Thursday, January 6, 2022

Are Basil Hayden and Old Grand-Dad the Same?


A little knowledge goes a long way. 

Are they? Short answer, no; but here is why this question is asked and why that ‘no’ is nuanced and will bear some explaining. (Fair warning: It may not need as much explaining as it's about to get.)

Basil Hayden is a brand that offers several different expressions, but its flagship is a straight bourbon bottled at 80° proof (40% ABV). Once upon a time it had an 8-year age statement. It is NAS (no age statement) now, but probably 6-9 years old in practice. The brand was created in the early 1990s as part of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Bourbons Collection.

Old Grand-Dad is a brand that originated in the 19th century. It was started by R. B. Hayden and had several different owners on both sides of Prohibition, eventually becoming part of Seton Porter’s National Distillers. In 1987, National sold all of its beverage alcohol assets to the parent company of Jim Beam, which landed Old Grand-Dad in the Beam portfolio.

Old Grand-Dad was just one of many brands Beam acquired in that deal, but it was unique. National’s other bourbons, such as Old Crow, were similar enough to Jim Beam that when the whiskey inventory acquired in the deal ran out, they could put Jim Beam liquid into Old Crow bottles and no one would be the wiser, which is exactly what they did (and no one was).

But they couldn’t do that with Old Grand-Dad because it used a different recipe, a particular yeast strain and a mash bill that contained about twice as much rye as Jim Beam and, consequently, that much less corn. If they put Jim Beam liquid into Old Grand-Dad bottles, it would taste different and people would notice. That would be bad because even in the dark days of the 1980s, Old Grand-Dad was considered a premium brand and was very profitable.

Bourbon pricing in those days was simple. ‘Value brands’ were the cheapest; your off-brands, house brands and generics. Next was ‘popular price.’ That’s where most of the major brands were, including Jim Beam. The highest category was ‘premium.’ Old Grand-Dad was considered ‘premium.’ The leader in the premium segment was Jack Daniel’s. The Beam marketing folks thought maybe they could ‘squeeze’ Jack Daniel’s with Grand-Dad on its upside and Beam on its downside, but that strategy went nowhere.

As the brand settled in, executives at Beam saw little opportunity to grow Old Grand-Dad, but they very much wanted to preserve what sales it had.

They didn’t guess about any of this. They meticulously researched it with consumers and concluded that the additional cost of producing a separate recipe would be offset by the estimated sales they would lose if they changed how it tasted. Spending more to keep it the same was worth the investment, so that's what they did; same yeast, same high-rye mash bill, same distillation proof, same barrel entry proof, everything. 

The only change was the distillery. Although the deal included the place where National had been making Old Grand-Dad, Beam didn’t need additional capacity so they moved distillation to Clermont. Owning the former distillery was good, however, because it gave them easy access to everything they needed to keep everything the same, including some of the crew who had been making it there. 

Today, Old Grand-Dad is straight bourbon bottled at four different proofs: 80°, 86°, 100°, and 114°. The 100° proof is bottled-in-bond. Old Grand-Dad doesn't have an age statement, so it is at least 4-years old. It’s probably in the 4- to 6-year range.

The story of the Basil Hayden brand starts with Booker’s Bourbon. That whiskey, with retired master distiller Booker Noe as its spokesperson, was one of the first to herald the bourbon renaissance. Its success prompted Beam to create the Small Batch Bourbons Collection. Booker’s was basically an extra-aged (6- to 8-year), barrel proof version of Jim Beam. Two other brands in the four-brand Collection, Knob Creek and Baker’s, also used the Jim Beam base distillate. It was decided that the fourth one would use the Old Grand-Dad recipe. 

At the time, Old Grand-Dad itself did not have an 80° proof expression, so they made the small batch version 80° proof and 8-years old, and named it after Basil Hayden, the actual grandfather of the brand’s founder and an important participant in the earliest history of Kentucky’s bourbon heartland. It was the lowest proof of the four, so they positioned it as an entry-level offering. “A good starter bourbon for scotch drinkers.” That was the idea.

Making Basil Hayden just an older version of 80° proof Old Grand-Dad, right?

This is where the nuanced ‘no’ comes in or, more precisely, ‘not exactly.’

One aspect of bourbon-making that many enthusiasts miss is the flavor profile. Beam has many thousands of barrels of the Old Grand-Dad base distillate aging in its warehouses. After aging, each barrel is a little bit different and mixing whiskey from different barrels together is how you create a flavor profile. 

Every brand, and every expression within a brand, has a flavor profile that must be maintained from batch to batch. They still do that the old-fashioned way, with human tasters who compare each candidate bottling batch to a standard for that expression. Maintaining the standard itself can be complicated but its essence is, “what it tasted like last time.”

Deciding which barrels to dump for bottling starts by identifying barrels that are the right age, but it doesn’t end there. Candidate combinations are done on a small scale, tweaked until they get it right, then scaled up to the hundreds of barrels and thousands of gallons that can make up a bottling run. Even after the scaled-up batch is prepared it is subjected to additional taste tests and tweaks before it goes into production. 

There probably is nothing producers take more seriously than consistency from batch to batch. That consistency also applies to appearance, but it’s mostly about taste and aroma.

If Basil Hayden’s flavor profile is different from Old Grand-Dad’s, and it is, then they are not the same whiskey. Remember that Beam's objective with Old Grand-Dad, for 35 years now, has been to keep it the same. Basil Hayden was a new brand and wasn't targeted at Old Grand-Dad drinkers. It was crafted to appeal to that bourbon-curious scotch drinker and other entry-level bourbon drinkers. So, yes, it's the Old Grand-Dad distillate, but used in a completely different way. In fact, the Basil Hayden profile is probably as far as you can get from the Old Grand-Dad profile using the same distillate.

Even within the Old Grand-Dad line, the various expressions aren’t just 114 plus different amounts of water. Each proof has its own flavor profile, its own standard, that must be matched. It may not be much more than adding water, but it’s a little bit more.

Of course, it isn’t just Beam Suntory that does this with Old Grand-Dad and Basil Hayden. It is every brand at every company. Every expression of every brand has a flavor profile, maintained from batch to batch as described above. The big producers have thousands of samples, in bottles, so they can reference not only the current standard but also go back and compare current batches to previous ones from just about any period in the brand’s history. These are the kind of crucial business records you can't digitize.

In a small craft distillery, tasting may solely be the distiller’s job, but typically there is a panel of people who do this regularly. Many receive special training.

Most distillers make more than one recipe and derive multiple brands and expressions from each of them. It is common for two or more brands to have the same base distillate, and that is a big thing to have in common. It is useful to know what some of these ‘recipe families’ are because if you like one expression in a given family you may also like others, and likewise that knowledge can suggest labels to avoid, but being in the same recipe family, even being generally similar, does not make them the same whiskey.

Not exactly.


Stacy Thomas said...

Very interesting. I have had a few drinks of Basil Hayden and found it lacking in flavor and now I know why. I had simply consigned it to the category of Beam-produced bourbons that have a watery flavor and seem to be designed for people who think bourbon tastes icky, but who somehow think they should give it a try or use it for mixing.

This whole unpleasant subject was recently revived for me when against my better judgment I bought a reasonably priced bottle of bottled-in-bond Old Tub. I told myself, how can Beam possibly find a way to take most of the bourbon flavor out of a 100 proof BIB product? As I learned, they did find a way.

Ben D said...

I was thinking that I had read somewhere that barrels used for OGD 80 and OGD BIB went in at a higher proof than barrels used for Basil Hayden and OGD114 helping to differentiate their profiles as well. Did I dream that???

Michael Lazar said...

Meanwhile, don't you think what Beam's been doing w/ the Basil Hayden's brand has now taken it on a sharp divergent turn away from the traditional American whiskey market into something more akin to a flavored product?

Cary Dice said...

Beer, not whiskey, but approp to your description of variations on a central taste profile. I used to work in the ad biz for Budweiser and Bud Light on agency side. Sat in on what were then every Friday afternoon tastings at the St.Lous HQ/brewery. A special team tasted samples from all of their breweries to detect any "off" taste that may need attention or to see if each brewery's products met the central taste profile. Budweiser was the taste standard and their other brands were tasted for their specific relation to Bud. I know that was the case with Bud Light and Michelob. Maybe Busch although it had a more of a corn recipe. Many more products today of course. Process was fascinating with tasters that could detect miniscule traces of certain unwanted chemical tastes like formaldehyde which is an unwanted by-product of the brewing process.

potsy said...

thanks chuck this is very informative

Jim Keller said...

Old GranDad uses it's a different yeast as well (yes?) and that has a distinct
impact on taste /aftertaste. It does seem to use an old fashioned jug yeast (a captured wild yeast) which has that similiar funky tang that Beam has, though different. Yeast doesn't get talked about much but it is my understanding that it is the one unique factor that can't be replicated if the original strain is lost.

O.D. Jones said...

Illuminating article that puts some "received knowledge" canards to rest. OGD 114 is a long time favorite and cabinet staple here, and one of the reasons it remains a staple is because it has such consistency from batch to and bottle to bottle. Personally, I have never been much for 80 proof liquors, so I can't comment on the Basil Hayden, but it was good for an amateur aficionado like myself to learn why the same mash bill can have so many distinct varieties. The Old Grand Dad BIB will not be mistaken for the OGD 114, and it's nice to know WHY; that a distillery goes out of their way to keep the specific flavor profiles of each brand variety consistent over the years.

The poster above me made an interesting observation about the yeast. The Old Grand Dad lineup is very distinct from the rest of the Beam family in terms of overall flavor profile, and I've always wondered if it was because a different strain of yeast is being used, as most of the Jim Beam whiskey lineup has that distinct "peanut shell" note that is mostly absent from the OGD range. Now, if only those tasters could sample some of the mid 80s OGD 114 and somehow match that astonishing whiskey, which must have contained very old spirit from the dark days of the bourbon glut... A few years back we were able to sample an unopened OGD 115 dusty with the old scroll label, which dated from the '80s, and it poured as dark in the glass as a Macallan 12 or another sherried malt... It was a truly great, memorable American whiskey experience, and one not likely to be repeated anytime soon. I find it hard to believe in this current environment there would be unwanted and unloved stocks of very good whiskey just aging away, waiting to be blended into a premium but still mid-shelf bourbon like Old Grand Dad 114... And if such a beast could be crafted today, I can only imagine the elaborate bottle and commensurate price it would be released at. Thanks again for the article!

Anonymous said...

I have to take issue with saying big producers work hard to make sure the flavor profile is consistent. I had the opportunity to try an old bottle of Jack Daniels (1980's) vs the current product. Not even close. Then with the recent shortage of whiskey brands dropping she statements because they're using younger stock... That's not going to give the same flavor profile.