When I started reviewing whiskeys my wife asked me a very important question: am I only going to do the “good” ones? No, I responded, I need to do them all. In order to understand the height of perfection, I needed to also understand the depth of awfulness that was available. I needed to understand what would constitute a zero star spirit so I could properly calibrate my scale.
In other words, I made a mistake.
James C. Crow, a Scottish immigrant to the United States, started his own distillery in Frankfurt, Kentucky in the 1830s. He was the first to use the “sour mash” process of creating a fermented mash for distillation which used the yeast from the previous batch to kick start the fermentation of the next one. This ensured that the same family of yeast would be used to create every drop of liquor, something which should, theoretically, improve the taste and consistency of the product.
He produced his whiskey (the “Old Crow” variety being an aged version) until his death in 1856, when the original recipe and distillation process was lost with its inventor who had never passed it down. W.A. Gaines and Co. continued to produce Old Crow through the American Civil War where it was the favored drink of Union General and future American president Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Jubal Early.
The distillery was sold to National Distillers when prohibition started, and once that dark period was over they re-started the production line. National Distillers was purchased in 1987 by Jim Beam, who was subsequently purchased by Suntory Holdings of Japan.
The best way to think of this whiskey is as a lower grade version of Jim Beam. The two spirits are made in the same place and start from the exact same grain bill, but the Jim Beam branded product gets some actual care and attention as opposed to the way Old Crow is handled. Today’s Old Crow still uses the sour mash process in fermentation, meaning the same yeast from the previous batch is used to start the next one.
Once the spirit is distilled, it is aged in new charred oak casks for a minimum of three years. Old Crow is marketed as “straight bourbon” which has a very specific set of regulations surrounding its manufacture including alcohol content and the length of time it stays in the barrel.
One thing I do want to point out was that nowhere during my research could I find any references to food coloring or additives being used in the production of Old Crow — which makes sense given the rather strict rules around “straight Kentucky bourbon” production. What you see is what came out of the barrels, which I appreciate.
This bottle of Old Crow was packaged in a plastic bottle that proudly proclaims itself to be a “lightweight traveler” size with a built-in pouring spout. The bottle itself is rather boring, looking like a pretty standard liquor bottle.
The label on the front of the package is a rather plain white background with the famous crow logo front and center. Legend has it that this logo dates from the Civil War when a regiment of Union Soldiers stationed in State College, PA (future home of Penn State University — lets go State!) petitioned Lincoln that this was the “only good thing to come out of the South” and that “the crow with the sharpest talons holds on to barley forever.”
Really the only thing I smell coming off this glass is alcohol and maybe a little hint of vanilla. Past the burn of the alcohol there’s nothing offensive in the smell… but there also doesn’t seem to be much complexity.
While the liquid was in my mouth I didn’t really get a taste of anything. There was no immediate burn or strong sensations. But once that liquid started down my throat what was left behind made me yearn for that nothingness that I had just enjoyed.
There’s an immediate burning sensation on the back of my tongue, which makes me think that perhaps the reason I didn’t taste it at first was that the spirit had simply singed off those taste buds. Then the actual “flavor” of the spirit started coming through in what I can only describe as a slightly more pleasant version of cough syrup. With the subtlety of Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball, there’s a flash of licorice and vanilla that was so strong and intense that it literally made me shudder. I now understand how my wife feels whenever she describes whiskey as “painful fire”.
It was about halfway through a pour of the spirit that I started regretting my high-minded plans for this site. The list of “bottom of the shelf” spirits is long and ominous — I considered whether I could even make it to the end before my liver decided to stop me from further punishing myself. But no, the show must go on.
There has to be a way to make this palatable.
There’s an interesting psychology to the first hill of a roller coaster. The clanking of the gears as the carriage is pulled to the top of the hill lets you know that something terrifying is about to happen but you really can’t judge just how bad it’s going to be until you reach the top of the hill. From there it’s just pure terror.
Drinking this liquor is exactly like the first hill of a roller coaster. But not in a good way at all.
The problem with a “sneaky” spirit like this one, where the real pain doesn’t come until the liquor is already running down your throat, is that just like the roller coaster you don’t know how bad it’s going to be until you’ve irreversibly started down the other side. I thought that adding ice would help smooth out the awful aftertaste, but rather than “mellowing out” the alcohol it turned into something closer to a scoville test. Even with the added temperature change and water, the burn comes through in the end. It’s not so much an exercise of “how much to make this taste better” as it is “how much ice to make it go away?”
Orange and bitters almost makes it worse. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but rest assured, it is.
Unless you use damn near a 1:1 mix of bitters and liquor, the aftertaste remains. But now that you’ve added the delightful taste of citrusy orange and bitters, that’s all you get on the first part of the sip while the spirit is still in your mouth. It tricks you into thinking that all is well and you’ve solved the problem — until you swallow and your whole world view comes crashing to the ground. The burn, the harsh flavors, they were there the whole time. Just waiting to lull you into a false sense of security before pouncing.
It’s not great, but at least I’m not regretting my life anymore.
Ginger beer is really useful for covering up otherwise awful tasting things because the flavor and aroma of the ginger is just so damn pungent. In this case it does a good job of almost — but not quite — completely covering up the awful taste of this bourbon. The licorice aftertaste is still present, but the competing flavor of the ginger beer fights the good fight to keep it from being such an overpoweringly bad experience.
This isn’t the worst of the worst. I’ve been to the bottom of the barrel and together, dear reader, you and I will get there again.
There’s one situation in which this isn’t a terrible idea that you will regret immediately, and that’s in mixed drinks where you really just need something for the alcohol content. But in that case you’re missing the point of the bourbon flavoring process. Really you’d be better off with a vodka or tequila of some sort, a neutral spirit that would give you the kick you need without needing to spend extra time and effort covering up a terrible mistake of a flavor profile.
Old Crow Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey
Owner: Beam Suntory
Classification: Straight Kentucky Bourbon
Grain bill: 76% corn, 12% rye, 10% malted barley
Aging: 3 years
Proof: 40% ABV / 80 proof
Price: $14.49 / 750ml ($0.019/ ml)
Overall Rating: 1/5
This isn’t the worst whiskey I’ve ever had. But it’s damn close.