

It’s a shame that more people can’t experience a bottle like this.  Out of all of the various cask finishes that whiskey has been used in, honey barrel finishes are so unique that you have to experience them in order to understand them.  No amount of words inside of a review can accurately portray what it is like.  So if you have a friend that has a bottle and have not tried it yet, you definitely should ask them for a taste.
As a final note, I recently took a trip to Nelson’s Green Brier in June of 2022. It was shocking to see that they’ve basically wiped all Belle Meade branded items and whiskey from their shelves.  I realize that they are undergoing a rebranding to bring more focus on the newly revamped lineup of NGB products, but it just doesn’t feel the same.  A quick look into the viewing window of their warehouse showed rows of new-looking barrels with Nelson’s Green Brier markings on them.  No longer were there ricks filled with old-looking barrels from MGP.  I did notice a barrel or two wrapped with saran wrap in the far back corner (which I believe is a dead giveaway for a honey barrel due to the steam treatment they give the staves). But it makes me wonder just how many more Craftsman cask releases they have left before they are done forever.  I truly hope that day will never come but with every release of Honey Cask, we need to be prepared it may be the last. 

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