Time to hit the dusty trail again…
Today, I’m being treated to another taste of dusty whiskey, thanks to the generosity of a friend of this site. For the uninitiated, the “dusty” terminology doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of actual dust on the bottle. Rather, so-called “dusty” bottles are from years gone by, often with whiskey produced at now-shuttered distilleries. Regardless of the cleanliness of their storage conditions, these “dusties” are highly sought after and typically command prices reflecting their desirability and scarcity.
For those of you that have missed my prior meditations on these types of rarities: my journey began with the Old Crow Ceramic Chessmen decanter, followed by some Old Weller Antique 107 from the Stitzel-Weller distillery. A disappointing run in with some dusty Michter’s in exuberant packaging gave way to the appropriately-named Old Grand-Dad, Old Taylor, and Old Fitzgerald. I also tasted some dusty Wild Turkey, as did Jason from another ornate decanter.
That is the what, but what is the why? Why bother with these ancient whiskeys? Though the quality of the aforementioned whiskeys was inconsistent, each review provided me the opportunity to dig deeper into an aspect of whiskey history. Sometimes this was straightforward; other times some detective work was needed, requiring me to call in an elder statesman of bourbon history. As drams in a glass these whiskeys may be hits or misses, but as an educational process, composing these reviews is invariably satisfying.
Dusty whiskey is also a way to experience history, rather than to just research and read about it. This is particularly so when the production methods used differed significantly from today’s commonplace practices. To choose but one example: dusty whisky is often prized for its “funky” characteristics. I’ve seen it suggested that this is the consequence of the use of cypress fermentation tanks, which have been replaced by stainless steel for a number of reasons, not least of all the bacterial contamination which may have contributed to the funk. Regardless, there’s a palpable difference that allows the dusty drinker to understand the impact of these changes on the whiskey-making process; we can literally taste history.
However, when considering rare and old whiskey as a source of review fodder, another august voice in the world of bourbon recently mused, “Does it make sense to do a Death Bed pour most will never have?” He further opined “Will the review make a difference in what lengths and $$ someone will go to get it?”
Separating myself from my own personal enjoyment of these types of reviews when I’m writing them, I acknowledge that these are fair points at least. I have long believed that Malt is at its most useful when we are providing unbiased opinions that will inform a prospective purchase. There’s a miniscule proportion of the whiskey-consuming public who would even want a thirty-year-old bottle from a defunct distillery (and an even smaller fraction who could afford it). Thus, these reviews are intrinsically less relevant to the majority our readership than when we tackle a widely available favorite.
In today’s dusty case study, the older whiskey in question is an expression still being bottled, allowing us to address the eternal question of whether things were better “back in the day.” Without further nattering, I can now reveal to you that I’ll be tasting an Old Grand-Dad 114 from 1989. In addition to being the year of Taylor Swift’s birth, this was two years after current owners Beam purchased National Distillers. Using the same logic employed in my sleuthing around the Old Taylor from 1992, I can reason that this likely contains whiskey distilled at the Old Grand-Dad distillery in Elkhorn Forks.
“OGD” (yeah, you know me) 114 is a whiskey I have reviewed before and, frankly, had been meaning to revisit. As repeat readers will remember, I prefer a moderate rye mash bill in my bourbon, compared to the 63% corn, 27% rye, 10% barley unofficially reported as the raw materials for Old Grand-Dad. However, I’m currently enjoying a freakishly good bottle of Four Roses from the OESQ recipe, with a 20% rye mash bill. Always one to attempt to shatter my own preconceptions, I’m hoping that the evolution of my palate may have unlocked the splendors of high-rye bourbon.
To recap: the “114” in the name of this whiskey refers to the bottling strength of 114 proof (57% ABV, for those of you unable to divide by two). I consulted my market maker in dusties, Mr. Ryan Alves of Justins’ House of Bourbon, who indicated that a bottle of this would be expected to fetch $600 to $700. Fortunately, I was once again spared any financial hardship by Brian, who provided this sample and has my continued gratitude.
Here’s hoping for some funk!
Old Grand-Dad 114 (1989) – Review
On the nose: There’s funk, all right… but it’s sharing center stage with an intense, almost chemical aroma of butterscotch. The initial impression is of opening a slightly damp, musty old cupboard to discover a forgotten bowl of Werther’s Original candies. A little time in the glass releases an herbaceous, medicinal scent of eucalyptus, some camphor, a bit of star anise, and the vaguely citric sweetness of diluted orange juice. Just as the nose reaches its sensory limits, a prickly aroma of freshly ground black pepper threatens to induce a sneeze. Overall, this is so tempting as to beg for the first sip.
In the mouth: Full-bodied at the outset, this whiskey enters the mouth with a lip-puckering stony note that quickly yields a more intense, polished woodiness. The orange note blooms at midpalate in the most pleasant of ways, in what ends up being the delicious high point of this whiskey. There’s a transition to more of a creamy mouthfeel and, again, the potent butterscotch flavor. That medicinal note from the nose persists after the finish, winding its way around the molars and leaving a palpable echo of the damp and musty funkiness for which I yearned at the outset.
This bourbon delivered on the promised funk, but what most impressed me was how well integrated this aspect was. On the nose the funky note was forceful, but met with the rich, buttery sweetness in a way that was mutually complementary. In the mouth, the other elements were allowed to step to the fore, with the musty note waiting until the very end, but still continuing to linger for several minutes after my last swallow.
And now for the hard part: if I were to come across a bottle of this on sale for $650 (the middle of the mooted range), would I purchase it? I’d have a hard time resisting. That price would be nearly 50% more than I have ever paid for a bottle of whiskey, and there aren’t many in that bracket.
As noted above, though, this is a piece of history. There are a finite number of these out there and they disappear as they are opened and consumed. This makes them true rarities (in comparison to the Limited-in-name-only-Editions being pushed by operating distilleries) and, as a consequence, more convincingly justifies the sky-high price.
Scoring is an artistic (rather than scientific) exercise at the best of times, and especially so in the case of rare old whiskey. I’m going to apply a score here which is intended mostly as a signifier that this Old Grand-Dad is also the Godfather of Funk.
Image courtesy of Ryan Alves and Justins’ House of Bourbon; the bottles pictured are the 1983, 1991, and modern Old Grand-Dad 114. The bottle from which this sample came most closely resembles the 1983.