For a long time, Basil Hayden’s has been a staple of the American small-batch whiskey renaissance. Since Beam first introduced the brand in 1992, it has often been considered a gateway bourbon for drinkers interested in exploring the world of whiskey beyond the dependable value brands of the bottom shelf. Much of this has to do with how approachable Basil Hayden’s is, in comparison with some of the bigger, bolder small-batch expressions that followed, from both Beam and competing distilleries. Whereas so many of them are all about maximizing intensity or uniqueness of flavor, Basil Hayden’s is all about ease of enjoyment. This is 80 proof bourbon, after all—the same as Jim Beam White Label and so many other “standard” whiskeys. The role of Basil Hayden’s is to be a more interesting variant of “everyday drinking” bourbon.
That’s also why this new Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye release is so unusual and unexpected. Rather than the limited edition rye whiskey the company put out earlier this year, which one would probably have expected as a sensible extension of the Basil Hayden’s brand, the Dark Rye is the first permanent addition to the brand’s portfolio. And it’s not exactly conventional in terms of its makeup. This is actually a blend of three different influences: Kentucky rye, Canadian rye, and California port. To quote the press release:
The spiciness of Kentucky straight rye whiskey pays homage to the high-rye content and trademark spice of Basil Hayden’s Bourbon, and balances seamlessly with the soft, rounded presence of Canadian rye from the award-winning Alberta Distillery (who produce the juice for WhistlePig’s core brands, among others). A finishing touch of California port ties a bow of sweetness and deep ruby-color on this unprecedented blend.
That’s actual, liquid port, by the way—this isn’t just being finished in a port barrel. How much, we can’t say for sure, but it presumably plays a part in giving the Dark Rye its ruby hue. So let’s try a taste and see how it does.
On the nose, I’m getting some mild rye spice and very prominent, deep caramel and molasses notes. That’s followed by some booze/ethanol and a somewhat odd mix of butterscotch and pruney/raisin/black cherry dark fruit notes. The port is certainly making itself an influence here.
On the palate, my tongue is again sort of confused by the profile I’m being presented with. Cereal grain notes and rye bread quickly give way to lots of dark fruit and butterscotch, along with some cocoa nib-like nuttiness. This is very round, smooth whiskey that is almost too homogeneous—it feels like there’s some kind of “x-factor” or “edge” that is lacking, although that may be the result of still being 80 proof. It’s actually not quite as sweet as I was expecting, although it does possess significant “richness.” The more I consume it, the more the profile of fruit and spice reminds me of drinking good sweet vermouth, ‘ala Carpano Antica. To this end, the company also included a bottled version of a Boulevardier cocktail with Campari and vermouth, but once again I found myself wishing for something a bit more punchy, or contrasting rather than complementary. The rye presence in particular could probably be amped up.
Ultimately, I expect this release will appeal to a select group of drinkers who either enjoy port or are looking for a rich, but still easier-drinking rye for neat consumption or unique cocktails. There are applications for it that I haven’t yet discovered, but I think the most interesting ones will be in cocktails that don’t double down on red fruity ingredients such as vermouth. One thing is for certain: This is certainly a unique dram, the likes of which I haven’t tasted before. And at $40, it’s something unique you can try without breaking the bank.
Distillery: Beam Suntory
City: Clermont, KY
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $39.99 MSRP