I first encountered Basil Hayden’s bourbon in the most recent tome on the adventures of James Bond, Carte Blanche, where it has the honour of being 007’s bourbon of choice in his Chelsea flat.
Basil Hayden’s is named after the master distiller who created it in 1796. It’s now one of Jim Beam’s small batch collection and combines a traditional corn spirit base with a higher than normal proportion of rye grains. Bottled at 40% ABV, it’s lighter than its brothers in the small batch collection, but by no means weak. It also has a distinctly different bottle design, with an intriguing label somewhat reminiscent of a belted tunic.
But what does it taste like and can it live up to the expectations placed upon it as a staple of Commander Bond’s drinks cabinet?
On its own
Nose: Sweet and subtle, but very fresh, wood notes with just a hint of creamy milk chocolate. Intermingled throughout are hints of vanilla and woody spice.
Taste: Very smooth to start, this nonetheless had some real power behind it. It started out slightly sweet, with light, vibrant woody notes and just the faintest hint of fresh mint, reminding me somewhat of a Mint Julep. There was quite a bit of warmth – mainly in my mouth, more than my stomach – and a touch of pepperiness, before that initial sweetness is transformed into a rich, dry, almost bitter, woodiness to finish.
I have to admit that I thought this presentation of Basil Hayden’s was rather impressive. With such a substantial cube of ice, the bourbon took on a slightly different character. The faint, subtle wood notes were still there, but I also caught distinctive hints of pear drops. After such a delicate nose, I was surprised to find a powerful taste: strong, raw oak. The chill of the ice seemed to remove all sweetness and the savoury wood notes gradually built up, before a savoury, butter or pastry finish. Hints of milk chocolate were interspersed throughout the finish, too, making this a drink that was unexpected in almost every sense, as well as being delicious.
This had a nose of fresh wood and – intriguingly – pine. It was exceptionally smooth and easy to drink, but had a lovely, cumulative warmth and lots of slightly spicy, wood notes and a very measured sweetness. Whereas some bourbons create an Old Fashioned with a real punch of flavour, this one seems to be more of a slow, but firm, bear hug.
A sugary sweet nose, full of dark oak notes highlighted by dark cherry. This had an interesting flavour profile, with the flavours transforming from sticky sugar, to cherry, to dry wood. These were followed by the kind of buttery breadiness that you get from some ginger beers, which gave what was, initially, a rather strong, savoury drink a rounded, smooth finish.
This had a distinct nose of sweet aniseed or liquorice, masking fainter oak notes. As soon as I took a sip, though, I was bowled over. Although silky smooth to start, peppery, spicy wood notes soon appeared, accompanied by a quick-building warmth. After a few seconds, this faded into the same almost-minty freshness (Julep-like) that the Hayden’s had neat. I loved how the sweet and savoury aspects of the various ingredients played out in this cocktail and it didn’t last long in the glass!
This bourbon had quite a bit to live up to, but I’m pleased to say that it gets full marks from me. Whilst it may initially seem more subtle than many others, this initial smoothness is deceptive; it has a good depth of flavour and worked very well in all of the cocktails that I tried, never dominating over the other ingredients and changing a good deal depending on what it was being mixed with (even if you compare it neat and on the rocks). As such, I think that this is a wonderfully versatile bourbon and one that I only wish could be more readily available.
My favourite way of drinking this was either on the rocks, neat, or in a Sazerac.
– Mrs. B.