What constitutes a finish in whisky? Essentially, it is a final rinse in another host cask to apply a lick of paint. I’ve always considered less than two years to warrant the finish labelling with anything more as suggestive of double maturation. These are just my preferences, although I’ve always considered coming up with some devilish formula around the initial cask maturation versus the secondary cask. The Rover formula.
I’m always dubious about the implementation of a finish and the reasoning behind such an approach. As laid out in my recent SMWS Longmorn review, the use of finishes is often applied to gloss over ineffective casks, or to provide an alternative amongst a sea of bourbon barrels.
In other words, the real motivation isn’t to bottle a cask at its zenith. Such a moment has never arrived, or never will, depending on the quality of the cask. The summit may have slipped through the fingers of the bottler. Mark Watt of Cadenhead’s once said during a tasting I attended; you should bottle a cask when it tastes good, as when you return a few months later (or the following year) brimming with expectation, you will often realise that it now tastes a bit shite.
Timing in whisky is everything, whether it is on this side of the Atlantic or the American side. The skill for the master blender, independent bottler, or whoever is responsible for the maturing stock, is picking the right moment.
Behind the Belle Meade line is Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Tennessee, which has been revived after closing its doors due to Prohibition. This came into effect across the state in 1909 and halted a prospering family business. Descendants, by chance, visited the remnants of the old Nelson distillery in 2006. Inspired by what they discovered and the local passion for this fallen producer, the family business was back in production by 2009. However, we’re not here to review their own produce, as the Belle Meade range consists of sourced stock, and has its own specific website.
The line is available in classic, cask-strength single barrel and a special finish cask series, which is what we are reviewing today. A trio of cask finishes make up this subdivision with cognac, madeira and sherry being utilised. Released in a dinky half bottle size, this particular release is batch number 17.06 and bottle number 469. Bottled at 45.2% strength, I haven’t seen this one in the UK as of yet. The recipe consists of a high rye content of 30% and selected barrels with a minimum of nine years of age and a maximum of 11.
When faced with the prospect of this review, my irregular sidekick Rose commented it’d be good to get Tony involved, thereby creating a double bill of the bourbon nerd and the borebun vanillanator. So, for her, this is it. I tracked Tony down to a container park where he was enjoying the combined aromas and spectacle of his opened bottles. Yes, opened.
MALT: What are the basic rules around finishing bourbons? Should they be called a bourbon?
Tony: No. Once you enter any used barrel, or non-charred barrel: no longer a bourbon. It’s just a whiskey from there. Because bourbon refers to a whiskey that is 51% corn in new charred oak containers with nothing added except water. And more specific, but yeah.
MALT: Are you seeing more finishes coming to market?
Tony: They’re all over the place. Especially to mask harsh flavors of younger bourbon and rye, but also to get new drinkers in. Like maybe you’re a wine drinker and start with a wine-finished bourbon. Same as it is easier for me to start with Scotch aged in bourbon barrels.
MALT: How are these releases viewed by the traditional bourbon drinker?
Tony: I don’t really hear too much fuss about it because most distilleries make sure to put it clearly on the label like Belle Meade. As long as they make it clear, then I’m fine with it.
MALT: There was growing pressure within the industry to reuse barrels for a second time. Do you think this will happen on an increasing basis? Should it be labelled as something else?
Tony: There’s a few distilleries that age bourbon in new barrels for a couple of years, then use an ex-bourbon barrel to further age. They call them American Whiskey, as they should: Smooth Ambler Old Scout, for instance. I don’t think it will grow here. Used bourbon barrels are easy to sell off. I guess some of the new barrels are never owned by the bourbon distilleries. They’re just leased from a Scotch distillery or something like that, because they want that used barrel. The Scotch guys need a good bourbon barrel to make their whisky taste better.
American whiskey isn’t what’s popular though; it’s bourbon. A local distillery just rebranded their American whiskey to double-barreled whiskey because of sales. If you couldn’t put bourbon on the label of a finished bourbon, I bet there would be less of them.
MALT: Do you know much about Belle Meade?
Tony: A little, yeah; I’ve heard their story, but its been a while. Nelson’s Green Brier is the distillery. I really only know the Belle Meade line, which is sourced from MGP.
MALT: Have you had any releases from Belle Meade previously?
Tony: I have their Madeira finish cask. Too much added wine flavour. This is why I typically stay away from wine finishes.
With that final line, he retreated back into his container park and his own wee vanilla paradise.
Belle Meade Sherry Bourbon – review
Color: ruby copper.
In the nose: a quelled bourbon nature. Redness, toasted vanilla followed by caramel and red grapes. A rose perfume, red liquorice and very woody. Strawberries break up the charade, hazelnuts and barbecue rust follow suit rounded off by cranberries, cinnamon and rhubarb. Water reveals chocolate and varnish.
In the mouth: again bourbon, but not as wood dominant. Instead, there’s a more rounded nature which makes for a more drinkable experience albeit a higher strength would have been beneficial. A touch drying, vanilla (of course) and blood orange. It does taste young in places and there are more vanilla and wood shavings. After adding water there’s a burst of sweetness followed by tartness.
A cute dinky sized bottle that harbours a whiskey, which confirms bourbon with a sherry finish has scope for potential. I wouldn’t say a treat, but it is food for thought. A sense of fun despite the sourced stock behind this range; I’d like to try the other releases in this series. However, it does taste younger than the suggested age range; perhaps being suggestive that this aged stock isn’t of the best quality? The nose does benefit and displays the finish more noticeably, whereas the palate is more limited and a tune with the original bourbon cask.
Overall, a fairly safe application of a finish that is more of a sideways shuffle than something truly new. Nice to try, but not to buy.
My thanks to @deadscotch for the generous gift of this bottle and a new experience.