Let’s deal with “Smooth” for a second…
I took a blood oath with myself, when I started writing about Whiskey, that I would avoid the word “smooth” at all costs; would treat it like a cobra lying in my path. Then, inevitably, I violated that rule because there are times, much as it pains me to admit it, when smooth is the best way to say it. It just is.
“Smooth” gets under my saddle because it really has no meaning. It’s one of those squishy concepts that pretty much cannot mean the same thing to one person as it does to those on either side of them. Some people describe Budweiser as “smooth“. I describe it as “watery, insipid shite” and “beer for people who don’t really like beer”. Many people in this area (Seattle/Tacoma) say Starbucks House Blend is “smooth“. I say “coffee for people who don’t like coffee“. And so it goes.
“Smooth”, in Whiskey, to me, does NOT mean that it has no burn. Whiskey without a little bit of heat – an appropriate amount – is not whiskey. It’s watered-down barley tea. Burn is a positive attribute of a great Whiskey. And “appropriate” is simple: a 100 Proof Whiskey is going to burn a tad more than an 80 Proof. The standard is different for different styles.
Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon is smooth. I reviewed it, back in February, in this post, “Basil Hayden’s and Baker’s: Balls-Out Bourbon, Refined“. And there, in the first graph of my review, ninth line, fourth word in…”smooth”. Unavoidable. I felt like a sell-out, like a cheap ‘ho, but Clarity is All and Basil Hayden’s Bourbon is smooth…
What is generally not smooth is Rye Whiskey. Rye Whiskey is the rambunctious bad boy, the juvenile delinquent, of the booze world. Many, many people, even some Whiskey lovers, won’t touch the stuff. I am a certified Rye Freak. I adore Rye in everything except…rye bread. Cannot stand the stuff. But put that same rye into a beer or a Whiskey and I’m There, wide-eyed, red Solo cup at the ready.
When the folks at Badil Hayden’s sent me their new Rye Whiskey to try, I have to admit, I was skeptical. Here’s a distillery whose whole aesthetic, raison d’etre, reputation, bag, Thang is Smooth, capital S. How ya gonna make that work, Haydenistas?
How? Flawlessly. Much as I love and seek out Rye Whiskeys, I don’t even think of them as smooth when I go to buy one. I expect somewhat the opposite: a oral tilt-a-whirl, a hang-onta-somethin’ roller coaster ride of pleasure and pain. Then I sipped the new Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey and my whole paradigm changed.
This stuff is Smooth. No, let me rephrase that: “Smoooooooth“. Lotsa of that frisky, unbridled, earthy, whiplash-inducing Rye character but delivered on a Roll-Royce chassis, instead of a Yugo with blown shocks. The Usual Suspects of the Kentucky Whiskey flavor profile are all there – caramel, vanilla, wood, intimations of coconut and roasted nuts and baked apples – overlaid with peppery, spicy, chewy rye flavors that are every bit as emphatic as what you’d find in a bottle of one of the Rye Stalwarts like Templeton or Michter’s. It even shows a bit of the resonance and roundness that comes from Michter’s “shearing” technique. The white pepper and nutmeg and even a touch of sumac flesh out this flavor profile into something complex and engrossing.
I’ve read, to my surprise…but really not, criticism of Basil Hayden’s core aesthetic of lower proof and greater approachability as being “wimpy”. It shocks me that, here in 2017, there are still all these people who equate 100+ IBUs with great beer and 100 Point Advocate scores with great wines and 100 Proof with great Whiskey. To me, the hallmark of a superficial appreciation of any beverage is judging on power alone. Power is wonderful; I geek out over 100 IBUs like any HopHead – IF the beer is good. Power alone is boring, Power with texture and layers and balance and complexity is transcendent. If muscle is all I taste, I become a detractor. Basil Hayden’s Bourbons, at 80 Proof, are near-perfect portraits of judgment and subtlety and enough power to make them interesting and satisfying. The fact that they have managed a Rye Whiskey that combines prodigious rye intensity with a lower ABV is little short of miraculous. Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey jumps to the head of the line of fine American Ryes with this release and devout Whiskey fans are well advised to taste this and see what all the inevitable buzz is all about. 98 Points