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.

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