Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Good and Not-So-Good of the Old Grand-Dad Reboot

Beam Suntory has given Old Grand-Dad Bonded a bright new look and a fancy new price, $24.99 MSRP. (It has been selling at closer to $20.) But the upgrade is a nice job and Old Grand-Dad bourbon deserves more attention. It's also good that Beam is emphasizing the bond, rather than the other Old Grand-Dad expressions. Historically, Old Grand-Dad Bonded was the #1 bonded bourbon when bottled-in-bond meant something to bourbon drinkers.

The new label emphasizes the brand's high rye mashbill. The label is printed on the glass and the bottle is tall and sleek, for a modern look. It now has a cork topper instead of a screw-cap.

These are all improvements, but they made one screw-up. There is no evidence to support the new claim that Basil Hayden "was known for distilling bourbon with a high rye content." In fact, no one really knows when the current Old Grand-Dad recipe was adopted, as the brand had many different owners before Beam acquired it in 1987. What is known is that Beam continued to use the same recipe the previous owner was using, the same recipe Beam still uses, but that's about as far as it goes.

Of the many bourbon brands Beam acquired when it merged with National Distillers in 1987, the Old Grand-Dad recipe was the only one Beam continued to make the same way. All of the other National brands, such as Old Crow, were simply switched to Jim Beam distillate when the liquid made by National ran out.

Although Beam doesn't officially disclose mashbills, Booker Noe told me many years ago that the Old Grand-Dad recipe is about 30 percent rye, as compared to Jim Beam at about 15 percent. Four Roses also uses more rye than average in both of its mashbills. At the other extreme, some major bourbons contains as little as 8 percent rye.

It is important to challenge this new exaggeration about the origins of the Old Grand-Dad recipe because there is real history here, important history that deserves to be told without brand-hyping distortion.

Here's a little bit of it.

Basil Hayden was one of the leaders of a migration of Catholics from Maryland to Kentucky in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although they came west in small groups over about a 30-year period, they all came with the intention of settling in what are now Marion, Nelson, and Washington Counties. They wanted to settle close together for mutual support and, specifically, so they could attract a priest.

Maryland, which had been established as a colony for English Catholics, eventually turned on them. After 1692, Maryland established the Church of England by law and forced Catholics to pay heavy taxes to support it. Catholics were cut off from all participation in politics. The Mass, the Sacraments, and Catholic schools were all outlawed.

When the successful conclusion of the Revolution opened up more of the interior for American settlement, many Catholics headed west. The Kentucky Catholics were the first large Catholic enclave west of the mountains.

Most of the migrants were farmers and many of them were distillers. So far as we know, Basil Hayden was a typical farmer-distiller of his era. Nothing has come down to us about his recipe and it is probable that he, like his contemporaries, distilled whatever he had on hand without consideration of niceties like mashbills. Again so far as we know, Basil's son Lewis was a farmer-distiller much like his father.

The Maryland Catholic families stuck together and intermarried. Many of those families are still prominent in those same three Kentucky counties. In 1818 Lewis Hayden married Mary Dant, daughter of another famous distilling family in the Kentucky Holy Lands. They had 14 children, including a son named Raymond.

After the Civil War (1861-1865), whiskey-making left the farm and became industrialized. In about 1882, Raymond Hayden teamed up with a former treasury agent to establish a commercial-scale distillery at Hobbs, Kentucky, a stop on the then-new branch of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. They named the distillery Old Grand-Dad and put a portrait of Raymond's grandfather, Basil, on the label. With the industry growing rapidly, many producers cultivated the image of 'old time' distillers like Raymond's grandfather.

Although Hayden's distillery made both rye whiskey and bourbon, this was common at the time and doesn't prove the bourbon recipe was uniquely high-rye. It was Old Grand-Dad bourbon that became successful nationally and the rye was discontinued.

After Hayden's death, Old Grand-Dad was acquired by members of the Wathen family, who also had been part of that Catholic migration. They continued to sell Old Grand-Dad bourbon as medicinal whiskey during Prohibition and their company, American Medicinal Spirits, became a major component of National Distillers after Repeal.

As for the recipe, it's likely that when National revived the brand after Prohibition, they simply developed a recipe they thought would be appropriate. As rye whiskey and bourbon had been about equally popular before 1920, it is likely that bourbon recipes containing a healthy dose of rye were also common. But after Prohibition, consumers want a softer taste, and rye can taste hot and harsh, especially in a young whiskey. Rye whiskey itself struggled after Repeal and many bourbon makers reduced the percentage of rye in their mashes to produce a milder taste. In addition to softening the taste, rye was (and is) much more expensive than corn, so reducing the rye content also saved money.

Old Grand-Dad was positioned as a premium brand and also as an old, traditional one, so it retained its old, traditional recipe. That's important, even if the recipe isn't 200+ years old. Beam Suntory does a disservice to the brand's authentic heritage by exaggerating it.


Derrick Mancini said...

Agreed they should back off the dicey historical claim, but appreciate they are letting the consumer know more about the mash bill on the label.

Tom said...

As it happens, they got their priests in 1806, four Dominican friars led by Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP, who bought some land from John Waller in or near Springfield in Washington County. A William Haydon -- reportedly illegitimate; I'll leave it to the genealogists to figure out what relationship there was between the Haydons and Haydens -- was initially interested in joining the Dominicans, but he wound up getting married in 1810.

The Haydons/Haydens go back a ways.

Alex said...

Thanks for the background, Chuck.

I had a question for you about the Bottled in Bond requirements. Don't they require the distillery be identified by DSP on the label? I couldn't find a DSP on the new Jim Beam Bonded labels.

Do you know if the new Old Grand Dad labels contain the DSP?

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
Chuck thanx for this post! Always entertaining, and as usual, informative as well.
While I'm not a fan of corks over screw caps, or for that matter, any changes to the bottle or the Bourbon inside; I am (and will remain) a fan of the unique character of Old Grand Dad Bonded. It isn't quite what it was in 'National' days; but still darned good. It's too bad the price rose so steeply; but it's still going to be a brand I'll always have open on my bar.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The DSP number (DSP-KY-230) does appear on the new Old Grand-Dad label. I have queried Beam about its absence on the new Jim Beam Bonded.

DMcG said...

Chuck, if Beam didnt change the recipe when they purchased from ND, why the drastic difference in taste of OGD pre-'87 and the Beam stuff?

merd said...

I hope they don't jack with 114.

Chuck King said...

I take this as a good sign, that one of my favorite bourbons is still a vibrant product and won't be going away any time soon.

Mark Fleetwood said...

$5 increase for a redesigned label and fake cork?? Hello Fighting Cock.

Chuck Cowdery said...

DMcG, same recipe, different distillery, different distiller. Also, the National OGD you've probably tasted was glut era and likely twice as old as the whiskey would normally have been.

ezweave said...

Saying something about the mash bill means that Beam is a bit more savvy with regards to trend. The whole thing is stupid. I applaud that they're making the stuff, but mash bill is so far less important to taste of whiskey than yeast and where cuts are made (not to mention aging)... Not that it doesn't matter but you all know that pain of hearing someone ranting about mash bill in a bar. Fah.

I will say that the ND OGD I've had tastes different not just due to age but because I can always taste that Beam wild yeast... and new OGD of any variety has that taste in spades.

Anonymous said...

Regarding favor change from pre-1987: Did the yeast also change when OGD moved to Beam? I recall reading that the famous Beam yeast strain is used in most (all?) of their products.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I've always been told that Old Grand-Dad has its own yeast. It is not the same as the Jim Beam yeast.

As for the lack of a DSP on the Jim Beam Bonded label, they assure me that was a mistake and is being corrected. The product was distilled, aged, and bottled entirely at DSP-KY-230.

Alex said...

Chuck, thanks for following up with Beam and getting back to us.

Anonymous said...

Chuck, I got into OGD bonded on your recommendation and LOVE IT. This is the first I've seen of this new label, and I hate it. The old one has style and class. The price hike is a bummer, but not unexpected.

I had two bourbon newbs try a few different pours this last week (Jim Beam White, Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek, and OGD Bonded) and they both liked the OGD best without question.

It's by far one of my own favs. Try a little in the bottom of a dark-roast coffee (not a medium or light - this is important) and you will be in for a treat.

aermotor said...

OGD 100 is my favorite cost effect bourbon on Earth. Cannot be beat.

Stephen McGuigan said...

I cannot find OGD in a 1.75 anywhere in my area. (Jacksonville, Fl.). Does anyone know if this is due to the repackaging? I've been a bourbon drinker on and off for 40 some years (more on than off), and OGD has been my favorite always.

sarah adams said...

have you stopped making the larger size of oldgrandad all of the stores are saying that you are going to stop making this whiskey is this so.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie from NYS
I also am bummed out by the lack of 1.75 liter bottle!! OGD is my go to whiskey, but smaller bottle and higher price sucks!

Ron Lasher said...

I just saw an old advertisement stating that Old Grand Dad was made in Frankfort, KY. Does that mean that it was originally made where Buffalo Trace is today? To that point, is there any good reference material regarding distillery history and specifically where brands have been made over the years?

Deirdre Spencer said...

I am in NJ and having a hard time finding 100 proof, they no longer sells the 1/2 gallon. They have plenty of 80 proof which I don't drink. Is it true that a lot of OGD was stolen and that's why it's become hard to find? I have been drinking OGD since I was 18 yrs. old and don't want to switch.