Nelson’s Green Brier brand of sourced bourbon, Belle Meade, is in its twilight period of fame as it gradually disappears off of the shelves nationwide. What started as a brand that sourced amazing barrels of bourbon from MGP has now been demoted to only being sold in its gift shop (in regards to their Sour Mash and Reserve labels). If you see bottles of those two labels still on the shelves in your local area, just know that once they’re gone, they’re gone.
In their heyday, Belle Meade products were everywhere. There was always the entry-level 90.4 proof “Sour Mash Bourbon Whiskey” that wore a tan label, but it was their Sherry, Madeira and Cognac finished bourbons that stood out most on shelves. They even had the occasional cask strength version of those bourbons if you were in the right place at the right time.
The Craftsman Cask Collection is born
Belle Meade relished most in the fanfare of their finished bourbons and decided to experiment even further with other cask finishes. Starting in 2018, Belle Meade released a cask strength bourbon finished in a Mourvèdre Wine barrel that came from Wither’s Winery in the Sonoma region of California. Other exotic barrels would follow but it was this release that sparked the Craftsman Cask Collection.
Out of all of the wine barrels used to finish whiskey in, Mourvèdre is definitely not a barrel I’ve ever seen before, let alone taste. I had to look up what common flavor traits this wine was known for (after I compiled my tasting notes) because I was curious. Mourvèdre is known for some pretty wild flavors that I wouldn’t classify as desirable, but then again I’m not into wine enough (yet) to know for sure. Some have described it as having “wild game,” barnyard-y or even earthy notes. It is also a grape that needs to be closely monitored for proper leaf-to-fruit ratios, sunlight exposure and soil wetness or else it will impact the final product.
Belle Meade thinks so highly of this wine that they have since released not one, but 5 (possibly 6) total barrels since its inaugural release in 2018. This makes it one of their highest yielding ongoing releases out of the whole Craftsman Cask Collection (the others being Black Belle and Honey Cask). The barrel that was used had a volume of 228 liters (a little over 60 gallons) and was made from French Oak. As an aside, the French Oak barrel has me giddy to try this because of how much I’ve loved other whiskies aged in that kind of oak.
Since each release of Belle Meade Mourvèdre is from a single cask, not all of them will taste the same. Here are the additional details I’ve been able to scrounge up from each cask released so far:
1. If you log onto the Belle Meade website, you must first realize that the pictures and information they have for the Craftsman Cask Collection are not accurate. I spend days tracking down why Cask 4208’s picture showed it as being 119.9 proof while everyone else who had a bottle of Cask 4208 proved the actual proof was 101.6.
2. Under the Craftsman Cask section, there is no mention made at all of the bottle I’m reviewing today. I have also received a sample of a bottle another Mouvedre release that says the proof is 109.1. Is this a mysterious 6th cask that has not been published?
3. Belle Meade is forthcoming with the fact that the 2019 release used MGP’s 75/21/4 ryed bourbon mash bill, but does not say which mash bill the other releases used. Why withhold information on one release but be forthcoming on others?
4. As a final note, I will say that Belle Meade’s documentation on their flagship bourbons is just terrible. There are many missing or inaccurate details as far as these releases go. I believe some of the issues resulted from employee turnover around the time that Constellation Brands, Inc. bought them out in May, 2019. There seemed to be more discrepancies afterwards.
Known Releases So Far
Cask 4208: 10 Years Old, 101.6 Proof, Finished for 148 days and likely MGP’s 21% ryed bourbon mash bill
Cask 3468: 11 Years Old, 117.8 Proof, Finished for 167 days and confirmed to be MGP’s 21% ryed bourbon mash bill
Cask 9251: A blend of 4 to 12 year old bourbons, 109.5 Proof, Finished for ~132 days and likely MGP’s 21% ryed bourbon mash bill
Cask 9249: A blend of 4 to 12 year old bourbons, 108.9 Proof, Finished for ~132 days and likely MGP’s 21% ryed bourbon mash bill
Cask 6968: A blend of 4 to 12 year old bourbons, 123.29Proof, Finished for ~132 days and likely MGP’s 21% ryed bourbon mash bill
The bottle I am reviewing today was purchased by myself through the secondary market in early 2021. So far, there is very little information I can find out about it. It is Cask 6968 and I believe it was released in 2020 along with Cask 9249 and 9251. I do not know for a fact it was released that year, but based on the handful of pictures I’ve found on Instagram as well as a review posted in by Mike Veach in September 2020 (where he incorrectly lists it as 122.7 proof), I would wager that this is from that year. This would mean that it should be a blend of 4 to 12 year old bourbons finished for ~132 days in a French Oak cask. I’m assuming that it also uses MGP’s 21% ryed bourbon mash bill for the blend as well.
So with all that we know, let’s get down to tasting this unique bourbon. This was sampled neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Very deep, dark fruit scents that remind me of plums, grapes and simmering date syrup. There’s a heavy wax note that almost reminds me of a single malt scotch, but it’s hard to describe. Chocolate mousse and heavy caramels make me wonder if these are the products of that lovely French Oak from the Mourvèdre barrel. Otherwise, actual notes of wood can aren’t as easy to find. You almost have to bury your nose in the glass to find them.
Palate: The wine note is immediate and offers strange flavors that are unfamiliar to me. In some ways, the liquid I’m tasting almost comes off as youthful and green. Typically when I use the word “green” to describe flavors, I’m talking about young wood that tastes like a tree sapling. But what I mean here is that there are a lot of herbal notes going on. Very strange! In fact, the note that I get before tasting herbs comes off as almost like a “dish soap” flavor. As I take a few more sips, I find the dram becoming more Hawaiian Punch-esque. The palate seems to have two different moods going on. The first part is almost like a rye whiskey in terms of flavors. The second is undoubtedly from the wine cask that reminds me of a refreshing summer fruit drink. I was expecting something closer to sherry (with its richness and chocolate overtones) but this one has younger, brighter fruit like apples, pears, plums, peaches and grapes. Honey sweetness ties both of these flavor realms together and makes for a fascinating sip.
Finish: Medium in length, but extremely drying after a few sips. There’s going to be a lot of cheek smacking with this one as the fruit sweetness remains just enough, but the herbal qualities begin to contribute more to the lingering bitterness. The wood in this one is strange as it seems to fade in and out depending on the sip. It’s interesting for sure. but seems to be a bit lacking in the end. Compared to long-lasting finishes on Sherry finished whiskies, this one seems short.
The world’s whiskey makers are always searching for a new finishing barrel concepts that can accentuate whatever whiskey they wish to dump in. Fortified wines have traditionally been the cask of choice in the past. But Bourbon’s image as an already strongly flavored whiskey makes the task of finding a suitable finishing barrel to pair it with so hard. In my opinion, the Mourvèdre wine cask used for this release wasn’t as strong as it needed to be but it did manage to help add some additional layers of complexity to it. Unfortunately for all the more fruit flavors it added, dry and overly green flavors took away from the final product. So while I would never discourage a Belle Meade fan from buying this bottle when they see one pop up for sale, I will say that you’re not missing out if you never get a chance to taste this.
Sadly, 2020 hinted to the demise of Belle Meade’s dominance of cask finished whiskies in the American marketplace. Not only were the cask strength, single barrel releases of Sherry, Cognac and Madeira finished bourbons disappearing from the market (along with the batched, low-proof variants) but Belle Meade’s Craftsman Cask Collection saw a noticeable decline in quality too. The main compromises we saw was in the age of the bourbon being sourced from MGP. Traditionally, Craftsman Cask releases used 10 to 12 year old bourbons in their finishes, but 2020’s Mourvèdre release saw bourbon as young as 4 years old being used in the blend. MGP was already increasing their prices for aged bourbon and Constellation Brands, Inc. (Nelson’s Green Brier’s owner) was unwilling to pay for them.
A grim outlook for a once-cherished brand
If you’ve never seen Nelson’s Green Brier main location in Nashville, you may be surprised to find it shares the same city block as the American Pickers store. People come from all over to browse and buy the artifacts of yesteryear that fill their shelves. For now, it feels as if Nelson’s Green Brier will allow a similar fate to descend on their prized Belle Meade brand. There have been no new Craftsman Cask releases recently and a peek into “Coming Whiskey’s” Instagram page shows a shift towards cask finishes coming to the Nelson Green Brier brand. Is Belle Meade destined for the shelves of the American Picker’s store down the street? Time will tell.
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