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.