“When is a gift not a gift?” – Baron Harkonnen, Dune
The whiskey I’ll be reviewing today was “gifted” to me by Ryan, who was sure I would hate it. He even went as far as to include a handmade meme (reproduced below), in which “Temple of Doom”-era Indiana Jones warns me, “Prepare to meet Basil Hayden… in Hell!”
Still, it arrived in time to welcome me to my new home, which created a nice feeling (dare I describe it as “warm and toasty?”). It also represents a challenge to my existing preconceptions. I appreciate both the gesture and the chance to put my own biases and heuristics to the test with the type of bottle I would absolutely, positively, never-ever-in-a-million-years purchase for myself: Basil Hayden Toast.
Repeat readers of this site will be familiar with my habitual disdain for the whiskeys in the Basil Hayden stable. Corey was not much more impressed with their 10 year old bourbon, though he allowed that hardcore bourbon freaks (of the type that produce reviews for this site) are probably not the intended audience for 80 proof bourbon.
I would agree, but also offer the following pushback: if someone is truly a bourbon novice and they want to begin developing their palate on lower proof bourbon, there are so many affordable options from which to choose. Sorting my local liquor store’s inventory of 750 ml bottles of bourbon in order of ascending price, a newcomer could try bottles of Benchmark ($11), Zackariah Harris ($11), Old Fitzgerald ($14), and Evan Williams ($15), all for roughly the cost of the whiskey in my hands.
To stay in the Lucasfilm universe, I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom from Star Wars’ Jawas, the scavenging natives of Tatooine: “Don’t imagine a use for something; imagine someone else who might find a use for it.” Putting on my creative cap, I will now try to envision the type of person who would be a fan and repeat purchaser of Basil Hayden bourbon. [thinking noises]
Incorrigible smart aleck that I am, the glib answer that first springs to mind is “Someone with more money than taste!” That’s not quite right, though. Basil Hayden is overpriced for what it is, but it’s not that expensive, in the broader context of bourbon in the year 2022. If you were a rich idiot who knew nothing about bourbon and didn’t care to educate yourself, you wouldn’t be buying Basil Hayden to impress people (you’d be buying Blue Run).
My second thought, no less glib, is “someone who hates bourbon but wants to drink it anyway.” After all, Basil Hayden isn’t bad whiskey, in the sense of having objectionable aromas and flavors that make it unpleasant to drink. It starts off as good whiskey – the type that could end up as Booker’s or Baker’s or Knob Creek or OGD 114 – and endures water torture until it is a thin, pale shadow of whatever came from the barrel.
Maybe there’s a set of sensitive souls who enjoy the elemental flavors of bourbon, but can only tolerate them in their most subdued form? Maybe they are supertasters, and the merest hint of character is enough to overwhelm their nose and palate? Again, though, why not just opt for any of the comparably weak and more attractively priced options of the type noted above?
Regardless of whether or not I can conceive of a target audience for Basil Hayden, the existence of these folks is strongly supported by the fact that Jim Beam keeps making the stuff. Not only that, but they periodically provide elaborations on the theme of whiskey-diluted-until-it-is-at-the-very-edge-of-being-whiskey. Announced in early August of 2021, this Basil Hayden Toast is just such a variation. According to Beam’s own site for this expression:
“The latest permanent release from Basil Hayden consists of an entirely new brown rice mashbill and a secondary finish in toasted barrels.”
That bit about the mash bill piqued my interest. Exploring further, I found this verbiage from the announcement press release:
“In lieu of traditional rye grain, Basil Hayden Toast is made using US-grown brown rice… while a secondary toasted barrel finish draws out notes of caramelized sugar and toasted wood. After aging, the toasted brown rice bourbon is blended back with more brown rice bourbon, which has been rested in level four char barrels.”
Setting aside my normal reservations, I’m cautiously optimistic about this one. I’m always more interested in novel approaches when they’re focused on the front end of the bourbon making process (grains, fermentation, distillation, and barrel entry proof) than on the back end (novelty barrels or wacky finishes). That said, this expression incorporates both funky grain (in the form of the rice) and the now-ubiquitous toasted barrel, of which many varieties have been reviewed in this space.
The bottling strength on this, as with all the Basil Hayden expressions, is a legal minimum 80 proof (40% ABV). SRP for this is $50, a premium to the $40 for which the standard Basil Hayden bourbon retails. Let’s see if this putative white elephant will actually turn out to be a gift that keeps on giving?
Basil Hayden Toast – Review
Color: Medium pale gold.
On the nose: Very Beam-like, with the aroma of salted peanut shells wafting out of the glass immediately. I get a very juicy orangey fruitiness in the manner of a ripe clementine, as well as some floral notes of roses. There’s a hint of spice in here as well as some subtle woodiness, but nothing that screams out “toasted barrel” to me. With some time, I start to sense a creamy, buttery note that is accented by a bit of piquant black peppercorn and some freshly cut green grass. A good start in all but – as is always the case with Basil Hayden – I’ll reserve judgment until I see whether this can hold up on the palate.
In the mouth: A mild woodiness and some wispy flavors of mocha announce the arrival of this whisky on the tip of the tongue. From there, it goes mostly mute as it moves toward the middle of the mouth, where the most noticeable attribute is an incredibly vague sense of bourbon-ness, with the volume dialed all the way down to the faintest of whispers. Maybe lemon, maybe caramel, maybe vanilla, maybe oak… who knows? The flavors here are so insubstantial that they defy identification.
Frank Zappa said, “Art is making something out of nothing, and selling it.” Freddie Noe has done the opposite here; in taking these raw materials (both the innovative mash bill and the toasted barrels) and using them to produce this bourbon, he has made nothing out of something. The nose has a few points of intrigue, but in the mouth this is as dull and as pedestrian a whisky as Jim Beam White Label… and costs only thrice as much.
I’m flabbergasted by this whiskey, and not in a good way. Despite the rice in the mash bill and the toasted barrel finish, this is virtually indistinguishable from Basil Hayden. Why did Beam even bother making this? Oh yeah: money. You know where this is headed…
Some of you will now be filled with regret at having indulged my thousand words of meandering preamble before being treated to a review and score that probably could have been predicted from just reading the title. In my defense, I will say that I do my best to go into each review in the spirit of open-minded optimism. I love finding a great whiskey for a good price and telling you all about it. They’re out there, but this ain’t it.
Rather, this is a microcosmic recapitulation of many – not all, but lots – of the things wrong with bourbon whiskey today. It’s also increasingly becoming the rule rather than the exception, which sucks a lot of the fun out of trying new whiskeys from both established producers and startups. Unfortunately, this will probably get worse before it gets better, and I’m fairly certain that Ryan will make sure I continue to have the opportunity to taste the worst of the worst. To him I’d like to once again express my thanks, and also to say, “See you in hell.”
Lead image courtesy of Basil Hayden/Jim Beam.