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The Best American Bourbon of 2018

belle meade bourbon best bourbon 2018
Dan Baker/The Manual

The Manual Spirit Awards 2018 recognize the best damn booze in America. Across nine categories — Bourbon, Rye, Single Malt Whiskey, Unaged Rum, Aged Rum, Vodka, Flavored Vodka, Gin, and Brandy — we blind-tasted multiple products from around the country to determine our champions. Each of the winning bottles was judged on appearance, aroma, palate, finish, and how well the product represented the category as a whole. Our focus on smaller craft distillers in the U.S. allowed us to highlight spirits that, we hoped, our readers have not tried yet.

Best Bourbon

Belle Meade Bourbon

Bourbon whiskey is “America’s spirit.” To be considered bourbon, the liquor must be composed of at least 51 percent corn (the remainder is usually a combination of rye, malted barley, and/or wheat); housed in a new, charred American oak barrel; and aged at no more than 125 proof. Like Scotch whisky, the designation is also locational; true bourbon can only be crafted in the United States.

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Dan Baker/The Manual

Although 95 percent of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, we found our winner outside the Bluegrass State. Belle Meade Bourbon is produced by Nashville-based Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in an effort to resurrect a brand started by the triple-great-grandfather of the distillery’s founders, Charlie, and Andy Nelson.

Each batch is created from four barrels of high-rye bourbon aged between six and eight years and bottled at 45.2 percent alcohol by volume. Belle Meade Bourbon blends the best caramel, oak, and vanilla flavors of oak aging with the baking spice of a high-rye mash bill for a spirit that stands up to a neat pour or any number of cocktails. It is available primarily in the southeast U.S., with distribution in select other states as well.

Tasting Notes

  • Appearance: Belle Meade Bourbon is a golden amber.
  • Nose: Oak notes are the predominant scent, with hints of vanilla, maple syrup, and fresh orange underneath. At first, it smells like the exterior of a barrel, but the sweet hints come alive with the addition of some water droplets.
  • Palate: The high rye content is the first thing you notice, with baking spice notes right up front. This spiced backbone is ensconced by vanilla and caramel flavors and supported by a bready end.
  • Finish: Medium-long, with hints of oak and caramel.

About the Distillery

The story of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery reads like a great American novel: Charles Nelson and his family came to America from Germany in the 19th century on a voyage that claimed his father’s life. Charles had to rebuild his family’s fortune in the New World, so he became a successful merchant and eventually established one of the most prosperous distilleries in Tennessee. Although Prohibition closed down the original Nelson’s distillery, a century later, his descendants decided to rebuild their family legacy and revive Charles Nelson’s recipes for 21st-century drinkers. In addition to Belle Meade Bourbon, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery puts out Louisa’s Liqueur (a coffee, caramel, pecan liqueur named after Charles’s Nelson’s wife), a Tennessee white whiskey, and Nelson’s First 108, a limited-edition Tennessee whiskey.

How to Enjoy It In a Cocktail

Old Fashioned

How could we not talk about the Old Fashioned? There is perhaps no cocktail that is more representative of all bourbon drink than this particular tipple. With only a few ingredients other than the bourbon — all of which are added to enhance the different elements of the whiskey — what you get is the ultimate expression of the spirit. For step-by-step instructions, check out our detailed video on how to make an Old Fashioned.

Glass: Old Fashioned glass
Tools: Muddler, stirring spoon, large ice cube maker

  • 2 oz Belle Meade Bourbon
  • 3-4 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1-2 dashes water
  • 1 sugar cube
  • Orange peel

Method: Add sugar cube, bitters, and water to Old Fashioned glass. Muddle together. Add bourbon and a large cube of ice. Stir. Express orange peel over the top of the glass and drop in.

Best Bourbon Runners-Up

Stein 5 Year Aged Bull Bourbon Cody Road Bourbon Whiskey
Stein Distillery Mississippi River Distilling Company 
Joseph, Oregon Le Claire, Iowa
tein 5 Year Aged Bull Bourbon
Oak and dry spice flavors predominate, with a nice sweetness in the middle. The time spent in barrels shows in a lovely way. A younger bourbon, the caramel and corn flavors are fairly light in Cody Road. A little bit of heat on the beginning and end wake up the senses.


Article by Sam Slaughter

Additional reporting by Will Nicol

Copy editing by Nicole Raney

Photography by Dan Baker

Video by Dan Baker and Riley Young

Art direction and page layout by Genevieve Poblano

Creative team: Will Hawkins, Hanif Jackson, and Chris DeGraw

Shot on location at Grand Army Tavern in Portland, Oregon

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