If it’s true that the whiskey industry likes a good gimmick, it’s doubly true of the bourbon sphere—when a trend catches on, it tends to pick up momentum until it achieves complete inundation of the consumer consciousness. So it is these days with whiskeys aged in “toasted” barrels, although if I’m being honest, it’s a process I’m still not completely sold on from a personal standpoint.
Toasting vs. charring is a relatively simple distinction, but the applications of toasted vs. charred barrels can be more complicated, and I’ve seen no shortage of entry-level pieces written on this that lump all instances of “toasted” oak into the same boat. Suffice to say, this is leading to some misunderstandings among whiskey drinkers. So let’s get a few big things out of the way, right off the bat.
“Charring” is the standard way that barrels are prepared to receive newly distilled whiskey, and bourbon is federally required to be aged in charred oak barrels. There’s no such thing as a “toasted barrel only” bourbon.
“Toasted barrels,” meanwhile, are pretty much exactly what they sounds like—a new American oak barrel is heated gently, rather than charred black with a stream of open flame. The thing is, a barrel can be BOTH at once, simultaneously—some companies such as Brown-Forman toast all of their barrels and then char them, which leaves some of the toasted wood intact under the layer of char. Many others simply char their barrels, and in “toasted” brands may choose to conduct a secondary aging in a barrel that has only been toasted. This is the most common way of putting a “toasted” bourbon brand on the market, such as Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel.
Proponents of the toasted barrel say that contact with the toasted wood boosts the presence of all sorts of essential bourbon flavor compounds, but especially vanilla, spice and confectionery notes. In practice, however, I have often found that toasted barrel brands extract a lot more tannic oak character at the same time, which can undercut the amplification of richness that the distillery seems to desire. The result can be a whiskey that feels overtaken by less desirable oak characteristics. All in all, this makes toasting something of a roll of the dice in my experience—you never really know what it will yield.
Enter, Jim Beam, with their new spin on Basil Hayden. It is indeed “Basil Hayden” now, by the way, rather than Basil Hayden’s, as the brand is undergoing a subtle name update coinciding with the release of this new Basil Hayden Toast. The toasted version of Basil Hayden spends several months in toasted barrels, and is meant to be a permanent new part of the Jim Beam lineup, but this actually isn’t the only major change to this particular brand.
Rather than simply presenting the same bourbon, “now toasted,” Beam also tinkered with the mash bill of Basil Hayden on this release, swapping in brown rice in the place of rye. On one hand this is familiar territory for Beam, which has previously released a Signature Craft Brown Rice Bourbon, and also featured brown rice bourbon in last year’s Little Book Chapter Four, but it’s an unexpected departure from the norm for Basil Hayden. This brand is one that traditionally uses Beam’s high-rye mash bill, as seen in the likes of Old Grand Dad, so to simply swap out the rye for brown rice is a major change to the fabric of the brand itself. Add in the toasted barrels on top of that, and you expect something considerably different than the standard Basil Hayden on the shelf.
And by no means would that be a bad thing, because of all the storied Beam brands, Basil Hayden has always been the hardest sell to your more dedicated bourbon geeks. From the federal minimum 80 proof, to the lack of a solid age statement, the BH brand has sold itself over the years as a kind of entry level “sipping” bourbon, but one that whiskey geeks can be expected to outgrow very quickly. It’s flanked by other Beam brands that are more flavorful and mature (Knob Creek), or far better values (Old Grand Dad), often leaving Basil Hayden in an effective no-man’s land of seeming obsolescence. If the brown rice and toasted barrels could truly give it a personality all its own, it would help justify its position in the lineup—but at an MSRP of $50 for an 80 proof bourbon, we have a feeling this might still be a difficult sell regardless.
With all that said, let’s finally get to tasting.
On the nose, Basil Hayden Toast combines classic Beam bourbon character with some clear influence from the toasted barrel finishing period. I’m getting plenty of the nuttiness that is a Beam signature, in the form of both roasted peanuts and sweeter pralines, along with caramel and the nutty roast of cacao nibs. There’s some molasses-like richness, but also somewhat more oak presence that I was expecting on the nose, especially given that this is another non-age-statement bourbon. It’s clear that the toasted barrel has interacted with this in a substantial way.
On the palate, this bourbon proves to be not quite as sweet as the nose initially seems to indicate—there’s mild sweetness and caramelized sugars upfront, but then a midway transition into spicier notes of hot cinnamon and licorice, into fairly considerably oak. Additional notes touch on mint and herbal tones, but the overall arc of this bourbon is fairly simplistic—brown sugar and nuts up front, into spicy, drying oak. There is some tannin, which contributes a drying sensation on the palate, although it’s not too overwhelming by any means. The ethanol, however, actually seems a bit hotter to me than one would likely expect for a merely 80 proof dram, and I wonder if the spicy oak character makes it seem a bit less approachable than it might be otherwise. Regardless, this doesn’t strike me as “easier drinking” than the standard Basil Hayden expression by any means, and is likely the opposite.
Is it more flavorful? Perhaps, but as a function of “flavor for your buck,” there’s so much great bourbon available in the $50 range that it becomes difficult to specifically recommend Basil Hayden Toast rather than something else, like Beam’s own Knob Creek expressions. At the end of the day, the value and assertiveness of flavor delivered by those brands supersedes the novelty of the toasted barrel, at least in my mind. Basil Hayden Toast is perfectly acceptable when judged by its own merits, but it’s not how I’d choose to spend $50 in the bourbon aisle.
Distillery: Jim Beam
City: Clermont, KY
Style: Brown rice straight bourbon
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $50 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.