Malting barley is the most common form of malted grain and is used in most American whiskeys because of the enzymes it creates. Malting rye is less common in American distilling and though that has been changing over the last few years, it’s still relatively uncommon among American whiskey distillers.
Rye grain is a hardy crop, but distilling with it can be a tricky affair, and using malted rye grain doesn’t make it any easier. In addition, rye whiskeys with 100% rye grain mashbills often have the reputation of being hot or even harsh. As a result, producers often add other grains to rye whiskeys to mellow their heat and add complexity. Malting tends to result in a product that delivers a more earthy flavor, but with malted rye, the result can be a gentler and possibly sweeter whiskey than one made with non-malted rye.
Malted Rye is Beam Suntory’s latest “super-premium permanent addition” to the Basil Hayden line of whiskeys following recent additions of Subtle Smoke, Toast, and Red Wine Cask Finish. You can learn more about this release from the company’s press release.
Caramel is immediately upfront with rye spice quickly following. Lemon and a pinch of cinnamon add a degree of dimension to this otherwise straightforward yet pleasing aroma. These four scents create the pillars that prop this aroma up, yet their lukewarm intensity makes you wish for more. The aroma is inviting and surprisingly not as meek as the proof would suggest it would be.
A light mouthfeel carries with it notes of toffee, sweet rye grain, and lemon meringue. With a touch of honey and fresh bread weaved in, the palate’s flavors are well done and cohesive. Unfortunately, the sip’s mellow intensity does the flavors a disservice, as they are pleasing but are ultimately held back. Even for a light sipper, the flavors are so subdued they run dangerously close to being muddled together, losing all of their goodwill.
The palate runs into the finish seamlessly with equal intensity. Malt becomes most prominent at this point with mild oak, a dash of cinnamon, and almond providing support. This mild finish has a pop of rye spice near its end, adding some much needed excitement. Finally, there is a mildly unusual and lingering malty aftertaste that quickly dissipates, although it’s minor and inconsequential overall.
Whiskeys featuring malted rye used to be few and far between with New Riff and Old Pertreo being the staples in the category. That changed this year as a number of craft distilleries traveled down this path. That's why it's so notable that a major Kentucky distillery such as Jim Beam decided to introduce one of their own. With rye seen as a harder sell compared to bourbon, distilleries still feel that they must offer one nevertheless. Having the stereotype of being a harsher sip compared to bourbon, perhaps this accounts for the rise in malted rye, as it makes for a smoother and often creamier pour.
Jim Beam continues to treat their Basil Hayden line as the most adventurous of their Small Batch Collection creating a number of unique offerings such as Toast, Subtitle Smoke, and Caribbean Reserve Rye. Malted Rye certainly fits into that mold, though I’m still a bit surprised to see it, and that it's a full 100% malted rye - as it should be. If you’re going to commit to a malted rye, do the full amount.
It is likely the reason this whiskey is blessed with the flavors it has. Toffee, sweet rye grain, lemon meringue, honey, fresh bread, cinnamon, almond, and malt make for a very unique and cohesive sip. These aren’t flavors you typically find in a standard rye or even a typical malted rye for that matter, though the list of comparisons is far fewer. As a fan of malted rye, Basil Hayden Malted Rye is a great proof of concept that shows just what this particular style of whiskey offers that’s unique to its style.
When talking about Basil Hayden as an overall brand, it's always a story of two worlds: those who love its 80 proof point and those who don’t. For fans, Basil Hayden’s brand extensions, whether they’re permanent or limited time products, usually come in at only a $5-$10 premium over the standard offering. Sometimes it involves a finishing barrel (Subtle Smoke, Red Wine Cask Finish), blending (Caribbean Reserve Rye), or a new mashbill (Toast), but no matter what is being offered, they’re almost always unique and offered at only a slight markup over the standard Basil Hayden. Of course in the other camp, a $60, 80 proof whiskey is a “no-go” no matter who you are or what it is.
At face value, malting 100% rye whiskey is going to cost more to produce than a non-malted rye. To a big company like Beam Suntory, it's probably peanuts, but the company doesn’t have an ongoing American-made 100% rye whiskey in their portfolio, so costs were definitely higher in this bottle’s creation. There is also value in that it's the first major Kentucky distillery to release a malted rye and its flavors skew towards unique. Upping the brand’s price point to $60 for this brand extension is definitely pressing their luck and leaning into comical territory - though it should be noted that this is a release that is hitting some store shelves below MSRP. With this brand more than most, your personal value will vary widely depending on which Basil Hayden’s camp you ultimately fall into.
Basil Hayden Malted Rye offers an array of cohesive and enjoyable flavors that you don’t often find in one sip, but the brand's 80 proof once again ultimately holds it back, and feeds into the position that it is finally time for Beam to up its proof.
I’m happy to see Jim Beam continually push themselves in new directions. Despite the overly negative attitudes often directed towards the Basil Hayden line from critics, it must sell well as the company continually directs energy towards it. Basil Hayden Malted Rye is an adequate first effort into the malted rye space for the brand, but as it is always the story, its 80 proof point inevitably holds it back. If you’re a fan of Bail Hayden, then I definitely recommend it. If the prospect of malted rye intrigues you and you want a higher proof and more complex pour, I’d suggest trying not-quite-100%-malted-rye such as Chattanooga Rye, New Riff Malted Rye, or the best of the bunch, Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye. This particular style of whiskey has a lot to offer with its unique flavors and more often than not, creamy mouthfeel. Basil Hayden Malted Rye doesn’t quite take the baton to the finish line, but it puts in a respectable effort nevertheless.