The oldest adage in a very old book might be that things were better in the good old days.
I’m imagining a Neanderthal gazing dismissively at ascendant hordes of homo sapiens and rolling his eyes up toward his prominent brow. It’s similarly easy to envision the earliest whiskey producers scoffing (at least initially) at innovations like the use of new, charred oak barrels or the sour mash process. Nostalgia is mighty powerful, and there’s usually no convincing way to rebut the hypothesis that everything was hunky dory in the distant past.
We have old bottles of whiskey as a rare exception to this rule, allowing us to make a side-by-side comparison as a test of the old timers’ theories. I previously tasted blended Scotch whisky from decades past against the current incarnation, a comparison which did not favor the contemporary whisky. Sampling dusty Old Crow and Old Weller Antique 107 supported the hypothesis that there were some uniquely flavorful potables to be had in yesteryear, without a contemporary equivalent. On the other hand, a truly underwhelming taste of the Michter’s commemorative King Tut bottling showed that there was still a reliable supply of uninspired and poorly-made whiskey even in the golden era.
We’ll once again have the chance to pit new versus old today, as I have been provided a sample of whiskey from more than 30 years back. The challenger will be the modern incarnation of this same brand, under different ownership and distilled at a different distillery. In a positively delightful turn of fateful alignment, the whiskey in question will be a brand whose very name harkens back to days of yore: Old Grand-Dad.
My prior taste of Old Grand-Dad was the 114 proof bottling; kindly refer to that review if you’re interested in this history of this brand. To recap: Old Grand-Dad passed to current owners Beam (now Beam Suntory) when they acquired National Distillers Products Company 1987. Coincidentally, that year is the same one in which the older sample in our comparison was bottled, though the requisite aging means that this will be bourbon distilled in the Old Grand-Dad distillery (DSP-KY-14) in Frankfort, KY.
Let’s start with this 86 proof (43% ABV) example from 1987. The sample was generously provided by Scott; thanks to him for sharing this taste of a dusty with me.
Old Grand-Dad (1987) – Review
Color: Orange-tinted amber.
On the nose: A dense, sticky, sappy sweetness jumps straight out of the glass. This swirls with all sorts of wonderful moreish and fruity flavors: orange creamsicle, butterscotch hard candies, and banana-flavored salt water taffy. There’s a rounded nuttiness here reminiscent of the finer malts of the Yamazaki distillery, in addition to an herbaceous green note and a surprisingly effervescent nosefeel reminiscent of seltzer water.
In the mouth: A bit tart and brittle as it hits the tongue, there’s a thin woodiness and a vague citric accent, like a glass of water with a lemon wedge speared on a wooden toothpick. This takes on some more airy, sugary aspects of vanilla whipped cream as it moves toward the center of the mouth. The rye in the mash bill sings out with a peppery heat for a split second at the top of the tongue, before this takes on a faintly floral flavor of rosewater as it coasts quietly into the finish.
The nose on this was immediately appealing, but there wasn’t much follow-through in terms of flavor on the palate. There were no flaws or off notes, but the most promising aspects appeared only in more vague, dilute forms. Scoring dusties is, as we’ve discussed, an even more academic exercise than scoring usually. Overall, I feel most comfortable giving this an average mark.
Back to the present day, here we have the currently available Old Grand-Dad Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Unlike other brands acquired by Beam (such as Old Crow), Old Grand-Dad retained its traditional mash bill, which is very high rye (nearly 30%). This makes a comparison between old and new potentially more interesting, as we’re eliminating one variable that could cause a difference in flavor.
Of course, that leaves functionally infinite other variables in a list too long to reproduce here. The major one is going to be the fact that this was produced in an entirely different distillery (Beam Clermont). The proof was also reduced in the early part of the last decade to 80 (40% ABV), from the prior 86 proof. Typically found on the bottom shelf of the liquor or grocery store, this sells at around $19 for 750 ml.
Old Grand-Dad (2020) – Review
Color: A paler shade of yellowy-orange.
On the nose: This is dominated by the aroma of tannic young wood, which nearly crowds out all the other scents. There’s some faint notes of ballpark peanuts but none of the sumptuous fruit or deliciously sweet scents of its predecessor. Really concentrated sniffing draws out the wispiest, airiest smells of vanilla and floral perfume, but I keep returning again and again to the sense of freshly-sawn wood.
In the mouth: Silent on the entry, this doesn’t really evince much character until it hits the middle of the tongue. There, I am subjected to a muddled mélange of dilute wood, vanilla, potpourri, and mint candies. This disappears nearly entirely through the finish, leaving only a gentle lingering heat that arcs across the top of the mouth. Throughout, the texture of this feels noticeably watered-down, a consequence of the legal minimum bottling strength.
This is about as weak as you’d expect of a bottle of whiskey plucked off the bottom shelf for under $20. Whereas others can maintain a more-than-respectable level of quality at this price point, this Old Grand-Dad has clearly been consigned to the front porch rocking chair. It has much in common with its Beam stablemate, the comparably underwhelming Jim Beam White Label. I am scoring this consistently with that one, which is to say: at a level that should dissuade you from seeking this out, should you be so tempted.
In a turn of events that will come as a shock to nobody, the elder statesman bested the young whippersnapper. This 1987 isn’t quite the revelation that the 1973-era Old Weller Antique 107 was, but it is educational in the manner of the Old Crow from 1969. As long as distilleries keep the old brands alive, we’ll continue to measure them against their forebears. To the kind folks who make this possible: you have my sincere thanks.
1987 Old Grand Dad image kindly provided by Master of Malt, the latest incarnation via Amazon.