Well, they finally got me.
I blame Ryan. He’s very generous in terms of the quantity of samples that he sends to me. Some of them set my pulse racing, while others elicit a skeptical raising of one of my eyebrows. Very few (but not none) set my eyes rolling skyward; I’m sorry to report that I’ll be considering one of these for your entertainment today. For what it’s worth, I think Ryan was trolling me with this sample; the label had the words “(Sorry) LOL” written on it.
This questionable dram sits at the nexus of several problematic themes for me: it’s a “limited edition” product from a big distillery. It’s labeled with the marque of a brand that proudly proclaims itself “one of the fastest growing super-premium bourbons on the market.” It carries a price tag that – while not at the upper reaches of the increasingly insane American whiskey market – at least indicates that this whiskey is aspiring for serious consideration. It also comes to us at the lowest possible potency. If that last clue made you guess “Basil Hayden’s:” Congratulations and I’m sorry.
For those less familiar with Basil Hayden’s (lucky you!), this brand shares a namesake with Old Grand-Dad: Meredith Basil Hayden Sr. You can read my review of the “OGD 114” if you’re interested in a short biography of the man. Unfortunately, the mainstay bourbon expression bearing his moniker does not do Basil Hayden’s legacy any justice. I had previously described Basil Hayden’s bourbon as “very, very, very, very dull,” and I stick by that assessment.
What’s wrong with Basil Hayden’s? Despite the high rye content in the mash bill (I’ve seen it pegged at 63% corn, 27% rye, 10% barley, identical to Old Grand-Dad), the flavors are drowned in a deluge of water that brings the bottling strength down to the legal limit of 80 proof (40% ABV). From the perspective of Beam Suntory’s bean counters: I get it. You’re able to push out a “super-premium” product (retail price for the bourbon is $40) while stretching the component whiskey out to its maximum extent.
What I can’t understand is Beam’s stubborn adherence to this minimally permissible strength when presenting the special releases under Basil Hayden’s umbrella. The only reasonable explanation is that Beam considers the low proof to be a signature or defining element for Basil Hayden’s drinkers. They may be correct however I presume that the point of limited editions is to drum up some excitement around the brand among whiskey enthusiasts. These Basil Hayden’s releases draw disappointed yawns from the whiskey nerds I know, with the low strength typically cited as the cause of their disdain.
Case in point: the 10-year-old straight rye whiskey at hand. Normally, a rye whiskey with a stated age in the double digits would intrigue those who pay attention to whiskey. This is also a “limited release,” per Beam’s own site for this expression, a category that whiskey fans love to pretend to hate.
The press release announcing the whiskey’s arrival, linked above, loses style points for containing the phrase “these unprecedented times.” More helpfully, it also informs us of the effect this whiskey hopes to achieve:
“Basil Hayden’s 10 Year Old Rye whiskey was created to showcase the bourbon’s signature high rye recipe in an extra-aged whiskey. The extended aging process allows the liquid to pull added flavors from the barrel wood, resulting in a golden honey hue with heightened oak and caramel notes. This sweetness paired with Basil Hayden’s trademark spice creates a balanced flavor profile.”
As far as conceits go: that one is not the worst of all time. My misgivings relate, as noted above, to my skepticism that Basil Hayden’s can deliver much flavor of any type, given the low proof. I’m more than happy to be proven wrong, however. Before I dive in: SRP for this was $70; as I said, this was a sample kindly donated by Ryan, for which he has my ironic “thanks.”
Basil Hayden’s Rye Aged 10 Years – Review
Color: Diluted gold.
On the nose: I am pleasantly surprised to report that this has a seriously yummy, delightful nose. Floral and fruity notes exist in equal parts; I am getting freshly cut spring flower aromas that meet with a whole Carmen Miranda headdress full of oranges, lemons, kiwis, apples… you name it. Some fragrant soapy scents and a touch of aloe vera hand cream draw this away from being completely saturated with sweetness, though a lingering honey scent plays against some mild spiciness. I don’t know that I would have been able to pick this out as a rye if I had nosed it blind, but I’m also sure that I wouldn’t care, so enticing is the aromatic profile. Let’s see if that carries through to the palate?
In the mouth: This is silent to start; I get literally nothing in the way of flavor as this passes the lips and meets the tip of the tongue. In the middle of the mouth this perks up a bit, by which I mean to say that it is not completely lacking in taste. What’s there is reminiscent of Jim Beam White Label: a little nut, a little wood. Whereas White Label has a corny inflection, this rye carries more of a spicy accent of pepper. There’s a vague and airy sweetness of confectioner’s sugar as this moves toward the finish, where the flavors once again degrade into a muddled, watery woodiness. This finishes fast and doesn’t linger, with only a mild residual heat left as a reminder of the whiskey.
My heart raced, then sank, when I first smelled this whiskey. There was so much allure on the nose, so many wonderfully expressed aromas, that I hoped even a faint echo of these in the mouth would be enough to earn this rye some positive regard. Alas, it was not to be. This whiskey does the next-worst thing to tasting bad, which is tasting like almost nothing at all. As noted, it’s more akin to Jim Beam White Label (itself a real dud) than any of the more characterful expressions in the Old Grand-Dad line. Accounting for the elevated price, I am docking two points and encouraging all serious whiskey folk to go back to studiously ignoring Basil Hayden’s.
Photo courtesy of Beam Suntory.