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Consumer Report(ing): Basil Hayden’s and Old Grand-Dad Bonded

For at least the past few years, the bourbon review world has generally focused on churning out content around allocated or otherwise difficult-to-acquire-at-suggested-retail-price bourbons.

My read is that the main reason for this has little to do with an active choice by reviewers to prioritize rare products. Instead, I suspect the driver is due to the naked fact that most novel or updated products from big producers are (more often than not) high-price, low-volume special releases or annual allocated bottles that vary significantly from year to year. Novelty drives an incidental emphasis on scarcity and premium pricing.

That said, what drew me to Malt originally – and continues to make me enjoy writing here (outside of my desperate need for an editor; thanks, Taylor) – is that Malt is clearly oriented towards consumer value over cultivating relationships with producers. In that spirit, I have primarily considered my writing as a vehicle for reviews on things that people can theoretically purchase at their local liquor store, rather than bottles they will never see without either paying a markup at orders of magnitude more than suggested retail pricing, or shelling out $50 for a one ounce pour.

The analogy in my mind has been the goal of “Every Toyota and only a few Ferraris” as a review consumer advocate. This attitude partially originates from my irrational love of offloading any thinking I need to do for purchases to Wirecutter and Consumer Reports… but also my wholehearted belief that whiskey in general – and bourbon in particular – should be accessible to everyone. When certain bottles of American whiskey get above $250 in the United States at retail, I start calculating their price in the number of hours worked at the federal minimum wage; boy, does that throw a bucket of water on the party.

My ongoing goal will be to continue to prioritize readily available pours in the mid-range, though I do have a few rarer things coming down the pipeline shortly. Because of this consumer-oriented approach, I am aspiring to review the most accessible products in the ballpark of $15 to $65 over the next few years, and then re-review them periodically. This has the drawback of potentially measuring my own palate change, particularly with bottles like Maker’s Mark (that I generally think have less drift over time than brands like Wild Turkey). Nonetheless, hopefully I will provide insight into bottles available at liquor stores with a very limited selection.

To kick things off, I wanted to review one of my favorite go-to brands of all time, Old Grand-Dad, alongside its cousin with the purported same high-rye distillate from Jim Beam, Basil Hayden’s. Old Grand-Dad 114 is quintessential bourbon to me. Prior to the pandemic, I had the good fortune to be a regular at a bar that claimed they kept a bottle of 114 stocked in part because only myself and a few other regulars drank it. I was – and am – exceptionally flattered for that honor. At this point, I think it’s fair to disclose another one of my biases, which is that I am an enormous fan of bourbons with a high proportion of flavoring grain, such as the “B” mashbill at Four Roses, or high malt bourbons (thanks, Whiskey Thief), and that bias probably colors the reviews that follow.

Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review

80 proof (40% ABV). Widely available in the D.C. Metropolitan Area for around $40.

Color: Burnished.

On the nose: Stabilized mass-produced grocery store rye bread (think pre-packaged gas station sandwich brown bread) and pasteurized apple juice from concentrate are the most prominent, though those required a fair amount of hunting to pull out from the muted nose and required me to move the glass as close as possible to my nose. Almost imperceptible notes of fresh cherry tomato, apricot, and sweet corn hide in the background.

In the mouth: A notably thin texture carries, somehow despite its low proof, a caustic ethanol hit on the back of the palate into the finish. The whiskey’s flavor is muted and evasive on defining particular notes beyond corn and apple juice from concentrate. A very mild but unpleasant wood tannin in the finish reminded me of the final acerbic gasps of a completely charred ceramic bowl of double apple hookah tobacco (anyone who has lived in the Middle East knows this regrettable experience) with a wisp of baking spice along for the ride. The whole pour was uniformly weak and flat from start to finish.

Conclusions:

I felt a bit guilty writing notes about this pour, because Basil Hayden’s widely serves a crucial function of introducing new bourbon drinkers. I have heard it so often anecdotally, and seen it on social media so frequently, that this role should not be dismissed or downplayed. I suspect the whiskey’s flaws actually help it in this regard, and it certainly drinks easier than rotgut tequila, a common college mainstay in the United States. Long-term bourbon drinkers often forget that almost no one on the planet likes to drink uncut 130 proof spirits without a bit of experience first, and Basil Hayden’s’s 80 proof certainly goes down the hatch a bit easier.

This theoretically could have been a 3, because in a world where I actually own a full bottle, I would certainly not dump it down the drain. Instead, I immediately thought about using it in frozen cocktails once I’ve run through all of my far-superior Evan Williams and J.T.S. Brown. This isn’t a compliment to the spirit, because Basil Hayden’s’s maturation is so poor that it can be chilled heavily without the wood notes becoming more acerbic beyond the extant poor finish (typically, very cold aged spirits become unpalatably tannic at low temperatures).

Basil Hayden’s’s pricing is offensive given the quality of the pour, made more acute because it is significantly more expensive than Knob Creek, another Jim Beam product that is as close to an objectively superior product in every aspect – from texture to nose to finish – as possible (with the recognition that everyone’s tastes differ). I do not share the bourbon connoisseur’s prerequisite of high proof for declaring a whiskey good; I really enjoy Cream of Kentucky bourbon, after all. However, it is readily apparent that an already very poor-quality pour was made worse by its rock bottom proof.

Score: 2/10

Old Grand-Dad Bonded – Review

100 proof (50% ABV). Widely available in the D.C. Metropolitan Area for about $25.

Color: Russet.

On the nose: The apple and broader pome fruit note is a lot more robust and rounded in this pour than the narrow apple juice concentrate notes from the Basil Hayden’s. It also has an undertone of baking spice and mature grain notes that compliment, rather than undermine, the broader nose. It is, nonetheless, relatively flat, particularly when compared to its 114 proof sibling.

In the mouth: The palate holds true to the nose but expands with marasca cherry flavor, and remains much closer to equilibrium than the Basil Hayden’s. A pleasant pome-fruit forward and red-wine tannin finish that holds well beyond the final sip provides a bit of an embrace. From start to finish, this drinks evenly without overwhelming or falling off at any point, from front of the tongue to that lingering hug. The texture on the whiskey is notable for its moderately high viscosity to bring a simple, classic bourbon flavor profile, which is laudable for such an affordable pour.

Conclusions:

I love Old Grand-Dad 114, but the bottled in bond expression shares some of the underpowered elements that Basil Hayden’s best typifies. This issue is particularly acute when you compare it to Wild Turkey 101, which brings a lot more flavor and verve. Perhaps it is unfair to Old Grand-Dad to lump it in with a house favorite. After all, there’s plenty of garbage out in the same price range as Old Grand-Dad that would not get measured against the House that Jimmy Built.

However, I have always considered Old Grand-Dad in the same family of legacy ~100 proof bottles with Wild Turkey 101, and therefore think it fits here. The bonded Old Grand-Dad’s price is okay, but it occupies an awkward and dissatisfying middle position between the lower-proof Old Grand-Dad ($18) and the 114 ($30) in which a consumer probably should downgrade or upgrade, though I strongly recommend the upgrade. The unassuming packaging, which I have noted I like, and the okay price settles the debate between a 4 and a 5.

Score:5/10

Special thanks to my father for both pours on this one. Sorry everyone got COVID.

Lead image author’s own. Bottle images courtesy of Total Wine.

CategoriesAmerican
Evan

Originally from the frozen upper plains of North America, Evan is a freelance writer, former political science lecturer, and executive bourbon steward based in the District of Columbia. In addition to being an avid rum, brandy, and Japanese whisky consumer, Evan fell in love with bourbon at a young age and watched the industry boom early in the revival. He finds the distilled beverage alcohol industry's production processes and various business strategies endlessly fascinating.

  1. Jim J says:

    It’s refreshing to see a review for “regular” bottles and from someone local. It is unfortunate that for myself, reading reviews is as far as I get with whiskey. I enjoy reading reviews here on Malt as I do agree that they focus on the regular consumer, rather than relationships with the producers which leads to reviews of things like BTAC as if those were attainable whiskeys anymore.

    Sadly, as I said, my relationship with whiskey has been married by the state of the whiskey world. When a bottle of Blanton’s or Eagle Rare is considered “under allocation” by the Virginia ABC, is where I draw the line.

    I still enjoy what I have left of my whiskey and scotch collection, but I’ve definitely given up on supporting the “industry” for lack of a better word.

    Thank you for this review however, as it is as honest as one can get.

  2. Ravi says:

    Love that vision, Evan. Every Toyota, Few Ferraris. I live in India where a Toyota is luxury. Even the alcoholic Toyotas you drink.
    I rely on candid and personal experience drive reviews like yours, to pick the bottles I should ask my friends to bring everytime they fly.
    My next purchase that’s arriving with a friend next week is WT 101 8yr. So looking forward to it. And, comparing my experience with those here on Malt.

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