HUGHES BELLE OF BEDFORD
Single barrel selected by Prestige Ledroit
MASH BILL – 95% rye, 5% malted barley
PROOF – 114.4
AGE – 8 years
DISTILLERY – Hughes Bros. Distillers (sourcing from MGP)
PRICE – $139 (includes shipping)
WORTH BUYING? – Yes, despite the steep price.
Total impulse buy. Not at all an advisable way to spend. I am so lucky this one worked out.
I was looking for something on the Seelbach’s website to increase my bottle count, in order to lower the shipping cost per bottle. (A little mind trick whiskey fans play on ourselves to feel better about our spending.😉) A rando $130 bottle of rye I’d never heard of made for a rather counter-intuitive choice. I’m trying to lower my costs and I hone in on a $130 bottle of anything?
The gorgeous label struck me right away. But what’s a label worth? I did some Googling. There were zero reviews of Belle of Bedford that I could find. A few other online retailers were selling bottles from $80 to $120, some of them the standard 104-proof release and some cask strength single barrels. The distillery itself provides only a simple one-page website. And their Instagram account has only two posts—one from 2014 featuring the original label etched in glass circa 1890, and one from 2020 of a customer buying a bottle at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C.
So I couldn’t find much to go on. I did know it was sourced from MGP, using their ubiquitous rye recipe sourced by countless secondary bottlers. I knew it was aged a very respectable 8 years in barrels well charred to level #4. I knew it was bottled at cask strength. And I knew I’d had a 2014 bottle of Willett rye—also sourced from MGP, aged 8 years and left at cask strength—that was absolutely exquisite.
With that uncommonly good 2014 Willett occupying a warm corner of my sense memory’s heart, I crossed my fingers and took a chance that history might repeat itself…
Lo and behold, the familiar specs did right by me. At uncorking, Belle of Bedford offered a luxuriously creamy wave of caramel, vanilla, dill, granite, spearmint, and rye spice—very like that 2014 Willett. At second sipping it was the same. And here we are now at the third pour, three days after uncorking, and tasted in both a traditional and Canadian Glencairn. Some notes in brief:
COLOR – vibrant rusty orange with honeyed edges
NOSE – rich caramel, dill, granite, some vanilla, thick and dusty wild herbs and grasses, all taking me way back in time to memories of Gold Rush era California buildings made of stone, thick rough-cut timber, and grainy, earthen, improvised cement
TASTE – a prickly pepperiness on creamy layers of caramel, vanilla icing, fresh taffy, dill, rye grasses, dusty oak, chocolatey fudge
FINISH – the peppery tingle, caramel infused with the herbal elements, dense chocolate fudge
OVERALL – Like its label, a rye that tastes as if from another era
What is striking me now that didn’t as much on the first two pours is my sense-memory’s connection to the Gold Rush era. I grew up near Coloma, the epicenter of the California Gold Rush. Placerville, where I lived, ended up being the “big town” nearby, with a bell tower, a hotel, taverns and brothels, a courthouse where whatever went for justice in those days was meted out… Buildings from that era still stand along Placerville’s Main Street today, in various states of rubble and renovation. I am very familiar with the smell of their old stone, thick wood beams verging on petrification, and the fine, richly scented dust they generate and accumulate over generations.
Similarly, I recall the sounds and smells of an old fashioned candy store in Olde Sacramento, along the American River Delta, an hour drive by car from Placerville. This is where boats from San Francisco ended their journey, dropping off and picking up supplies and people that would then wend their way by horse and wagon toward Placerville and Coloma. My family made many annual visits to Olde Sacramento, and my brother and I inevitably found our way to that candy store. The rich smells of house made candies—licorice, taffy, caramel, chocolate, fudge—mixed with the worn out old wooden planked floors, dusty brick walls and pressed tin ceilings.
This rye conjures all of these images, aromas, and tastes.
Now, would that be true if it didn’t sport a label that itself harkened to that time? I don’t recall having these sense memories when I enjoyed that very similar 2014 Willett. The power of suggestion no doubt has an influence here.
Then again, my palate’s ability to conjure times and places from aromas and tastes was less developed back when I had that Willett. And, I can still recall now that Willett being less dusty and granite than this Hughes, leaning more into the creamy and dill aspects… So it’s possible this Belle of Bedford rye whiskey is indeed distinct in certain key respects, making it a natural conduit to the past era it’s evoking for me, label or no label.
In any case, this is good. I wonder if I’d ever go for another $130 bottle, life being short and all. But I would certainly go for one of the 104-proof $80 offerings out there. Even 104 is a substantial proof, and would no doubt offer similar experiences.
The widespread use of the MGP 95/5 rye recipe—especially by the ubiquitous Bulleit line—gives it a rep for some people of being “common.” But bottlings like those past well-aged Willett cask strength releases, and this nicely selected Hughes Brother’s single barrel, demonstrate what a dependable rye whiskey MGP has managed to refine. It’s popular for good reason.
Hughes Belle of Bedford is a bottle I am going to enjoy, and enjoy sharing with others. It makes a great case for the multi-faceted nature of whiskey tasting, which brings together the sensorial pleasures of flavor and scent with the intellectual and emotional pleasures of memory, history, the stories we carry with us…