Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Kentucky Springs Distilling Company (Beam-Suntory Brands) – 80 Proof
Bourbon, like barbecue, is a topic made for debate and often unwilling to lend itself to consensus. But where most discussions over the use of water or rocks boil down to personal preference and remain good natured, it seems that the quality of Beam-Suntory’s Basil Hayden’s can divide camps quicker than putting a brown sugar sauce on an eastern Carolina hog. The softest of Beam-Suntory’s “ultra-premium” offerings—including Booker’s, Baker’s, and Knob Creek—Basil Hayden’s has the ability to light up message boards with polarized opinions, and while others find much to question here, I find much to like.
Basil Hayden’s, as many of our readers may already know, is oddly not the only bourbon named after Basil Hayden. The other, named by his grandson R.B. Hayden, is Old Grand-Dad. But the two share more than a namesake: they share a high-rye mash, and some of the controversy comes from consumers who eye suspiciously BH’s mellower proof and higher price. Another issue—something running rampant in the entire industry these days—is the recent elimination of an age statement. BH once proudly announced it was 8 years old; now it is simply “artfully aged.” While there are plenty of quality NAS bourbons out there, not knowing whether BH is aged any longer than OGD has lead many detractors to assume that it isn’t, and that the only discernible difference between the two is the water used to drop Hayden’s proof. (If you’re curious how “concerned” we are at B&B about these “controversies,” we were more than happy to recommend BH as a holiday gift last year.)
While I can’t comment with a distiller’s authority on that issue, I can say that the “watered down” charges won’t be rebutted by Basil Hayden’s color. It is the yellow brass of many light wheated bourbons, rather than the brisk copper that draws most drinkers. The nose is light and enjoyable (an appropriate description for the entire sample) with allspice and black tea and mint. It hits the tongue a little flat with an oakiness that I didn’t find in the nose and maybe a drop of vanilla with little sweetness or sting. Like those of you reading, I was prepared for the finish to leave gently, and was pleasantly surprised when it did not. It’s the real draw here, when that high rye mash finally brings some cool-spice and a peppermint that lingers after all the other flavors have checked out. It’s like Ali not throwing a punch for 8 rounds and then delivering a KO. You think, Man, I want to see that again.
It probably goes without saying that I like Basil Hayden’s neat, and those I’ve shared it with agree. The low proof would get drowned by melting ice or branch water—though some people will like how easily that goes down—but it also allows that spicy rye finish to shine through and provide some of the bite that is missing in an 80 proof selection. While many Jim Beam loyalists will advocate Baker’s and Booker’s over BH, I’d recommend it over Knob Creek and the Signature Craft offering anytime.
Value: Medium-High—Like opinion regarding it, Basil Hayden’s price seems to run the gamut. I’ve seen it for $54.99 and $38.99, and while the former almost excludes it from consideration, the latter can easily put it on your shelf.
Drinkability: Highest—The light body and low proof will appeal to almost everyone, and while it won’t become the nightly dram for cigar-chewing aficionados, they too will find a time and place to enjoy it.
Overall Rating: 8.4