The buzz began to spread among bourbon and whiskey aficionados in late October. Jim Beam’s Basil Hayden was coming out with a new release that was to become a permanent addition to the portfolio. With the title Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye, the special spirit was a blend of Kentucky straight rye whiskey, Canadian rye whisky and California port style wine bottled at 80 proof. The regular Basil Hayden bourbon is a high-rye mash bill, and it won double gold in the 2017 New York International Spirits Competition, so getting behind this new blend of Kentucky and Canadian rye whiskeys seemed like a no brainer.
It wasn’t simply finished in a used port barrel – port was actually poured into the recipe. What was this going to taste like? Could a blend of three vastly different ingredients even come close to being as delectable as its flagship brand? As one might imagine, reviews have been divided. Whiskey purists won’t go near the stuff, confused about the addition of port, the blending of rye whiskeys, the low proof and how it even relates to regular Basil Hayden.
“To me, it’s obviously inferior whiskey they poured port into to make it like a bad cocktail,” said one critic. “Why they put Basil Hayden’s name on this is beyond me.”
Whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery believes it tastes more like port than rye — which he says isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
And even Alcohol Professor editor and author Amanda Schuster had a few concerns, one being the low proof. “It makes for a decent cocktail base, but cask strength/higher proof would give it more life in drinks.” she says. “Also, I can’t comprehend why it’s blended with Canadian rye when Basil Hayden’s is such a great whiskey in its own right and they must have some terrific casks in the warehouse to work from. Why?”
We may never know the answers to those questions, but we have unearthed some fans of the product — including this writer, who cannot get enough of the dark, sweet liquid that (I believe) finishes with a flavor of sugar cookie dough.
Bourbon historian and writer Michael Veach went on record as liking the Dark Rye as well. “Think of it as an old Maryland-style rye that was highly rectified. It is sweeter than most rye whiskeys as a result, but it is not a bad product just because it is rectified,” he said.
Also, my flavor note of raw cookie dough wasn’t too far off — “Spice cookies is the way I would describe it,” Veach continued. “I think it would pair well with a mild cigar as a result of that sweet and spicy combination.”
Curious about everyday consumer reactions, I hosted a whiskey-tasting party and presented Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye with little explanation. Most of the people who drink their juice with a mixer or in a cocktail seemed to like the rich flavors, while my bourbon purist friends smelled, sipped and politely said, “No thank you. Next.”
Many said they could detect sugar, spice and everything nice — from brown sugar to nutmeg — and only one other person pointed out the finish of cookie dough, and it just so happens she owns her own chocolate store. She described it as having a flour-like note at the end, which is most likely triggering my memory of eating raw sugar cookie dough as a kid.
If you haven’t tried the newly released Basil Hayden Dark Rye, it’s worth the effort to find on a bar or liquor store shelf near you to give it a try and come to your own conclusions. It retails for $39.99 for a 750mL bottle.
If you’re looking for a recipe to make with the Dark Rye, here it is in a Boulevardier, which adds some bitter components to balance out the sweetness.
Sara Havens is a Louisville, Ky-based freelance writer and editor who pens the popular nightlife column “The Bar Belle.” She runs the barbelleblog.com in which she posts humorous daily reasons to drink. She's won numerous awards for her column and critiques, but her favorite kind of praise comes in the form of occasional free drinks from readers at her favorite local bar, The Back Door. Keep up with the Bar Belle on Twitter @TheBarBelle.