Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Basil Hayden's 8 yr old Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Great discoveries are often made by accident. Jeff Dufour wrote, in a 2006 article entitled, The History of Bourbon, a happy accident, (click here) that in the late 1780’s, Elijah Craig, a distiller of Bourbon County, Kentucky, took old fish barrels and used them for whisky that was to be shipped to New Orleans. In order to clean out the inside of the fish barrel, he observed the cheapest and most efficient way to do so involved burning the inside with an open flame. The charred interior of the barrel cured any smell or remnants of fish. Thereafter, Mr. Craig would send the barrels of Kentucky whisky by boat to New Orleans, a trip in those days that could take a couple of months. The whisky that arrived in New Orleans tasted better than when it left Kentucky. Suddenly, charring the insides of barrels became a must for Kentucky whisky distillers. The charred wood imparted flavors of vanilla, oak and smoothed out the roughness of the whisky.

What the above story has to do with Basil Hayden’s 8 year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, I do not know, but just felt compelled to impart that interesting anecdote to you. “Eric,” a reader of this blog, kindly provided me with a link to Mr. Dufour’s article that enabled me to learn this interesting tidbit in the history of American whisky. Thanks Eric!

In any event, moving right along, lately, I have been sampling Basil Hayden’s bourbon. I first tasted it at a whisky festival in November 2009. I was impressed and decided I needed a bottle for further study and eventual posting of a tasting note. Unlike a lot of reviewers on the web, I try to only post tasting notes based on my sampling of a bottle. I do not think an adequate opinion of a whisky can be formulated from a tiny 200ml bottle or at a whisky tasting. I need a bottle that I can return to several times over different evenings before coming to a conclusion as to a whisky’s merits and defects.

Nose (undiluted)
Floral, vanilla, corn husk.

Palate (undiluted)
Light bodied, gentle corn and rye tang, distinctive of bourbon, graces your taste buds like a tiny dancer. Summer easy sweet charcoal, like a wheeping willow tree graced by a light breeze. Caramel flavors hang in the background throughout the tasting.

Finish (undiluted)
Sweet corn, a little rye warmth, and the flotsam jetsam charcoal/vanilla flavors culminating in some of the mildest spice I have ever experienced in bourbon.

General Impressions
My immediate impression of this bourbon is that it is very light bodied and consequently easy drinking. Very easy! This is not spicy. Yes, there is some spice, but it is so mild that the word “spice” hardly seems appropriate. It would be the perfect ingredient in mixed drinks calling for bourbon, except it is too expensive to be used as mix. It is a mere 80 proof and tastes like less. This bourbon is so mild that if you have never had bourbon or always added ice or water, well if there was ever a time to try it straight, it would be now.

As a general statement, it is fair to say that when bourbon is sweet, it is due to the corn grain used. Rye provides spice. Without checking Basil Hayden’s website (click here) I was sure there was less rye (meaning more corn) in this bourbon recipe than typically found in other bourbons. Well, guess what? I was dead wrong. There are exceptions to every rule and Basil Hayden is one.

A visit to the website indicates that Basil Hayden’s 8 yr old bourbon is based on a recipe of twice as much rye as corn when compared to the recipes of the remainder of the Small Batch collection marketed by Beam Global Spirits and Wine Inc., namely: Knob Creek, Booker’s and Baker’s. Trouble is: Knob Creek and the others are a helluva lot more spicy, robust and challenging than Basil Hayden’s, but I guess it is not due to the rye content.

Anyway, back to my impressions of this bourbon. I am a bit underwhelmed (is that a word?) given the premium price for a whisky marketed as an ultra-premium bourbon. Why? This bourbon just lacks pizzazz. It’s too smooth, no burn going down, so gentle that you can never mind all that advice about taking little sips I make in other reviews. It lacks any challenge or intrigue. It's belongs in the featherweight bourbon division (there is no such division, I just made that up!).

Something can be simple yet interesting or memorable. We see this all the time in music. Take the catchy guitar riff in Daytripper by the Beatles or Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. The music is simple but its gotta 'hook' that brings you back for more. Whisky may be understood the same way. Jim Beam Black, Johnnie Walker Black are not overly complex, but have that “hook” that brings you back again and again for another sip. Basil Hayden’s lacks that hook in terms of flavor. For that reason, I would not buy it again, not because it is bad but rather because it is not "great."

So, who should buy this? If you are trying bourbon for the first time, this would be worth getting to know before you try much more robust and superior bourbons of the heavyweight division like Wild Turkey 101 and Knob Creek. Trust me, the latter whiskies will knock you out with a punch you won't see coming!



© Jason Debly, 2010. All rights reserved.


  1. Jason:

    Ran across your blog while searching for Wild Turkey 101 tasting notes. You are dead on concerning both bourbons. WT 101 is double the bourbon for 1/2 the price of BH 8YR. In fact, I am enjoying a glass of the kickin' chicken right now.

    Keep up the good work!



  2. Thanks Mike! WT 101 is a classic at a great price.

  3. Hi Jason

    Nice review!

    Just a little correction. There is indeed more corn than rye. The spirit must contain 51 % corn or it may not be called bourbon. The recipe for Basil Hayden's however has twice as much rye as is normally used in Jim Beam Bourbon. So if the Beam mash is 10 % rye the Hayden Mash would be 20 %. (I do not actually know the real per centage those are just examples.)

    But I do think your review per se hit all the right aspects of the bourbon.

  4. Duly noted! I will make the correction. What I meant is as you pointed out, this bourbon uses twice as much rye as is typically used in other Jim Beam bourbons.

    I'll make the change to the review asap.

  5. Agreed on not adding water. I really enjoy the light body with the added higher rye content. And that is the frustration thing about Basil Hayden's, I really enjoy the lighter body bourbons from time to time, but it almost feels diluted in flavor - not something one should experience with a Beam "Small Batch" bourbon. If it held smaller price tag I would be much more inclined to have it more often. I would be interested in having a small increase in the abv level to pull some of those side notes to the forefront.

  6. Thanks for this great article! I can only agree with your statement. I tried the Basil Hayden's some days ago and it is a very light and smooth bourbon. It didnt really catch me and so one glass was more than enough for me to find out that this is just not my style. I would prefer the Elijah Craig 12 much more (here in Germany its even cheaper than the Basil). Any comments on that?

    1. Elijah Craig 12 is a fine American whisky. Certainly has a more robust flavor profile.

      Sometime try and find Buffalo Trace, another good bourbon.