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Head-to-head: Two bourbons named after one man: Basil Hayden’s vs Old Grand-Dad 114

Posted on by Eric Burke

In the world of the bourbon geek, there are few premium-priced bourbons that receive more derision than Basil Hayden’s. And it can be boiled down to a few main reasons. For some, it’s the proof. At 40% ABV it isn’t the monster that most of us seem to prefer. For some it’s the complexity. Or more accurately, the lack of it. For some it’s the price. It isn’t unusual to see Basil Hayden hovering near the $40 mark. And seeing as it shares a mashbill with the lower priced (and higher proofed) Old Grand-Dad line, it can be hard for some folks to take. 

Basil Hayden’s was one of the first bourbons that my wife really liked. It was one that she bought on special occasions back when paying $40 for a bottle of bourbon seemed unusual. It was with a little glee that I discovered that it was made from the same stuff as Old Grand-Dad, a bourbon that was really much more in line with my desired price point. Coincidentally, Old Grand-Dad was one of the first bourbons I bought that I ever disliked. It was the 100 proof Bottled-in-bond version. On the first sip, I really didn’t care for it. But by the time I finished the bottle, I’d changed my tune. At the time it was a “have it in a glass if it’s handed to you, but probably don’t buy it.”

Oh, what a difference a few years can make. Old Grand-Dad 114 is now a staple at my house (or at least, as close as anything can come when you’re me). And I haven’t purchased a bottle of Basil Hayden’s in a few years now. And since we’ve talked about the rest of the Small Batch Collection over the last couple weeks, it made a good excuse to go back and revisit a former favorite and see how it stacks up next to it’s younger, cheaper, and higher proof brother.

Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Purchase info: $26.99 for 750 mL at Total Wine and Spirits, Burnsville, MN

Details: 40% ABV. No age statement so technically at least 4 years old, but previous bottlings were stated 8 years so it’s probably safe to assume that it at least trends that same direction.

Nose: Spearmint, cherries and honey with a hint of oak underneath.

Mouth: Gentle, uncomplicated. Sweet bubblegum and grain.

Finish: Lingering sweetness that slowly fades to bitterness. Spices and a minty-heat stay with you.

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Thoughts: This is the most approachable bourbon in Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection. Pair that with an elaborate label and it is no wonder that it is a favorite of many people just making a step up from Jack Daniels. This is all about the nose and the finish. I find the nose very nice, and it has a better finish than any 80° proof bourbon has a right to. Overall maybe not a great value at the list price, but it is easy enough to find on-sale that it shouldn’t be hard to pick it up for less. If you’re like me and like a lighter bourbon on occasion, this might be for you.

Old Grand-Dad 114

Purchase info: $20.95 for a 750 mL at Zipp’s Liquor, Minneapolis, MN (on-sale)

Details: 57% ABV. Straight bourbon with no age statement so at least 4 years old.

Nose: Buttered popcorn right off the bat. After that dissipates, buttered toffee sweetness predominates. Then the yeasty smell of rising bread dough and some baking spices. This one changes as you go along with it.

Mouth: Hot. Sweet toffee. Corn. A spicy tingle on the sides of your tongue. 

Finish: Long lingering warmth. Nice and Dry. 

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Thoughts: Hands down one of my favorite sub-$25 bourbons. Sweet and spicy is a good combo in my book and the dry finish adds some nice complexity. Plus, did I mention sub-$25?

Comparison thoughts: As I mentioned above, one of the knocks against Basil Hayden’s has always been its price. Whiskey geeks tend to scoff at paying up to $40 for “watered-down Old Grad-Dad.” But to me these bourbons, though they start out the same, are completely different animals. The Basil Hayden’s seems to be geared more toward the Jack Daniels drinker looking for something “special.” It’s got a similar light taste, but has much more going on in the finish. The Old Grand-Dad 114 seems almost positioned to be a geek favorite. It’s high proof, a bit challenging and has an amazing price. It really is a testament to the skill that people have in choosing barrels to fit a particular flavor profile. I can easily recommend both of these depending on mood. Especially if you can find ol’ Basil on sale somewhere.

Fun Fact: Old Grand-Dad's name was Basil Hayden. Old Grand-Dad was named after the founder's grandfather, Basil Hayden. Beam decided to honor that heritage when they released Basil Hayden.

It's not my job to support your small business, it's your job to make me want to.

Posted on by Eric Burke

I love supporting small businesses. Small independent bookstores? Love them. Local antique stores? Wonderful. A small, hometown restaurant? Perfect. Craft brewers and craft distillers? So much fun. It makes me feel good to help support someone's dream. I was oddly devastated when the local True-Value hardware store and the independent grocery store in the town I live in went out of business and sold out to chains within a month of one another. 

Running a business is hard work. I found that out when I tried to live off of freelance work when I was laid off from a design job about a decade ago. I was passionate. I was good at what I did. I was also back working in an office a couple weeks after the severance package ran out. It didn't matter. I still needed to eat. I never blamed anyone but myself for giving up my business. I was good at designing things, but not good at selling myself. In three months I didn't sign up a single client. That was my failing. 

When I was in college there was a small independent bookstore in town. I once saw some kids come in to ask if he had Harry Potter. He angrily said no, he only carried literature. The next time I walked by I saw a hastily written sign taped to the door that said the same thing. Before I graduated from college, I saw another sign taped to the door blaming Amazon for him going out of business. He was expensive, he didn't offer a product that people wanted and he wasn't nice. So it was Amazon's fault he failed.

I'd say that 80% of the time I visit a craft distillery, I walk away amazed. There are people that built their own stills. People that built the buildings they are doing business in. People that are making an amazing product. They can't compete with the big guys on price, but they make up for that in providing a good experience to go along with a good product.

But sometimes when I visit a craft distillery, I run across people who remind me of that bookstore owner from when I was in college. Sometimes they are convinced that their gimmick holds the secret to aging whiskey in days and claim that the dumb big guys are producing crap in years. Sometimes they build a tiny distillery in a dry county and then get upset if someone doesn't want to pay for a five minute tour. Sometimes they are snobby or rude. And sometimes the product just isn't any good.

I love supporting passion. I love supporting people who are willing to go that extra mile to deliver something a little special. I'm normally willing to pay a little extra to do, so as long as I feel it's an honest trade. My extra money for your superior customer service. Or attention to detail. Or quality. Or experimentation. Or unique recipes. But when the sole benefit you can offer for the extra money is that you are not big? I'm not sure I see a benefit to me there. 

Jim Beam Small Batch Collection: Knob Creek

Posted on by Eric Burke

A few weeks ago I attended a whiskey tasting that was put on by a local municipal liquor store and sponsored by Beam Suntory. It was fun. I had my first taste of a Laphroaig scotch. (no…only give me this if you hate me). I had my first taste of a Yamazaki Japanese whiskey. (I liked this quite a bit). We tasted an Irish whiskey that I don’t remember and what was probably my favorite of the night: Knob Creek. 

This weekend I attended a bourbon tasting at a friend’s house. The theme was store brands and their corporate cousins. We had Trader Joe’s bourbon, Very Old Barton, Costco’s Kirkland bourbon and Knob Creek. Knob Creek was my favorite of the night here too.

Common thread here? I tend to be a fan of Knob Creek. As members of Beam’s Small Batch collection go, it’s not expensive. It’s a decent proof. And even though it’s a tad hotter than I normally like, I add an ice cube and it settles right in. It’s one of those that I try to have in my stash and honestly one I assumed that I must have reviewed a long time ago. As it turns out I hadn’t.

Knob Creek bourbon

Purchase info: On sale for $19.99 for a 750 mL at Blue Max, Burnsville, MN

Details: 50% ABV, 9 years old. 

Nose: Oak, maple sugar, cayenne pepper, popcorn and faint smoke.

Mouth: Hot. Oak dryness with a touch of brown sugar sweetness. Popcorn.

Finish: Warmth that lingers in the center of your chest. Lingering oak bitterness that makes you want another sip.

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Thoughts: Though I’ve gone on record as stating that I’m not typically a fan of the Jim Beam branded bourbons that Beam produces, I’ve liked all of the Small Batch Collection. This is no exception. And unlike most of it’s stable-mates, this can be found cheap enough that it’s an easy go to on those days when you want a spicy bourbon. As I said earlier, I’m a fan.

Sazerac: just remove the damn numbers

Posted on by Eric Burke

In my real life, I work in marketing. I’ve spent every day for the last 12 years trying to get people to buy things. Sometimes it was hammers as I did ads for hardware stores. Sometimes it was expensive medical equipment when I worked for an ad agency that specialized in such things.

Marketing gets an often undeserved bad reputation. We are the ones who have studied how to convince people of things. And since those things almost always involve money, we get the blame when we do our job too well. 

As a designer, I’m hyper-aware of the difference between convincing people and tricking them. I skirt the line almost all the time and I get extremely upset when I’m asked to cross it. I never forget that the people I’m convincing are actually people. It’s easy to reduce customers to numbers. To see them as nothing more than a line on a spreadsheet. Especially since when the numbers get bigger, you know that your paycheck is safe for at least a little longer.

So it was with extreme agitation that I noticed a sneaky little trick that the Sazarac company was pulling. I first became aware of it when the Fleischman’s Rye label went from saying “Straight Rye Whiskey” to saying “Mash Rye Whiskey.” I believe it’s supposed to be read as Rye Mash Whiskey, but that’s because the designer was either asked to do it wrong or convinced themselves that the larger rye would draw attention first.

I got angry when I found that I liked the Old Charter: Aged 8 Years and realized it had sneakily been replaced by something labeled: Old Charter: 8. The marketing department had removed the words Aged and Old, but left the 8. They tricked me. I was angry. I decided to to prove that they were sneaking an inferior product into the supply chain and trying to trick the numbers…err…customers into believing that nothing had changed. 

By an odd coincidence, I bought one out of the last batches of Very Old Barton, 100 proof: 6 Year Old before the switch to “Very Old Barton, 100 proof: 6.” So the last time I was in Kentucky I picked up a bottle of the 6. I’ll be very honest I had an agenda. I wanted to prove that these guys were no good liars.

On Sunday, I set up a double blind tasting with the 6 Year Old and the 6. I threw in a pour out of the bottle of 90 proof 6 year I had on hand to confuse the issue even more. Below are the results. 

Disclaimer: I bought all of these bottles. The 90 proof was bought at Binny’s in Bloomington, IL. The 100 proof NAS was purchased at Liquor World in Bardstown. The 100 proof 6 year old..I’m guessing it was at a Liquor Barn, but it was long enough ago that I don’t remember which one. I’m leaving this info out of the notes so as not to tip my hand as to which is which.

Bourbon 1

Nose: Sweet. Bubblegum. Grassy. Dried corn.

Mouth: Hot and sweet. Like a sugar cookie mixed with grain.

Finish: Some warmth. More dried corn. 

Bourbon 2: 

Nose: Predominately a lumber pile. Oak. Under that is some bubblegum.

Mouth: Thin. Dried Corn. A bit of bubblegum. 

Finish: Gentle, but with a lingering bitterness.

Bourbon 3: 

Nose: Vegetal silage. Sweet bubblegum. Oak.

Mouth: Some heat. Bitter oak tannins. Vegetal. 

Finish: Silage. Gentle. A lingering unpleasant bitterness.

Thoughts: Upon finishing my notes, I’m positive I know which are which. I’m guessing the thin mouthfeel of 2 means it is the 90 proof. And because of my bias, I’m pretty sure the vegetal silage one is the NAS and the sweet tasty one was the older version. 

I was correct on the 90 proof. That was indeed number 2. But I had the others completely backward. It turns out, I really disliked the 100 proof age stated version (number 3). It was bitter and tannic. And this isn’t a new phenomenon. I liked the 86 proof much more than the 100 the last time I reviewed them. But the NAS version (number 1)? I liked that one a lot. It was sweeter but still had the burn that let me know the proof was there.

So what does this mean? Well it lends credence to Sazerac’s claim that they wanted to age these to taste not age. If the 6 year is overaged, I’m happy to have one that isn’t. But I’m torn. They are still deceiving people. I hate being tricked almost more than I hate bad whiskey. But I have a solution.

Sazerac: just remove the damn numbers.

Thoughts on the difference between drinking and tasting & a review of Baker's Bourbon

Posted on by Eric Burke

As someone who puts his thoughts about bourbon down in the digital spaces, I could be called some kind of bourbon enthusiast. A bourbon geek, if you will. What makes a geek a geek (of whatever orientation, tech, comics, bourbon, etc) is an almost obsessive fascination with a certain subject. In my case, bourbon. 

One of the side effects of such an obsession is that we tend to want to quantify things. To assign each individual expression a certain worth and to see how it ranks against the others. It could be that first issue where Batman did something or another, a computer with the best specs or a whiskey that has just the right nose or finish to warrant a numerical score. 

If you are obsessed enough to score something you are probably using the “right” equipment to do so. Either a Glencairn or some other nosing glass that will allow the odors to concentrate enough for you to be able to appreciate them fully. This is how I and many others get our tasting notes. And I know it might sound snobby, but in all honesty the glass really does make a difference. 

But here’s the thing, by making a difference it changes what you are doing. You’re tasting the bourbon. You aren’t drinking it. And there is a difference between tasting a bourbon and drinking it. One is for analysis and one is for pleasure. They only have a passing relationship to one another. So does that matter? Not really. If you prefer one or the other, that’s cool. And that isn’t to say that pleasure can’t be had from analysis. It takes all kinds.

All of the above is a preface to my issue tonight. I’ve had plenty of bourbons that I really liked when tasting them. But when it came time to just drink them? They were different. It wasn’t as pleasurable as I would have expected. On the other hand I’ve had bourbons such as Evan Williams Black or a Very Old Barton that are a pleasure to have at hand during a card game, while having a good conversation or while watching a good movie that are perfectly tasty, but get them in a tasting glass and they feel thin or bland. And that isn’t fair because that isn’t their natural environment. They were developed for drinking, not tasting.

This next one is an anomaly though. I was really looking forward to doing the tasting. It was one that I have really liked on numerous occasions in a tumbler with a piece of ice or two. I put it in a nosing glass though and all the things that I thought I liked weren’t there anymore. Instead of warm candy sweetness…well let’s let the notes do the talking for this one.

Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Purchase Info: $41.49 for a 750 mL at Liquor World, Bardstown, KY

Details: 7 years old. 53.5% ABV. Batch B-90-001.

Nose: Sawdust, mint, white sugar, green vegetables.

Mouth: Toffee, black pepper and oak. Sweet, yet somehow also bitter.

Finish: Warm and long with lingering oak.

Thoughts: The tasting glass seems to have brought out more of the bitterness than I would have expected. the nose was more vegetal than I remembered. If I’d only had a small sample and only had it while tasting, I wouldn’t be able to say I liked this. But since I normally drink it with in my favorite rocks glass with an ice cube or two, I can easily say that I like this one a lot.