Whiskey Review: Basil Hayden Subtle Smoke

Editor’s Note: This whisky was provided to us as a review sample by Jim Beam. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.

When I call a whiskey for my Manhattans, it usually is Basil Hayden. It seems so long ago when Basil Hayden had only one bottle on the backbar shelf. Coming off the heels of their Toast, the distillery launched a new whiskey—Basil Hayden Subtle Smoke. This Subtle Smoke is a limited-edition release, not a new addition to their permanent lineup like the Basil Hayden Toast.

Basil Hayden is a straight bourbon and a brand that is now thirty years old. It has gone through some changes including a change of bibs and dropping the apostrophe “s” from its name. Typically grouped with Booker’s and Knob Creek, Basil Hayden is a high end small batch product from Beam-Suntory. Only at 80 proof, the whiskey is more gentle to sip than its high octane counterparts.

Lately, it seems that Basil Hayden is riding the experimentation wave. The Basil Hayden Subtle Smoke goes through a unique sixth month final maturation before bottling. During this process, the bourbon is transferred to a second barrel. This barrel is toasted before a light charring. Once the liquid is in this barrel, hickory smoke is pumped into it. Think of it like a smoked cocktail rather than something like Maker’s 46.

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To be honest, I have my doubts about the flavor. Basil Hayden does not disclose how full the barrel is before it is filled with smoke or how long they pump the smoke into the barrel. With smoked cocktails, you instantly get that hit of smoke, but after six months in a barrel? How does the contraction and expansion of the barrel affect the smoke? I guess the only thing to do is try it.

Basil Hayden Subtle Smoke review

Basil Hayden Subtle Smoke (image via Beam-Suntory)

Tasting Notes: Basil Hayden Subtle Smoke

Vital Stats: 40% ABV. 80 proof. Basil Hayden liquid transferred into a second toasted barrel pumped with hickory smoke and matured for another six months. 750ml $49.99.

Color: Coppery hazelnut

Nose: The nostrils are immediately greeted with bright lemon oil and acetone. Cinnamon sneaks up dryly and fills out the middle. I really had to nose deep to find more to it. However, once I did, I found baby powder and subtle mint. It has a slight barbecue aroma to it.

Palate: At the beginning, bitter oak and tannins touch the tongue first with a bit of acetone. The whiskey is very dry and full of cinnamon and black pepper. The subtle smoke in the name is just that…subtle. The smoke only pops out on the breath during the finish with a little bit of honey. Overall, it drinks like over-steeped Lipton tea.



The Basil Hayden Subtle Smoke is accurate in its title. The smoke is still there and muted, but I think I will stick to the regular Basil Hayden. The Subtle Smoke is too dry with lots of cinnamon. Although it keeps in tradition at 80 proof, it is too much like nail polish remover for my taste. It is great to mix with, but the smokiness gets lost. In general, I think it would just be easier to smoke a bottle of the Basil Hayden Bourbon at home.

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Courtney Kristjana

Courtney Kristjana is a leading whiskey taster in the country. She left a career in Gerontology after an article on Heather Greene inspired her to follow her passion for whiskey. She is studying to become a Master of Scotch and someday hopes she is nominated for the Keepers of the...