Basil Hayden is named after the famed distiller by that name who established a farm distillery in Kentucky in 1796. He was supposedly known for using a high-rye mash bill in his bourbon, which was unusual at the time. In 1882 his grandson built the R.B. Hayden & Company Distillery and named his bourbon “Old Grand-Dad” after Basil Hayden Sr. In 1992 the Jim Beam distillery (which now owns the brand and distills Old Grand-Dad whiskey) began producing a small-batch product named after Basil Hayden and using a high-rye mash bill. The whisky is bottled at 40% ABV and claimed an 8-year age statement until 2014, when the age statement disappeared from bottles (you all know what that means).
The 750ml bottle sports an odd wood-and-metal “belt” around a distinctive loose paper label.
Nose: Lemon/lime soda syrup, maraschino cherry (the bright red kind), and fruit-punch bubblegum. The aroma is VERY similar to McAfee’s Benchmark. Overall impression is light and watery, with distinct but faint fruits and not much else.
Palate: Thin body. No tongue burn to speak of. “Smooth”, I suppose, but mostly this is due to lack of flavor rather than lack of harshness. A reprise of the imitation fruit flavors from the aroma, but muddled and somewhat more chemical.
Finish: Short. The impression is of the exhaust that might issue from a chemical factory that manufactures imitation fruit flavor additives. A little tarry, and very slightly bitter. Vaguely unpleasant.
With Water: Why you would add water to a watery 40% ABV bourbon aside, the addition of a few drops yields a little dried coconut on the aroma, and a little extra vanilla sweetness on the palate. Take or leave water with this one.
Overall: I suppose you could say this is easy to drink, but then the same could be said of tutti-frutti vodka mixed down to wine-cooler strength with soda water. Basil Hayden’s is suspiciously similar to McAfee’s Benchmark No. 8, right down to the fruit punch and bubblegum. So much so that I just dragged out the remains of my bottle of Benchmark to taste these side-by-side. The Hayden’s is a little sweeter and the Benchmark is a little more tart. The Hayden’s also has possibly less “rubbing alcohol” quality, but not by much. The similarities must be coincidence, however, as McAfee’s is made at Buffalo Trace and Hayden’s at Jim Beam. Either way, I see no reason to spend $29 – $40 on a bottle of Hayden’s when one could give up the pretense and get a liter of McAfee’s for $16. They perform about equally well in cocktails.
Seriously, you, in the liquor store aisle on your cellphone: If you’re looking for cheap bourbon, put the Hayden’s back and look for McAfee’s or Four Roses Yellow Label. If you’re looking for good bourbon, get some Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek (also by Jim Beam), or (better) Eagle Rare 10 or Four Roses Single Barrel/Small Batch.