Last Thursday, in a little news digest post, I mentioned that Beam's Basil Hayden bourbon is up 33 percent in sales this year. If you read the comments, most are about that. Many readers found that news hard to swallow. Serious bourbon enthusiasts generally dismiss Basil Hayden as too light at 40% ABV, and too expensive at about $40 a bottle.
You shouldn't take too seriously a big one-time bump in sales on a small brand such as Basil Hayden. After 20 years in the marketplace, it is still a small brand. If it sustains a 33 percent growth trend over several quarters, then something is happening. If it does that, it won't be a small brand for long.
Eagle-eyed bourbonians have noticed that Beam recently received approval for a Basil Hayden label with no age statement (NAS). Just because a label is approved, that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be used. I don't believe a NAS Basil Hayden bottle has shown up at retail yet.
The trend away from age statements has been to give producers flexibility, in this time of booming sales, to mix in some younger whiskey if it meets the brand profile. Many enthusiasts always believe the worst of the big producers, but the highest priority for most producers is to match the brand's flavor profile with each and every batch. It's not in their interest to make changes that actually change how the whiskey tastes, even if they can save a little money and put out a bit more volume by using younger spirit.
So what is moving Basil Hayden's needle? Beam seems to have had success focusing Basil Hayden on a cocktails-oriented, fashion and style-oriented consumer, something to drink while watching "Project Runway." Maybe it simply has taken 20 years for Basil Hayden to find its drinkers.
All four of the bourbons Beam calls The Small Batch Collection are very good but over-priced. The only one that seems appropriately priced for what it is is Knob Creek, which has been the most successful. There have been reports of Basil Hayden selling for closer to $30, but it's hard to know if they have permanently adjusted the price, or if they've just been dealing it a lot.
Heavy dealing can also account for a short-term 33 percent sales increase, which doesn't mean anything if they can't sustain the price point that's driving the extra sales. The idea, of course, is that deals drive sampling and usage, and the hope is that at least some of those consumers will stay with the brand after the price goes back up.
Most of the Beam bourbons are based on the Jim Beam recipe. Basil Hayden is not. It is based on the Old Grand-Dad recipe, which has about twice as much rye in the mash, and consequently less corn. It's still bourbon, not rye, but it has more rye flavor and may be enjoying some boost from the recent fascination with ryes.