While I’ve seen Old Grand-Dad on the shelves, I’ve always been hesitant to pick it up and give it a try. On the outside, it looks like it’s in the same league as Ancient Age or Seagram’s 7 Crown, but the name and ‘grand-dad’ character on the label always gave me a chuckle. I figured it was about time to find out if this was a hidden gem behind a funny label, or just another bottom-shelf bottle.
The Hayden family first started distilling in Kentucky in 1840, lead by Meredith Basil Hayden Sr. as the owner and master distiller. Throughout the mid-1800s, their approach to whiskey production– using an abnormally high amount of rye in the grain bill — gained popularity and enabled the Haydens to build a successful business.
In 1882, the grandson Raymond B. Hayden decided to start bottling a version of their high rye bourbon in honor of his grandfather and bearing an illustration of the man’s face on every bottle. The new brand, dubbed “Old Grand-Dad,” was successful and 17 years later they sold the brand to the Walthen family.
Production continued uninterrupted throughout the years, even producing a medicinal alcohol during prohibition to keep the stills going, and remains a popular brand produced today by the Jim Beam distillery under the Japanese Beam Suntory company. Starting in 2013, the alcohol content of the spirit was lowered from the traditional 43% ABV to 40% ABV, which is where it remains today.
In 1992, a second bourbon would be launched in honor of Meredith Basil Hayden Sr., this time called “Basil Hayden’s,” and remains another popular expression from Jim Beam.
According to sales figures, Old Grand-Dad is one of the best selling “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey” brands on the market. Together with Old Overholt, another Jim Beam product, the whiskies are marketed as “The Olds.”
This bourbon is manufactured at the Clermont, Kentucky distillery owned by Jim Beam.
It starts as a fermented mash consisting of 63% corn, 27% rye, and 10% malted barley. This is the same level of malted barley as regular Jim Beam bourbon, but it seems like they traded out 14% of the corn and replaced it with rye. As one would expect from a “high rye” bourbon that is, indeed, quite a bit of rye.
The spirit is then distilled and placed in charred oak casks for a period not less than two years (as a “straight” bourbon requires). Once properly aged, the spirit is bottled and shipped.
The bottle is about as standard of a design as you can get. The body is slender and cylindrical, with a sharp shoulder that ends in a medium length neck. The bottle is capped with a plastic screw-on cap. It looks like any of a number of liquor bottles that you typically find behind a bar.
The label is orange, which is an interesting choice in color but seems to be a traditional carryover from its origins. The label has the bare minimum information, such as bottling proof and type of spirit, as well as the name of the whiskey in bold black lettering across the top. And, as always, the portrait of Meredith Basil Hayden Sr. is front and center smiling back at you and toasting to your health.
One thing I’ll say about the packaging is that it sure stands out on a shelf. The orange background and black lettering is unique among whiskey and easily identified, but it has the same look and feel of other bottom shelf whiskies like J.T.S. Brown.
It smells pretty much like a bone stock bourbon — heavy on the vanilla notes, with a good helping of caramel. But there’s something else there as well — I think the rye and the malted barley from the grain bill have combined to make this smell like a piece of freshly sliced rye bread, which is actually pretty enticing.
There’s only two flavors that I get in the whiskey itself, and that’s vanilla and peppery spice. There’s a hint of toffee and caramel thrown in for good measure, but they’re much more like bit players than true stars. The vanilla is just running away with things and making for a fairly unbalanced flavor.
The spirit ends with a smooth and peppery finish with the spice flavor lasting long after the taste has disappeared. There’s not many surprises or flavors, but then again there isn’t any alcohol burn or unpleasantness.
With a touch of ice, the flavors are all still there, but much better balanced than before. In the neat version, the vanilla was just screaming but now it’s toned down and more of a team player.
At this point, the whiskey is closer in flavor to the Evan Williams white label version that we’ve tested before, but still not quite as complex. It’s a solid bourbon with no big surprises and more pronounced caramel flavoring.
I do still get the peppery spice as well, which bodes well for the cocktail and mixers to come.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
With a little bit of bitters muddled into a couple cubes of sugar, this is actually pretty good. The bitters balance fairly well with the vanilla and caramel in the spirit, and the orange citrus flavors add a brightness that shines through the whole thing. It definitely needs the added sugar though — on its own it’s not sweet enough.
Lost in the shuffle a little bit is the peppery spice of the rye. I think I can still taste it, but it’s not quite as pronounced as it once was.
While the peppery spice flavor may have gone M.I.A. in the old fashioned, it’s definitely back and in full force here.
As with a proper Kentucky mule, the vanilla and caramel are well balanced with the ginger, and the peppery spice adds that little extra bit of kick that I look for. It lets you know that the bourbon is still there, and provides a flavor that a vodka just can’t match.
It’s a fine whiskey. There’s no doubt that the rye is doing it’s job, with that peppery spice coming through loud and clear and lasting well into the aftertaste. Other than that, though, there’s not a whole lot going on here… but that’s okay sometimes. For a bottle as absolutely dirt cheap as this one, it’s contents are right up there with Evan Williams.
Old Grand-Dad Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Owner: Beam Suntory, Japan
Production: Clermont, Kentucky
Classification: Straight Bourbon
Grain bill: 63% corn, 27% rye, 10% malted barley
Aging: No Age Statement (Minimum 2 years)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $16/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 3/5
Well worth the (low) price. Just don’t expect miracles.