Sunday, November 30, 2014

Old Grand Dad 80 proof vs. Basil Hayden's

Old Grand-Dad 80 proof, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, no age statement, 40%, $15
Basil Hayden’s, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, no age statement, 40%, $41

Like the Wild Turkey Rye that I recently reviewed, Old Grand-Dad Bourbon has also become a favorite pour of the ever expanding craft cocktail movement. And like Wild Turkey Rye, Old Grand-Dad has also had to deal with supply issues in recent years. Before I examine how the situation has been handled, let’s take a quick look at the history of the brand.

The story of Old Grand-Dad starts with, well, Old Grand-Dad himself. Basil Hayden was an American colonist of English descent who was born in Maryland in the mid 1700’s. In the late 1700’s he led a group of settler’s to what is now Nelson County, Kentucky. He established a farm there and began distilling as a supplemental activity. According to some accounts, he was noted for using a higher percentage of rye in his whiskey than most other distillers in the area.

The farm and the farmer-distiller tradition were passed on to Basil’s son, Lewis, around 1820. Lewis’s second son, Raymond Bishop Hayden, who was born in 1821, took over the farm and its small distillery after his father’s passing, at some point in the 1840’s.

In the ensuing decades the surrounding area developed and new railroads expanded trade beyond the markets that were accessible by river, allowing the whiskey business to become more commercialized. Raymond Hayden decided to capitalize on this situation and with a business partner he built the R.B. Hayden and Company Distillery, in Hobbs, Kentucky (just outside of Clermont), in 1882. Their flagship bourbon was named Old Grand-Dad in honor of Raymond’s grandfather, Basil Hayden.

Just three years later Raymond Hayden passed away with no heirs and controlling interest in the business was sold off by his estate. By 1899 the distillery and its main brand had been sold to three brothers from the Wathen family, which was rapidly becoming a powerhouse in the Kentucky whiskey industry. They changed the official name of the distillery to Old Grand-Dad.

The next generation of Wathens carried the brand into Prohibition. They became consolidators, buying whiskey from the warehouses of other former distillers, and were licensed to sell medicinal whisky through their American Medicinal Spirits company. Although the original distillery never reopened, the brand lived on and survived Prohibition. In 1929 the Wathens sold out to the National Distillers Products Corporation, a company which had become a large shareholder in AMS. National and another company named Schenley went on to be the two big post-Prohibition spirits companies in the United States.

In 1940 National bought the K Taylor Distillery, located just outside Frankfort, and renamed it Old Grand-Dad. That distillery had been built by one of E.H. Taylor’s sons, Kenner Taylor. It was completed in 1937, just after his death, but still named after him. Old Grand-Dad bourbon was made there until National was acquired by Jim Beam Brands in 1987. It is now produced at either Beam's Clermont, KY plant, or their Boston, KY plant, or both.

At the time of that last acquisition there was still an American whiskey glut. Beam bought National for its other assets; primarily the DeKuyper family of cordials. National’s many whisky brands just came along as part of the package. Most of the brands that were kept active were switched over to Beam’s standard recipe and house yeast. But since Old Grand-Dad was such a prominent brand and still commanding a respectable price, the folks at Beam wisely decided to let it keep a separate mash bill and its unique yeast. The standard Beam recipe has about 15% rye, where the Old Grand-Dad recipe has about 30% rye.

Then, in 1992, Beam introduced their Small Batch Bourbon Collection. Three of its four bottlings (Booker’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek) use whiskey made with the standard Beam mash bill. The fourth, Basil Hayden’s, uses the high-rye Old Grand-Dad recipe.

Toward the end of the first decade of the new millennium Old Grand-Dad, particularly the 100 proof Bottled-in-Bond variant, started to become quite popular with serious bartenders. Basil Hayden’s was also seeing strong sales growth, with a 29% jump in 2011 (a trend which continued in 2012 and 2013).

This put pressure on supplies and by 2012 something had to give. Old Grand-Dad had been available in three proofs; 86, 100 and 114 (I compared them early last year) for a long time, longer than Beam had owned the brand.  Basil Hayden's, on the other hand, had only been offered at 80 proof (which is the legal minimum) since its inception. 
Adding a fourth, lower proof Old Grand-Dad would have cluttered store shelves and likely not helped the supply problem much. With a few rare exceptions, Old Grand-Dad had been a brand without age statements throughout its history, but Basil Hayden’s had carried an 8 year age statement all along.

Beam ended up doing two things. They lowered the least expensive Old Grand-Dad bottling from 86 proof to 80 proof and they dropped the 8 year age statement from Basil Hayden’s. The reduction in proof happened in the second half of 2012 and the age statement was lost early in 2013.

From a public relations perspective, these were the least damaging moves they could have made. As I said in my last post, anger over a dropped age statement is often short-lived, if the change is even noticed at all. As for Old Grand-Dad, the 86 proof ended up being the sacrificial lamb for the rest of the lineup. I’m sure their thinking was that the majority of people buying the 86 proof were focused primarily on price. While some consumers would undoubtedly be upset by that change, most of the people who really care about such matters were already drinking the 100 proof and/or the 114 proof. Messing with either of those bottlings would have resulted in significant outrage from Old Grand-Dad loyalists.

But this brought about an interesting situation; the lowest proof Old Grand-Dad and Basil Hayden’s were now both 80 proof non age-stated bourbons made from the same distillate. Was there any difference between them?

I did a little research and found information posted by Chuck Cowdery in 2008 saying that Beam did have some production differences for the their Small Batch Collection. Barrel management was part of that, with specific warehouse locations reserved for barrels that were destined to be used for the Collection bottlings. I’m not sure if they differentiated the quality of the oak (tighter grain, air dried staves, etc) as well, but I suppose that is possible. Distillation proof was the other factor with Booker’s and Baker’s coming off the still at 125 proof, Knob Creek at 130 and all Jim Beam bottlings at 135. Basil Hayden’s and Old Grand-Dad were said to come off the still at 127 proof. These bourbons are entered into the barrel at 125 proof across the board.

So, it looks like the only technical difference between the two is barrel management and possibly age. Basil Hayden's is certainly matured longer than Old Grand-Dad, but without official age statements on the bottles, there's no way to know how much of an age difference we're dealing with. Time to taste them for myself:

Old Grand-Dad, 80 proof
Nose – Pleasant, with the signature clay-like earthiness, and a subtle floral/spice aroma.
Palate – It has some rye character (both in a floral and an earthy way) but the flavors come across in sort of an astringent, chemical-like manor. Not in a horrible way, just slightly off-putting.
Finish – Respectable warming spice notes come to the fore on the finish, but the flavors that were prominent up front linger on in the background.
Overall – There’s nothing terribly offensive about it, but the redeeming qualities of the finish only manage to elevate it to mediocrity.

Basil Hayden’s, no age statement
Nose – Similar in style, though somewhat less aromatic. The clay-like earthiness is less pronounced and it shows more vanilla and woody notes.
Palate – Nice mix of dry earthiness, floral rye notes, vanilla and oak. The spicy character starts sooner here; more on the mid-palate.
Finish – The spice notes are reminiscent of “cinnamon red hots” and build as the other flavors fade moving into the finish. It gets a little thin toward the end, but not to a fault.
Overall – It has more depth and complexity than the 80 proof Old Grand-Dad. It’s still somewhat delicate overall, but I like the way it evolves from start to finish.

I sampled some 86 proof Old Grand-Dad to see how it compare to the new 80 proof. I found it to be a little more aromatic and much better composed. The 80 proof is like a light switch, going from the floral/earthy mid-palate to spicy finish. The 86 proof is more balanced up front and has a more gradual building of the spice notes moving into the finish; those notes also get more fiery at the end. Then I took a quick sip of 100 proof Old Grand-Dad and it showed them all who’s boss.

After several years of tight supplies, all of the Old Grand-Dad bottlings are probably not much older than the 4 year minimum required of non age-stated bourbons. When Basil Hayden’s lost its age statement, it’s not as if it would suddenly jump from being 8 years old to 4 years old. The age will gradually creep down as needed to meet demand until supply can catch up. That’s the important thing to keep in mind here; there was a significant difference in the two whiskeys I compared today, but that difference may diminish over the coming years if sales continue to grow faster than production has grown.

Many people criticize Basil Hayden’s for being too mild. But it does serve a purpose; it’s a good transition into bourbon from blended Scotch or Canadian whisky. The funny thing is that it could also act as a good stepping stone – to 100 proof Old Grand-Dad. In light of my last Old Grand-Dad review, my biggest surprise here was just how good the new 80 proof OGD was able to make the old 86 proof look.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Wild Turkey Rye: 101 proof vs. 81 proof vs. Russell’s Reserve

Wild Turkey Rye 101: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, no age statement, 50.5%, $30
Russell’s Reserve Rye: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, aged 6 years, 45.0%, $45
Wild Turkey Rye 81: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, no age statement, 40.5%, $23

In my last post I took a look at what can happen if a distiller produces too much whiskey. The end result is older whiskey at suppressed prices and potentially shutting down operations for some length of time if the situation isn’t corrected quickly enough. There was a period where the whole industry went through this cycle. Whiskey drinkers may not have recognized it at the time, but the late 70’s through the 80’s was a great era for them; underpriced, extra-aged whiskey was bountiful in those years.

Of course that is far from an ideal scenario for the producers who are struggling to remain profitable, so it’s understandable why distillers didn’t ramp up production too quickly in the early part of the current boom. But now that demand for whiskey has continued to grow unabated for a surprising number of years, we’ve gotten to a point where no one has enough whiskey.

In such a situation, producers who had been operating below capacity can just turn up the wick, but they still have to wait for the whiskey to age. For the ones who need to add infrastructure in order to increase output, they also have to wait the additional time needed for permitting and construction.

In the short term there are four things that can be done to deal with the issue. The first is to put whiskeys on allocation (this is where producers allot certain quantities of product to various distribution areas every so often) and/or limit their distribution (the product would only be distributed in certain key markets that the distiller feels are most important). The second is to raise prices in order to temper demand.

Both of these strategies are dangerous because they have the potential to alienate consumers. If said consumers switch to another brand when their old favorite isn’t available (regularly or at all), it might be hard to win them back once supplies are restored. Raising prices enough to keep new customers at bay (at least temporarily) is okay, but raising them to the point of pushing away existing customers could also make it difficult to get them back. Constricting supply and lowering demand through pricing both have the potential to be detrimental to long term growth.

The other two things that can be done to deal with whiskey shortages; lowering proof and reducing age, are what I’ll focus on for this post and the next two. Lowering proof is just a matter of adding more water at bottling, and instantly stretches supplies. Reducing age is a little trickier because it’s a bit more of a shell game. You’re tapping into your future supply for today’s finished product, and you can only do that for so long. It can buy you time, but sooner or later some big production increases have to come up through the warehouses to balance things out.

If a whiskey never had an age statement, then changing its age isn’t too problematic, assuming the changes happen somewhat gradually. Most styles of American whiskey do require an age statement if they are less than 4 years old, so at least that reassuring floor of youth exists. Many consumers have found the profusion of disappearing age statements that we’ve been witness to recently off-putting though. That being said, angst over the loss of an age statement is usually short lived; few people complain about a dropped age statement years down the road. Proof, on the other hand, is always there to be seen on the label. Partiality to a particular alcoholic strength is a matter of personal preference, but most whiskey connoisseurs associate higher proofs with more concentrated flavors and higher quality. When proof is lowered to the mid-80’s or less, the term “watered down” is often bandied about. Again, producers run the risk of alienating faithful consumers with these changes.

Even though Rye is a small category of American whiskey relative to Bourbon, the former has exceeded the latter in terms of sales growth in recent years, at least on a percentage basis. The popularity of the craft cocktail movement and its fascination with pre-Prohibition cocktails has been a driving force behind the growth of Rye. Wild Turkey 101 Rye (as well as Rittenhouse Rye), with its bold flavors and reasonable price, became a favorite of bartenders at the fore of that movement.

Originally introduced in the 1970’s, Wild Turkey’s 101 proof Rye started off as a sourced product. Some time in the late 1980’s production was brought in house. Then in 2007 they introduced the Russell’s Reserve Rye, at 90 proof. The original 101 proof version remained the more popular of the two, and by early 2011 supply problems began to crop up, along with rumors that it was on allocation. A year later they got to the point of having to do something more drastic; it was time to drop the proof.

Clearly concerned about making their customers unhappy, Wild Turkey introduced an 81 proof Rye as a new product, rather than as a reformulation of the much-loved 101 proof Rye. Soon after that they stopped bottling the 101 proof Rye, but the move was announced as a temporary suspension; they promised that it would come back eventually. Skeptics had their doubts, but the distillery had managed to minimize consumer outrage over the move.

After an absence of nearly two years, Wild Turkey Rye 101 did return late in 2013, albeit in a limited way. It was only made available in select markets and only in 1-liter bottles, which the distributors were cajoled into selling primarily to bars and restaurants. A year later it is still only available in 1-liter bottles and still pretty tough to come by, but most people who are seeking it out seem more excited that there’s a chance they might find it again rather than being upset that it was unavailable for almost two years.

As far as age goes, the Russell’s Reserve Rye has been consistent with a 6 year age statement since its introduction. Neither the 101 proof Rye nor the 81 proof Rye has ever had an age statement. It’s likely that their ages have differed from each other and varied over the years, but it’s impossible to know when or by how much.

As for pricing, the 81 proof has held pretty steady at about $23 since its introduction. That price is just slightly higher than the $22 that Wild Turkey 101 Rye was typically priced at before its absence. Since it was marketed as new product rather than a reformulation of the old one, no one really got upset about what could have been viewed as a big drop in proof accompanied by a slight bump in price. Some people did experience a bit of sticker shock when the 101 proof Rye returned. Prices for it vary quite a bit, but $40 seems to be the average. Adjusting for bottle size, that equates to $30 for 750ml. That is a 36% increase, but many still consider it to be reasonably priced, and after a lengthy absence few are complaining about the cost if they can find one. Over the last seven years, the price of the Russell’s Reserve Rye has slowly crept up from its introductory $25 to its current $40. I’m surprised that I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about this price increase, but I suspect that’s a result of Russell’s Reserve Rye having never really caught on in popularity like the 101 Rye did.

101 proof
nose – Primarily clay and leather work gloves, with some spice character and subtle floral aromas.
palate – Bold and full flavored. A bit of sweetness up front quickly gives way to wintergreen mint and cinnamon red hots.
finish – Warming and dry on the finish, which is quite lengthy.
overall – It’s brash and even a bit aggressive, but not to the point of getting out of line, and it maintains nice continuity from start to finish.

Russell’s Reserve
nose – Pretty similar to the 101 but the aromatics are sharper and more dense.
palate – Sweet and woody, pine needle notes stand out.
finish – Warming spice notes do come into pay on the finish, but they are not as pervasive as those on the 101. It seems a little tannic at the very end.
overall – The sweetness at the start carries a little further on this variant. It’s interesting, but not as endearing as the 101.

81 proof
nose – Similar again, but with the aromas reprioritized. The clay and leather are toned down, the spice is very delicate, and the floral aspect is more prominent and slightly perfumed.
palate – There is some sweetness, but the slightly perfumed floral character is the main player here. That being said, the clay/leather/spice combo is just strong enough to keep it from going out of balance.
finish – There’s a minimal amount of spiciness on the palate which carries through to the finish, but the spice character does not gain much strength going into the finish as it does in the other two examples.
overall – I would probably miss this as being a rye whiskey in a blind tasting. It’s not a bad whiskey, just not what I would expect from a rye, especially one carrying the Wild Turkey brand.

My best estimate is that the 101 proof bottle I have is from 2008 or 2009. My initial impression back then was that it had some good flavor but that it was just too hot. Now that it’s had a few years to breath, it seems to have settled down and come into its own. I suppose it’s also possible that my palate has evolved and I may have originally mistaken some of the fiery spice notes for alcoholic heat. The Russell’s Reserve bottle dates to about 2010 and has been open for a while, but not as long as the 101. This may explain the fuller nose I experienced on the Russell’s. The 81 proof bottle was purchased last year and just opened for this tasting.

While I don’t dislike and of the three, I prefer them in the order that I have them listed above. I’m surprised they’re not more similar to each other; this was more of an apples-to-oranges comparison than I expected.