Basil Hayden’s straight bourbon is a straightforward high-rye bourbon at a reasonable price. It’s popular as a gateway into the category and well-suited for classic bourbon cocktails.
Company: Beam Suntory
Distillery: Kentucky Springs Distilling Company (James B. Beam Distilling), Clermont Kentucky
Cask: New American oak, light char
Mash bill: Undisclosed high rye; common speculation is 63% corn, 27% rye, 10% malted barley
Released: 1992, ongoing
Proof: 80 (40% ABV)
Aged: No age statement; age is at least 4 years due to labeling rules; thought to be 8 years or less
Awards: Double Gold, 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition; Silver Medal, 2020 International Spirits Challenge
- Attractive bottle
- Very easy-drinking bourbon distilled and bottled at the source
- Well-suited for classic bourbon cocktails such as Juleps and Old Fashioneds
- Some find the price too high for what you get.
- Not particularly complex
- Many bourbon fans prefer a higher proof, which might create more intrigue in this bottle.
Color: A pale caramel to a copper gold, the color is appropriate to the whiskey’s suspected age sitting on new oak.
Nose: A mild, balanced, uncomplicated nose with an upfront emphasis on cooked fruit, oak and vanilla. The lower ABV likely contributes to the subtlety of the aroma. Revisiting after the whiskey sits in the glass increases the presence of vanilla, oak and citrus.
Palate: At the front of the palate, it takes a bit to warm up and expose the medium dry tannic bite and rye spice, opening with light wood and orange notes. As it expands, you find notes of peach and vanilla. On the midpalate, it’s quite light, but there’s a bit of chewiness that at a higher proof might be more detectable. Toward the back of the throat, oak, black pepper, and vanilla and orange marmalade dominate.
Finish: Despite the proof, there’s a longish finish, though when it vanishes, it vanishes. Here, the spice of the rye component becomes more pronounced with a fruit-smoke-oak overtone.
Launched in 1992 by Booker Noe as part of Jim Beam’s small-batch collection (along with Baker’s, Booker’s and Knob Creek), Basil Hayden’s comes in at a lower proof than the others (which are all 90 or 100 proof) and with a distinctive rye-forward mash bill. The company positions it as a premium “light-bodied and mixable” bourbon and an easy introduction into the category. Critics tend to see it as unspectacular and higher priced than comparable 80-proof options, but a huge mark in its favor is that it’s produced, distilled and bottled on-site at the Beam distilleries, whereas many cheaper whiskeys are sourced from industrial producers with uncertain provenances. The small-batch production also offers some credibility.
The whiskey is named for Meredith Basil Hayden Sr., whose grandson Raymond Haydon created the classic Old Grand-Dad label also produced by Beam Distillery, and the rumors are that this whiskey’s mash bill is similar or identical. Interestingly, Old Grand-Dad runs about half the price at a higher proof, and some bourbon fans argue that you should default to it as your go-to entry bourbon. Though the brand dropped the eight-year age statement from the label in 2014 in favor of the opaque statement “artfully aged,” the whiskey in the bottle is at least four years old (as per labeling laws, since it’s a straight bourbon with no age statement) and is definitely less than 10 years, since the brand offers a 10-year expression. Most of the buzz still places the age at or around eight years, but it’s difficult to tell. A nine-year Basil Hayden’s is a component in the Little Book Chapter Three Road Home expression released in 2019.
Though producers and spirits writers increasingly shy away from the word “smooth” as a descriptor, this is likely the sort of bourbon that fans would call smooth. The low ABV and careful production techniques ensure that those who aren’t looking for a “big” whiskey experience or bold character will be pleased. The spicy rye content also adds interest and a level of complexity for those who may shy away from the sweetness of comparable wheated whiskeys like Maker’s Mark. Likewise, though it could get overwhelmed in some cocktails that emphasize bold flavors like Campari or a significant number of mixers, it’s pretty perfect for bourbon-forward drinks such as a Mint Julep, Old Fashioned or Whiskey Ginger. I would personally avoid it in a Manhattan, but some may find it pleasant enough.
Freddie Noe, who’s on record as the master distiller for Basil Hayden’s, is the grandson of the legendary Booker Noe and the great-great grandson of Jim Beam himself. He’s also the creative force behind the higher-end Little Book series of limited-edition whiskeys.
The bottom line: For many people, Basil Hayden’s is an ideal bridge between nonpremium low-priced spirits and the more expensive small-batch or indie distillery labels that crowd the shelves. It’s also frequently available at a lower price than the MSRP, depending on your location. It’s a great after-work sipper and a nice way to introduce friends and family to bourbon who might shy away from bolder examples. It’s also a gateway to entice those same friends to check out Basil Hayden’s more interesting 10-year or Dark Rye expressions.