Give it to me straight!
Jim Beam rye & Old Grand-dad bourbon.
Given our recent look at the Boulevardier and rye whisky it might be a good time to look at a couple of entry level whiskies with a bit of rye content. I was going to review these two separately but since they’re from the same distributor (Beam Suntory) and for a couple of other reasons that will become apparent I’ll tackle them together. Even so they’re not competing for exactly the same slot on my mixing shelf as one is a rye and the other a bourbon.
I’ve been getting quite into my American whiskies recently – much to the derision of my countrymen. Bourbon and rye certainly don’t replace my liking for Scottish whisky they’re just different spirits with different ingredients and production processes and different roles: you can’t make a Manhattan with Scotch because if you did you’d have made a Rob Roy. Apples and pears as they say. But let’s get down to these two which represent the two main styles of American whiskey. If any American whiskey has the word “straight” on the label it must be at least 4 years old unless it clearly states otherwise. Both of these are labelled in this way and, given their competitive prices it’s pretty safe to say neither are very much more than a few days past their fourth birthdays. While 4 years doesn’t sound like a lot in Scotch terms there are a couple of mitigating factors that should be taken into account. Kentucky or Tennessee are a lot warmer than Scotland which speeds up the aging process as does the use of new oak barrels. That and a common owner about as much as this pair have in common so we’ll need to split up. I’ll go with Daphne & Velma and you go with Shaggy & Scooby.
Jim Beam pre-prohibition style rye.
Remember that American rye whisky is still in the process for coming back from the dead so we’re only now seeing some new mainstream ryes coming on line (Jack Daniels has a new one too). Outside of the USA ryes can be difficult and/or expensive to come by. A 700ml bottle of Rittenhouse, Bulleit rye or a litre of Old Overholt all come in at about €30 and require ordering online so this new Jim Beam pre-prohibition rye at (or sometimes under) €20 off-the-shelf has to be worth a punt. Jim Beam did make a previous “yellow label” rye but it didn’t have a great reputation and I never had a chance to try it. This one is supposedly a new version using an old pre-prohibition recipe. Do we buy that? I don’t know. Certainly the presentation is much better with an attractive old-school bottle and a fairly classy green and gold label. The plastic screw cap is acceptable at this price and provides a more reliable seal than the usual flimsy metal caps. So far so good. In the glass the Jim Beam rye has a nice light copper colour and when swirled shows some thick lazy tears suggesting a certain oiliness. A good sniff reveals a definite hint of dry straw, surely a good sign for a rye. Upon tasting, the signature spiciness of a rye is there but not really in as much force as I would like – I’d be surprised if the rye content of the mash bill was much over the 51% legal minimum although that isn’t always a reliable guide to spiciness. It’s smooth enough and there’s also a slight, but not unpleasant, bitterness that sets it apart from most bourbons, which is what we want. Overall it’s a pretty decent effort at a budget price rye whiskey. My biggest issue is that Beam Suntory have reduced the alcohol content of this rye from 45% in the US market to 40% in Europe. Let’s call that for exactly what it is; watering whiskey down. In the true pre-prohibition era that would certainly get you run out of town and possibly a tar and feathering to boot. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is not a sipping whisky but a mixing one and as such needs to have enough flavour to hold its own in a cocktail. I tried it in a Manhattan and it just wasn’t quite making its mark but at it’s original ABV of 45% I suspect it might have a better chance. While an acceptable mixing rye if it’s all you can get, I’d still rather pay a tenner more for a bottle of Rittenhouse (at 50%ABV). Maybe the domestic version would get a B but at this proof Jim Beam pre-prohibition rye just scrapes a:
Old Grand-dad bourbon.
Old Grand-dad is a budget bourbon that seems to be pretty new in the overseas market. I’ve heard good things about it but those have mostly been for its higher proof offerings (50% and 57%) which appear to be available only in the US. Like its stable-mate it comes in at about €20 here, approximately the same price as Buffalo Trace which has become many cocktail bars’ go-to mixing bourbon and with good reason. My question is; can Old Grand-dad be an alternative player in that role? OG-D sells itself as a high rye bourbon (a 27% rye mashbill as I understand) and as I tend to like higher rye bourbons such as Four Roses and Wild Turkey this appealed to me. In terms of presentation, if Beam Suntory were looking to make this bottle scream “I’m cheap!” then congratulations; mission accomplished. Orange? Seriously? Well at least we have the same reliable cap as their rye which is something. Weirdly there is a sticker on the bottle front with the alcohol content of 40% on it. I was all, “here we go again; they’ve watered it down for the overseas market!” until I scratched the label off. Underneath it said, wait for it, “40%”. World Trade Federation! What’s that all about? A little research reveals that they’ve recently reduced it from 43% domestically as well, even though that does little to explain the sticker shenanigans. Anyway, is it any good? Well it smells pretty decent with a definite hint of spice and an impression of orange, although the latter might be somewhat psychological. When swirled it produces barely any legs at all and sort of hangs on to the side of the glass for grim life. I’ve no idea what to read into that! Sipping, I taste some spice (yay!) and there is a nice firm dryness. In that sense it’s definitely a bourbon that is encroaching on rye territory. It’s a nice balance but the downside is that it’s a bit thin and has little complexity or length of finish. In mixed drinks it did well enough but never came up to the standard I expect for a mixing bourbon. Once again a higher ABV would have helped. I think you can start to see why I reviewed these two together now, right? While Old Grand-dad falls a little short of my hopes, it still deserves a:
Both of these whiskies are pretty decent for their price but it’s quite clear that, at least in this case, you can’t get gold for the price of silver. I doubt that either of them will find a permanent place on my shelf – you need at least an A- for that. Maybe Jim Beam are trying to push these watered-down whiskies on us to get even for the crazy prices Americans are forced to pay for quality European liqueurs (really, I’ve seen it and it’s shocking). It was already bad enough that we get 50ml less in a bottle than our friends across the pond – do the guys at customs drink a shot out of every bottle or something? Who knows. I should really point out that it isn’t only Beam Suntory that serve us up these reduced potency spirits as it’s a fairly common practice – indeed Buffalo Trace also arrives on these shores at 40% instead of 45% – but I have all the more loyalty and respect to those distillers, such as Wild Turkey and Four Roses, who give it to us straight. Meanwhile I’m sticking with my mixing staples rec of Buffalo Trace or Wild Turkey 101 for bourbon and Rittenhouse 100 proof bonded for rye.
Value for money is a factor in these reviews and are based on the price I pay in The Netherlands. If the products are acquired otherwise or elsewhere that will be stated.
These reviews are entirely based on suitability for mixing cocktails, not sipping or chugging with cola.