The Benevolent Basil Hayden

I was standing in an empty Kentucky Kroger parking lot as the sun was setting on Christmas Eve night five years ago, taking stock of my situation.

The Benevolent Basil Hayden Header

Editors Note: Today is the first guest post from the semi-finalists who are applying to become a regular contributor to Bourbon & Banter. We hope you’ll read all of their posts and let us know what you think of each applicant by commenting below the post, sharing online or dropping us a note via email. Today’s post comes from Matthew Sammons.

I was standing in an empty Kentucky Kroger parking lot as the sun was setting on Christmas Eve night, five years ago, taking stock of my situation. We don’t get to choose our family, especially when we marry into one, but that night my wife, her siblings and I were inside the only open grocery store for 10 miles, shopping for a replacement meal to one of the most sacred nights in a calendar year. The previous hour was not one that I care to rehash, other than to say it was easily one of the most difficult experiences of my life. It was the next few hours though that changed my life and helped me in ways I am still figuring out today.

The story of Basil Hayden Sr. is that of a Maryland Catholic who made his “escape” to Kentucky around 1785 and founded the first Catholic Church in Kentucky. He was also a distiller. Basil’s grandson Raymond D. Hayden opened Old Grand-Dad Distillery in 1840, named after Basil Sr. Fast forward well over a century and the name and whiskey that grew from this family finds its home at Jim Beam’s Claremont, Kentucky distillery. The Old Grand Dad brand has been resurrected with Bottled-in-Bond and 114 proof variations, meanwhile the name Basil Hayden is now printed on a brown-bag-like label for Jim Beams’ fastest growing line of whiskey*. Among many bourbon enthusiasts I have spoken with since that fateful evening, there is certain distaste for Basil Hayden the liquor, as it is marketed to the new bourbon millennial, the guy that doesn’t know jack about whiskey but wants to spend a few bucks for a better bottle and just starts looking on the shelf. At $40 MSRP it is reasonably priced, regularly available, and completely routine whiskey. You could do better, you could do a lot worse, but the name and marketing of that bottle has driven the success probably much further than the taste alone ever could have. At 6 PM on Christmas Eve at the only grocery store open within 10 miles, the marketing worked and we moved forward with our broken evening in the hopes of finding peace within ourselves, food and spirit in hand.

Through adversity real character is shown; the rose that grows from rocks can withstand the winter, or so I’ve been taught. The problem with relationships is that they sometimes take a push in the right direction, a “greased wheel”, a kick in the butt, or all of the above. Enter Basil Hayden’s smoothness and easy drinking nature and the conversation started to flow. Over the course of the next few hours we talked about things that I had never shared with my married family, and they opened up to me about some very difficult topics, not the least of all was the previous hour. The bourbon flowed and the conversation moved from the depths of human nature to the idiocy of the designated hitter, no topic was left untouched. That evening I saw my new family in a way that can only be described as therapeutic, and it truly centered on our ability to be open and share everything. There were no strangers left sitting next to me after that evening, there was just family.

I have a real admiration for my family, but my family-in-law is just as close now. We vacation together annually and spend Christmas week together, enjoying each other’s time and stories. Every time we get together, my brother-in-law and I exchange a bottle of bourbon and open and share them immediately, along with countless topics of conversation. We extend the bourbon to spouses, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and anyone else wanting to enjoy. There is no hoarding of bottle gifts, we open and enjoy and talk, and through that sharing I have not only built a love affair around bourbon but veneration for the stories it helps us share. Over the years the bottles have certainly improved and the potential to impress my brother-in-law has pushed me to hunt for some great ones. As the years move forward though, the new bottles will always remind me of the time that Basil Hayden brought us together for a once in a lifetime healing process.

*Source: Washington Post, Bourbonomics 101, original date published February 17, 2013