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National Distillers Old Crow vs Jim Beam Old Crow

Just continuing my exploration of dusty bourbon…

I previously stopped with a National Distillers Old Taylor. When I think of old American whiskey brands and/or dead distilleries such as Stitzel Weller’s Old Fitzgerald and National Distillers’ Old Grand-Dad, the idea of comparing a Hong Kong action star’s movie days to his Hollywood projects sometimes comes to mind. This comes from someone who believes that dusty American whiskeys such as Old Crow are generally better than the contemporary versions, as well as most of today’s products.

If you don’t know what I mean: check out Jackie Chan’s old 1980s Hong Kong films such as the series of Police Story movies, then compare them to his Hollywood movies. The stunt and fight scenes in his Hong Kong films are noticeably more intense and dangerous. Plenty of that country’s actors and actresses have a mixed background of opera acting, stunt training, and martial arts. There’s no need for shaky cameras to hide an actor’s lack of martial arts skill, which Hollywood is known to do.

As a result, viewers also get to appreciate the scenes more, since there is minimal camera movement. Another factor that makes Hong Kong films better is that studios have been known to wait and delay the release while waiting for a better outcome.

Old Crow is a bourbon that was named after James E. Crow. He was born in Scotland in 1779. After taking medicine and chemistry in Edinburgh University in 1822, he moved to Philadelphia and Kentucky in 1823. He started working at Grier’s Creek Distillery in 1835, where he applied scientific methods to bourbon production. By using thermometers, hydrometers, and pH balance checks, he standardized the sour mash process.

Crow, now a physician and distiller, moved to the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. He, along with his employer Oscar Pepper, started selling their whiskey by name. The whiskey brands that came from the distillery were Old Pepper and Old Crow. Despite having different names, they were said to be the same whiskey. It’s also said that Crow was one of the first to sell American whiskey under a brand name.

Some time later, Crow moved to the Johnson Distillery, which later became the site of the Old Taylor Distillery. He would work there until his death in 1856. Even after his death, Pepper still sold Old Crow whiskey. Surprisingly, the brand grew more in the years after Crow’s death.

When Pepper died, his son sold the distillery and the Old Crow brand. The distillery and brand name eventually went different ways. The Old Crow Distillery ended up being built close to Frankfurt. Over the years, it was scrapped for parts; eventually, it was torn down in 2008, only to become the current site for Glenns Creek Distillery. The Old Oscar Pepper Distillery – the original distilling site of Old Crow – is now the Woodford Reserve Distillery.

The brand survived through William F. Mitchell. At Old Oscar Pepper, he reviewed Crow’s notes and was able to replicate most of the processes. He left the distillery to work for W.A. Gaines in 1872. Gaines built a new distillery adjacent to the Johnson Distillery in 1882, where the brand would continue to be produced.

After a dispute over ownership of the Old Crow name (James Crow sired no children), W.A. Gaines acquired the brand name. In 1934, just after Prohibition (1920 to 1933), National Distillers purchased Gaines. They made Old Crow their flagship brand and the number one selling bourbon in the country.

The whiskey glut in the 1970s caused Old Crow to fall hard. Jim Beam eventually bought National Distillers in 1987. Along with Old Crow, they acquired brands like Old Taylor and Old Grand-Dad. To this day, Jim Beam owns the Old Crow brand.

While researching this article, I found this interesting Chuck Cowdery article. According to him, he was allowed by Jim Beam to be shown around the Old Taylor and the Old Crow by a couple of old National Distillers people (Cowdery previously discussed the period after the acquisition with Taylor).

It was mentioned to him that, during the enlarging of the Old Crow plant by National Distillers in the 1960s, the setback used to condition the mash was accidentally altered. Setback is another name for backset; sour mash is the popular term for the process in which backset is used in American whiskey. For those familiar with rum: like Jamaica’s dunder. This alteration resulted in the bourbon tasting wrong. Oddly, they didn’t bother to correct the mistake until a few years before Beam bought National Distillers. Aside from the whiskey glut, I wonder if this alteration was a huge reason for the fall of the brand?

With the ideas above in mind, I’m going to compare a contemporary three year old Jim Beam Old Crow with a W.A. Gaines Old Crow from between 1954 and 1959. The back label says it’s four years old. I brought home a sample from a bar from my pre-COVID Japan trip.

Old Crow Straight Bourbon (National Distillers) – Review

1954 to 1959. 43% ABV. Four years old.

Color: Amber

On the nose: A jam jam. I get lovely, long, medium and jammy aromas of peach, oranges, cherries and apricots. After this is a long aroma of creamed corn. It’s drizzled with very light and brief orange peel oils, Bazooka bubblegum, dehydrated lemon peels, banana-flavored candy, stewed tomatoes, cloves, leather, and peppers. The aromas repeat with the same order and loveliness.

In the mouth: Only slightly hotter than on the nose, but just like on the nose, I also taste a jam jam. The jammy tastes of oranges, cherries, peaches and apricots are still long and so enjoyable. But there are underlying bitter tastes of cloves, leather, and orange peel.

After a while, the fruity tones change. I still get the same fruits but it’s more like they’re in hard candy form. Along with the fruity changes is a subtle burst of cream corn, steamed Japanese sweet potatoes, banana liqueur and honey.

Conclusions:

I can see why this bourbon used to be number 1 in the USA. It’s just so damn good.

This isn’t my first taste of a dusty Old Crow. Years ago, I had this oblong-shaped Old Crow bottle from the 60s. It wowed me even more than a few of the Very Very Old Fitzgeralds I got to try. There’s something about dusty bourbons made with rye that gives off a salivation-inducing cherry taste.

I find this so good that it made me forget the answer to my own question; I wonder how a bourbon this young can be so balanced, and not be as harsh as today’s bourbon of the same age. Yes: it’s not so complex, but this is only four years old, so I don’t expect it to be. Because this was distilled and aged in the 1950s, it’s safe to say that the 55% ABV max barrel entry proof is a key factor. A lower ABV in the Kentucky climate means a less intense distillate to wood interaction, so less barrel flavors are being extracted.

Tasting dusty bourbon such as these will ruin you. I’ll liken this to experiencing something you’re likely to never experience again, like that first high from weed or that first taste of a truffled brie. I’d have given this a 10 if it didn’t have that underlying bitterness in the mouth; maybe I would have if this same bourbon were also aged for an extra two or three years for an added complexity and layering.

Score: 9/10

Old Crow (Jim Beam) – Review

40% ABV. Three years old. $23 (700ml) locally. $21.99 (1.75L) from Binny’s. $17.99 (1.75L) from Total Wine.

Color: Honey.

On the nose: Bitter and fruity. From the start I get sharp, medium, and enveloping aromas of cloves, leather, oak, a bit too much cinnamon and orange peels. Then the quick and light appearances of vanilla, sweet corn, honey, orange marmalade and orange peel oils make the end more appealing. 

In the mouth: A messy mix of fruity sweetness, bitterness and heat. The ethanol bite isn’t strong but it’s persistent. Behind it are enveloping tastes of cloves, leather, cinnamon sticks, and orange peels. After that barrage of bitterness, I sense a sweet ending. I get a light burst of honey, orange peel oils, orange marmalade, vanilla, sweet corn, caramel, and red cherries.

Conclusions:

A far cry from the National Distillers’ Old Crow above. This might be the most bitter bourbon I’ve ever had. Where do all these flavors of cloves, leather and orange peels come from? It feels like I’m sucking on flavored wood. Did Beam age these in their worst barrels?

The National Distillers Old Crow is like just having seen this Police Story chase scene and the rest of the movie, while drinking this Beam Crow would be akin to watching The Spy Next Door (which is, for me, Jackie’s worst movie).

Why does Beam hold on to this brand if they only neglect it? I hope they will either sell it to someone who will do right by this brand or revamp it themselves.

Score: 3/10

Old Crow Distillery image is courtesy of Abandoned Distillery. Old Crow (Jim Beam) image courtesy of Binny’s. Images of WA Gaines Old Crow taken by the author at a bar in Japan. Thanks to these Chuck Cowdery and Abandoned Online articles for making the research easier.

CategoriesAmerican
  1. Alex says:

    Love the backstory in this article! And that old old crow sounds delicious. Amazing that at 43% it has stayed fresh and appealing. Good cork and properly stored, I suppose. Old bottlings often seem to come out on top of newer bottlings, and I always wonder how much of that is due to ageing in glass. I don’t have much experience tasting old bottlings, except for some old Schnaps which we keep in our family, and they sure are mellow and quite complex. My feeling therefore is that ageing in bottles really enhances spirits dramatically, if their quality is high to start with. I can’t really imagine the 40% JB Old Crow improving in the bottle over the next 10-20 years, though.

    1. John says:

      Hi Alex, I’m glad you liked it. The old bottle effect most likely had a hand in making this bourbon better. But we’ll never really know unless time traveling is invented. But like the change in maximum barrel entry proof during the 60s, there have also surely been other changes in the production process despite the brand name being the same.

  2. Jonny says:

    What was the exact year that the taste changed on Old Crow? I have had their 69 offering “Chessmen” and loved it but haven’t had anything early 70s? I don’t suspect the decanter did it any justice.

    1. John says:

      Hi Jonny, sadly, there’s no mention of the specific year in the Chuck Cowdery article. Maybe there’s a chance what you had was distilled pre- alteration.

  3. Louis says:

    Still remember in the late 60’s , early 70’s ,my Grandfather making a giant punchbowl of EGG NOG…..and always had to TOP it off with OLD CROW whiskey…….it was the BEST……!!!!

    1. Bob Robinson says:

      The changed product hit the market in 1969. The error was not corrected until 1983 when evidence was found that proved what happened. Corporate allowed a correction to be made. Approximately 40,000 barrels was made. The difference was very evident. Also know that it was made using a 21 plate column still.

  4. David says:

    John,
    I am the owner of Glenns Creek Distilling located on the Old Crow property. That was a nice write-up. A couple of things. One- the Old Crow distillery building is still standing and looks like the photo. A lot of the equipment is now gone but the building is still there. Second- Old Crow (thanks to E. H. Taylor) heated the warehouses and the gentleman who was a Superintendent here told me that they would get the equivalent of 6 years of aging in 4 years due to the extra heat in the winter months. I don’t know entry proof in 1955 but the entry proof (at the end at least) of OC was 115. I have had a 1967 and 1970 Old Crow and I agree that they are significantly different than bourbons today. We distill a product called Cuervito Vivo! and it is a recreation of the Old Crow recipe. We use a pot still so it is not exactly the same but it is muy bueno. Come by and give it a try when you are in Kentucky.

    1. John says:

      Hi David, sorry for the late reply. Thanks for the comment and information as well.

      It’s very interesting to know that heated warehouses to promote faster aging was already being done then. I was under the impression that it’s a fairly recent technique.

      Would you have any idea if Old Crow was made with pot stills then? or where they column distilled? I’m looking forward to trying your Cuervito Vivo when I get the chance!

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