Cigar Aficionado

Branching Off the Label

Just got a bottle of Basil Hayden’s Bourbon (which I adore) and rather than drinking it, I was perusing the label (which I generally deplore, but I’m on duty, and sometimes you have to learn about liquor the hard way—through reading).

That’s when I came upon these words: “You’ll find Basil’s at its best when sipped STRAIGHT or with a splash of branch water.” It’s a message with which I generally concur. At 80 proof, Basil Hayden’s is mild enough (“gentle” is the word on the label) that you can easily drink it NEAT (I like to reserve the term STRAIGHT for the Bureau of Alcohol Firearms and Tobacco’s legal definition of Bourbon: at least 51 percent corn in the grain recipe, aged at least two years in new, charred-oak barrel with no coloring or flavoring added). And if I were to add water (which is actually allowed under the legal definition), it probably wouldn’t much more than a splash so as to savor the unusually high rye content in the Basil Hayden’s mash.

But what of this “branch water”? You hear the expression all the time in old western movies when cowpokes come off the dusty trail, belly up to the bar and ask for Bourbon and branch water. “Bourbon and branch” was also J.R.’s favorite bar call on Dallas, television’s great paean to greed and corruption in the Texas oil industry (except that I think it was dislocated—isn’t Houston about oil and Dallas about cowboys?)

I’d never really thought much about what branch water was, so I went looking for edification in that the great resource of truth and other things that are sometimes, maybe true: Wikipedia. There I found my choice of definitions.

First was:

• Water from a stream (a term primarily used in the southern United States).

Now I have a brook in my decidedly not Southern back yard, but that’s out. First of all, part of the water comes from runoff from a roadway up the hill and, second, well, frogs, you know…swim in it. Besides my well water isn’t even that good and that’s been filtered through the earth.

Another definition was:

• Addition of plain water rather than soda water to a mixed drink (for example, "Bourbon and branch" refers to Bourbon whiskey with plain water).

That’s probably more to the point, as readers of the label of Basil Hayden’s couldn’t be expected to have access to a creek, otherwise the customer base would be severally limited. Then again I bridle at the notion that I can’t put soda water in my Basil Hayden’s, because, regardless of what The Original Small Batch Bourbon Collection (or shall I say Jim Beam, the makers of Basil’s as well as Knob Creek, Booker’s and Baker’s) may think, it tastes really good with a splash of soda as well.

It turns out there is another possibility:

• Water that is steeped with a fresh young branch of a Douglas Fir tree, imparting upon it a distinct resinous flavor.

And doesn’t that sound like turpentine?

I took my Internet search further than Wikipedia and found that there are also several firms willing to sell me what is labeled as “branch water.” But paying for water, despite the wont of my teenage daughter, is something I refuse to do.

So, sorry Jim Beam. I like your whiskey, but just give me the Basil’s and keep your branch water to yourself.

"Branch as I understood it best concerns water from a brook or spring that emerges from the ground. So in that way it's extremely pristine. But for me, IF I add water to a bourbon or a whiskey of any kind, I do so with good old bottled spring water at room temperature, and a vessel with a spout allows for more accurate pouring. -Jason Pyle" —December 14, 2010 22:17 PM