I love a good rye whiskey — and I really liked the original Basil Hayden’s bourbon that we tried a few years ago. That particular bottle was a little mid-pandemic treat, and for the most part it held up to scrutiny (and made 2020 a bit more enjoyable for me). When I saw this dark rye release from Basil Hayden, I knew I needed to check it out and get a 2023 update on their offerings.
The Hayden family first started distilling in Kentucky in 1840, led by Meredith Basil Hayden Sr. as the owner and master distiller. Throughout the mid-1800s their approach to whiskey production — using an abnormally high amount of rye in the grain bill — gained popularity and enabled the Haydens to build a successful business.
In 1882, the grandson Raymond B. Hayden decided to start bottling a version of their high rye bourbon in honor of his grandfather and bearing an illustration of the man’s face on every bottle. The new brand, dubbed “Old Grand-Dad”, was successful and 17 years later they sold the brand to the Walthen family.
Production continued uninterrupted throughout the years, even producing a medicinal alcohol during prohibition to keep the stills going, and remains a popular brand produced today by the Jim Beam distillery under the Japanese Beam Suntory company.
In 1992, a new brand launched in honor of Meredith Basil Hayden Sr., this time called “Basil Hayden’s”. It proved successful and remains another popular sub-brand from Jim Beam.
What we have here is a Frankenstein’s monster of spirits sourced from other distilleries, resulting in a flavor profile that is reportedly inspired by the high rye content in the original Bail Hayden’s bourbon.
This whiskey starts with a base of Kentucky straight rye whiskey, which likely originated from the Jim Beam distillery just like the original version but whose provenance is undisclosed. We don’t have many details on that spirit, but since it’s a straight rye whiskey we can assume that at least 51% of the grain bill was rye and the spirit was aged for a minimum of two years.
Added to that is a proportion of Canadian rye whiskey from Alberta, Canada — which is where things get a little strange.
Here in the United States, the way that whiskey is classified and labeled means that you won’t really have much of a surprise about what’s in your glass at the end of the day. Flavorings are okay, but the feds get a bit annoyed when you start adding sugar to something you want to label a “straight whiskey”.
Up in Canada, though, things are a bit different: up to 9.09% of the volume of the spirit can be something else without needing to notify the drinker (well, for export at least). Among the list of allowed additives is port wine, a fortified red wine that is delicious and provides not only sweetness but a depth and richness of flavors.
Given that quirk, what I think we have here is a Canadian rye whiskey that was blended with port wine prior to export, and then blended in with this Kentucky straight rye whiskey to make the concoction you see here today. It is unlikely that the port wine was a deliberate addition during the final blending process, it probably went mostly unnoticed until it was time for the labeling to happen.
Previous versions of Basil Hayden’s packaging always annoyed me a little bit. I liked the idea of the oversized label being worn like a poncho around the bottle and the metal band holding it all together like a belt, but it felt messy in execution and the paper would always get crumpled and ripped in transport. This newer version seems to embrace the things that worked, ditch the things that didn’t, and simplify everything.
Overall, the bottle itself still isn’t much to write home about. It’s a standard wine-bottle-inspired shape sporting a cylindrical body, rounded shoulder, and medium length neck. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.
Where things get interesting is the label. This newer version has a more traditional sticker application on the front and back, sporting the brand information and details. I like that they’ve gone with a deep red sticker-like application for the details that is positioned off-center on the bottle — it gives off the impression that someone may have hand labeled these bottles and just made a mistake. That illusion is fractured by the brass metal belt around the bottle, however, which is immaculately placed and looks pristine.
I’ll definitely give it points for the mixed use of materials. Having something to touch and feel on a bottle is always good design in my opinion, and seems to boost sales for the bottles at the liquor store as well. It’s not my favorite design, but they did a good job.
The first thing you’ll notice here is that the liquid isn’t brown — it’s red. And I’m not talking about a rusty metallic color here like you find in some aged spirits, but instead a color red that can only be achieved through either food coloring or contact with some grape skins. That seems to be the port wine coming through already and having an impact before we even take the first sip.
Up front on the aroma is a significant level of raw corn, to the point where this almost might be a bourbon. Following that is some crisp apple from the rye content, and then the port wine starts to have an impact, along with some sugar sweetness and dark fruits lingering in the background. It’s too faint to clearly identify, but it seems like plums or figs would be a good approximation of that element.
I was a little afraid that this would be overly sweet with the added port, but the balance is just right. Taking a sip, the first thing I get is brown sugar and caramel — two very significant barrel aged whiskey notes that roll onto your tongue and open the show. Almost immediately afterwards there’s a bit of black pepper spice that kicks in and can almost feel a bit bitter at points, but that’s a good sign of the rye content having a significant impact on the flavor. From there, the flavors dive straight into the darker and richer fruity components — figs, blackberry, and black cherry — before starting to level off and climb back up to the lighter notes with some apple and banana. On the finish is some additional black pepper and more of that jammy port wine flavor lingering for a solid minute.
There appears to be a bit of sugar separating in the mixture when the ice is added to the spirit, which is normal for a flavored whiskey (like this seems to be with that port wine addition). It isn’t as severe as something with added artificial sweeteners (like Fireball), but it’s still something to note.
As you might expect, what we’ve got here is a situation where the lighter and more aromatic notes are being turned down by the ice and what remains are the darker and richer components. There’s more strength to the barrel aging components like oak, nutmeg, cinnamon, and brown sugar, as well as the dried fig notes from the port wine. There’s still a bit of black pepper spice in there as well, but not nearly as strong as we saw before.
I’m actually quite enjoying this version of the spirit. There might be a touch of something unpleasant from the black pepper spice that you can spot see from time to time, but otherwise this is quite nice. That said, I tend to personally prefer darker and richer spirits, so your mileage may vary.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Pro tip here: skip the muddled sugar. Just pour some of this rye over ice and add a couple dashes of bitters.
There’s plenty of sweetness both from the actual sugar content of the port and also the fruity flavors in the spirit to offset the bitters by itself. What you’re doing is just adding some aromatic notes to the glass, elevating and offsetting the darker flavors and making for a well balanced cocktail.
If I would recommend one addition, though, it might just be a touch of orange bitters or a slice of orange peel. This is just missing some citrus to make it really great, and that level of adjustment feels about right.
This is a fruity and delicious version of a rye mule, and I’m a fan of it.
Those darker fruit flavors are doing a lot of work balancing out the bright and bitter flavors of the ginger beer and lime juice, and they do it in a way that compliments the flavors instead of competing with them. It’s all a delicious mélange of dark and tropical fruit with some brown sugar and cinnamon thrown in for good measure, making something that is delightfully sippable.
On the finish, I do see a hint of black pepper but it isn’t enough to really cut through the rest of the flavors. That’s probably my only note here — that the texture of the cocktail could be a little more interesting if the black pepper was a little more prominent.
There are some really interesting flavor combinations going on here, presumably thanks to the Canadian whiskey and the port wine additions. The darker flavor components serve the spirit well, and make it a great choice for cocktails and mixed drinks.
That said, there’s some stiff competition at this price point in the market, especially from other spirits where the distillery crafted the whole thing themselves. WhistlePig Piggyback Rye is in this same bracket, and their Canadian whiskey has a richer and deeper range of flavors than we see here. And if we’re looking at additives in the rye, then Few Spirits Immortal also qualifies and provides a much more nuanced and provides those herbal notes without needing the added bitters.
This is a good rye whiskey — better than average and absolutely worth your time and consideration. Just know that this is only the tip of the iceberg in the rye whiskey world, and there’s a lot more interesting stuff out there to discover.
|Basil Hayden's Dark Rye Whiskey
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Rye Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $37.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3.5/5
A deliciously rich rye whiskey with some dark fruit notes that works great in cocktails.