I am a big fan of barrel-finished whiskey. Normally, most non-blended bourbon, rye or whiskey has profiles that stick to a particular profile. Caramel and vanilla for bourbon, spice and floral for rye, malty and fruity for malt whiskey… you get the picture. But barrel finishing imparts each of those other whiskies unique profiles that their base grain and the oak of the barrel just cannot achieve.
Belle Meade’s Black Belle
One barrel finished profile that I always avoided was beer barrel finishes. It just never appealed to me to add a bourbon to something that contained malty, hoppy or even bitter beer. But after seeing some favorable reviews of Belle Meade’s Black Belle, I became curious. The bottle that tipped the scales for my curiosity was when I found out that a local bourbon company in Indiana also produced a MGP bourbon that was finished in stout beer barrels. So I purchased one of each and decided that a side-by-side review was in order.
Black Belle is a 10-11 year old MGP bourbon that’s been finished in BlackStone Brewery’s Imperial Stout Casks and then bottled at cask strength. Surprisingly, cask strength for this was anywhere from the low 90’s to 96.5 proof. If you’ve never heard of Black Belle, it’s part of their Craftsmen Cask series that see older stocks of MGP bourbon put into unique casks (Honey, Stout Beer, Tannat Wine, etc).
On the other side is Big Red Liquors, who are one of the largest chain of liquor stores in Indiana. They selected (probably) more than 1 barrel of 8 year old MGP bourbon and had it finished by Heartland Distillers (located in Indianapolis) in local brewer Taxman Brewery’s Imperial Stout casks. Taxman is a great brewery that is just 5 minutes from my house and I’m a fan of their beer so that really sold me on it. VIP #2 (what Big Red labeled it) was bottled at 114 proof, just like the first VIP series bottle which was unfinished.
So how does bourbon finished in stout casks taste? I sat down for this semi-blind tasting and poured some neat and in a glencairn.
Blind Glass #1
Palate: There seems to be a delay getting the initial flavors to register on my tongue. I probably attribute it to the beer barrel finishing. But after a second or two, the flavors begin to register and it’s more of the same from the nose. Candied oranges, chocolate covered raspberries, a little cinnamon and some typical rye spice notes.
Finish: A little heat on the end that comes more from the rye spice than the proof. There is a lingering Turkish Coffee grounds and chicory root bitterness. They’re not off-putting though, especially if you’re a coffee drinker.
Blind Glass #2
Nose: A lighter style of coffee than Glass #1. It’s more like a Dunkin or Gevalia coffee (medium roast?). There’s also chocolate shavings and tiramisu followed by sweet cream and cherries.
Palate: This seems lighter and perhaps younger than Glass #1. There are cherries and semi-sweet chocolate present along with oatmeal and chocolate stout beer. This has a sweeter palate than Glass #1, but again, the thinness doesn’t bode well for deep, intense flavors.
Finish: Thinner and more fruit forward than Glass #1’s finish. I’m getting sweet cherries and navel oranges. It has more bitter characteristics than Glass #1, with a sort of “Truck-Stop coffee that’s been sitting all night” vibe. There’s also some cinnamon stick aftertaste too.
Glass #1: Big Red Liquors VIP Bourbon #2
Glass #2: Belle Meade Black Belle
Winner: VIP Bourbon #2!
This result surprised me! I felt that the Black Belle’s older age would help define it better by giving it a deeper, richer flavor. I also generally love anything that Belle Meade puts out. But the VIP #2 gets the win because of the intensity and richness of the flavors coupled with the price. Both of these releases aren’t available anymore, but when they were, the VIP bottle had the advantage in price with $60 per bottle as opposed to the $100 Black Belle. The Black Belle now goes for over $210 on secondary markets.
As for the overall joy and satisfaction of drinking these two, I will say that there is a clear winner in this match, but I will also say that I would encourage you to not discount a beer barrel finished bourbon if you ever come across one. Especially if you are a lover of chocolate, coffee and stouts. You’ll find that it adds a rewarding extra dimension on top of the bourbon traits and adds no unusual or off-putting beer characteristics. It’s way up there with my favorite barrel finishing techniques (favorite, though, remains Armagnac).
1 | Disgusting | Drain pour
2 | Poor | Forced myself to drink it
3 | Bad | Flawed
4 | Sub-par | Many things I’d rather have
5 | Good | Good, solid, ordinary
6 | Very Good | Better than average
7 | Great | Well above average
8 | Excellent | Exceptional
9 | Incredible | Extraordinary
10 | Insurpassable | Nothing Else Comes Close
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