I grew up in the South, in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia, hard up against the West By-God Virginia line. My grandfather was a moonshiner and only gave it up because, one lazy Saturday afternoon, he was bouncing his first grandson on his knee and dropped me on my butt on the floor, setting up a howl that brought neighbors out of their houses for blocks. My mother, all 5’2″ and 98 pounds of her, stormed into the living room, snatched me up.and fixed him with the Glare of Death and hissed, “I swear to God, Daddy, if you even touch so much as a drop of liquor, ever again, you will never see this baby again in your life!”
My uncles cowered in frantic anticipation, awaiting the storm that was surely coming from my fiery, barely-controlled grandfather. Pop sat in his rocker for about thirty minutes, head down, steam issuing from every pore. Then he got up, walked resolutely out of the house, went into the garage and got an axe, and stormed off up the hill behind us. His still was about a half mile from the house, buried in a thicket of tree limbs and honeysuckle vines, at the foot of a middlin’ sized mountain called Angel’s Rest. My uncles followed at a distance and hid behind a fallen tree trunk, watching in utter astonishment as Pop took the axe and reduced that still to a pile of crushed copper, tin, and kindling. And he did, in fact, never touch another drop as long as he lived.
So it was that Bourbon and ‘shine and any other whiskey was a touchy subject around the Eaton clan, and I grew up with only a passing exposure to its charms. I did, in fact, taste Scotch – in Scotland! – before I ever had so much as an ounce of Bourbon. And when I finally did have that first shot of our native whiskey, I didn’t much care for it. I liked moonshine better than Bourbon, back then, but, about fifteen years ago, the veil fell fro my eyes and I Got It.
Discovering Bourbon actually was a life-long journey, as it will be for you and your neighbor and everybody else who likes whiskey. Even before Getting It, I tasted them, in the course of my work. So, I had tasted Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey about twenty years ago and remember thinking it was smooth and mild and very civilized. But tasting it again, now, at the behest of the company’s PR firm, it was…a revelation.
The knock – the only knock – on this landmark American whiskey is that it’s not a Muscle Bourbon; not a 100 Proof behemoth that trips our booze-snot “test o’ manhood” switch. It’s 80 Proof (40% ABV), but retains as much of its verve and nuanced flavors as any whiskey at any proof. I’ve read several reviews of it that I found very condescending, which is irrational, to me. Yes, in certain cases, as in beer and wine also, higher alcohol content may prove out to a greater intensity of flavor. (As with a 16-17% California Zin, you need that greater intensity to balance out the alcohol, so that drinking it doesn’t wind up feeling like you’re sucking a blowtorch.) But that’s not a blanket statement and certainly not with Hayden’s. Basil Hayden’s is the textbook on how to produce a totally satisfying, complex, sophisticated, engrossing whiskey without some accompanying fifth-gear burn-out, the whiskey equivalent, in some cases, of chugging a bottle of Tabasco on a frat-house dare. Lots of big whiskeys are bold and complex but few offer the level of complexity and welcoming drinkability of BH. The flavors tend toward honey and peppercorns and herb tea and peppermint, with a firm jolt of caramel/vanilla/wood serving as its considerable backbone. As opposed to many 80- Proof whiskeys, there is zero sensation of incompleteness with Hayden’s. It’s round and full and lingering, finishing with a minty fade that shows notes of teaberry and cinnamon. In a nutshell, Basil Hayden’s is a Bourbon that’s not totally without bite…but it’s a love bite; a mere ear-nibble of affection for your whiskey sensibilities and THE reigning champion Bourbon for newbies, as a spectacular introduction to the world of Kentucky spirits. 97 Points
Also from Beam-Suntory, the liquor company which owns Basil Hayden’s, comes Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a genuine, certified small-batch Bourbon made by the grandnephew of the legendary Jim Beam and former distiller at the firm that bears the name. Baker Beam knows Bourbon like most of us know our Mamas and this small-batch, custom-barreled whiskey is a gorgeous, uh, distillation of everything this Kentucky icon picked up in his decades of growing up in and later running the family business. Baker’s is produced at lower proof, which means less watering back and more focused flavor. Made with a special strain of jug yeast that was cultured at the distillery and has been used by Beam for sixty years, its vivid flavors start long before the whiskey is even in racked into those magical barrels. It’s aged in smaller casks, allowing the liquid to absorb more roasted nut, vanilla, oak, fruit, spice, stone fruit, and caramel notes than whiskeys aged in larger vessels. Baker’s IS, adamantly, one of those Big Bourbons but doesn’t come across as the lurching beast that is the average 107 Proof (53% ABV) whiskey. Baker’s is voluptuous, rich, almost decadent, and seamless, delivering its firm but restrained burn neatly tucked beneath that assertive wash of caramel and vanilla to make it a Bourbon that’s about its flavors more than its muscle.
Baker’s is masterful Kentucky Bourbon – here in this era of American Bourbon as an art form that’s routinely appearing in areas far from the Bluegrass State – that shows aspiring distillers how it’s done and just how far most Bourbons have to go to reach its dizzying level of realization, craftmanship, and flavor. 98 Points
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