February 15, 2013 by Matthew.Hartshorne
This week I am reviving a long-dormant section of my column: the liquor review. I love American whiskeys, and I try to review things that are interesting but within the price range of a student, so I picked up a bottle of Old Grand-Dad 114. Most whiskey is sold between 80 and 100 proof, but this is barrel strength, so the flavors should be more intense. Old Grand-Dad was named by Col. R.B. Hayden in honor of his grandfather, famed distiller Basil Hayden, whose bust graces the bottle’s label. Today the brand is owned by Beam Inc. and is produced in the Jim Beam plant in Clermont, Ky.
The bourbon poured an amber, slightly lighter than the Buffalo Trace I sampled alongside it. This is to be expected, as bourbons don’t vary too much in the color department, although I was somewhat surprised that it’s lighter than the Buffalo Trace because of Old Grand-Dad’s higher proof. The aroma was light and slightly sweet, with a very solventlike character to it, which jumped out as soon as I brought the glass near my face. There was an immediate hot alcohol hit, but that subsided very quickly into a nice, light, sweet character coming from the corn in this mash. There was definitely a vanilla note, which was actually quite nice, although it was largely overshadowed by the corn and alcohol. Adding some water to the bourbon opened up the corn flavor, including some nice toasty elements, and I got a hint of charcoal from this bourbon as well. I don’t think this bourbon is charcoal filtered, so that may have been a lingering taste from a darker-than-usual barrel. The finish on this bourbon was impressive, consisting of a hot, solvent burn. The closest comparison that comes to mind, actually, is of a nail being driven into the side of my tongue. The mash bill for this whiskey contains more rye than most, which normally gives a distinctive, spicier character, but this doesn’t account for the amount of burning present in this whiskey.
The first cocktail I tried this bourbon in was a classic Manhattan, which dates back to at least the 1870s on Manhattan Island, possibly in a bar near the intersection of Broadway and Houston Street, according to one legend. This drink is mixed with two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth and a dash of bitters — shaken, strained and garnished with a cherry. This cocktail is typically made with rye whiskey, and one of the purposes of the high sweet vermouth content is to balance the rye’s spice. I enjoy these cocktails frequently with a 100-proof rye whiskey, which is quite pleasant. The Old Grand-Dad 114 cut straight through, though; that alcohol burn wouldn’t be balanced by anything so refined as a mere fortified wine.
So, I decided to bring out the big guns. I very rarely mix anything into Coke because the cola just overpowers everything. I actually really enjoy the flavor of alcoholic drinks such as beer and bourbon rather than just trying to hide the alcohol content while I get drunk. This is also why I very rarely drink vodka, preferring to sip gin instead. Technically, this drink is called a highball — a single alcoholic spirit mixed with a larger portion of nonalcoholic mixer. Well, I think this is the first time that Coke failed me; even it couldn’t hide the burn of Old Grand-Dad 114.
Overall, I actually thought the flavor of the bourbon was rather nice; it’s just overpowered by the alcohol burn. Serving over ice, diluting with water, mixing it in a Manhattan or even into Coke couldn’t stop the burn. It’s like someone took a good bourbon and cut it with rubbing alcohol or something. Some would argue that I just can’t take barrel-strength whiskey, but my favorite whiskey is actually a 128-proof rye, which has even more alcohol than this does. So if anything, I’m partial to the stronger spirits; it’s just that it’s harder to hide any imperfections in the more concentrated form. For the money, I would suggest grabbing Buffalo Trace instead.