Bourbon drinkers understandably have some questions about this bargain bin bourbon brand with the intriguing historical backstory.
Owned by parent company Beam Suntory, it’s true Old Crow has the same mash bill and shares many of the same features as Jim Beam and other brands from the company. But saying these brands are the same is a vast oversimplification.
In this post, we take a crack at explaining the rich history of Old Crow and how its modern-day iteration is produced to help you better understand the liquid in the bottle.
If we had a time machine, we’d travel back to the year 1856 and get our hands on a barrel of Old Crow bourbon. Suspend the ramifications this ripple in space-time would cause to our current reality long enough for us to indulge our palates. As we pop the bung and bring our noses to the barrel, the aromas are vastly different than what’s inside the modern bottle of Old Crow Bourbon you’d find at your local spirits shop.
Why is today’s Old Crow different?
It’s a long story. Shortly after World War II, Old Crow was the No. 1 selling bourbon in the country. But several mishaps in the 1970s and 80s brought this well-regarded and historical brand low. Today’s bartender would be forgiven for not recognizing the ‘cheap bourbon’ on their rail as a historical brand that was once favored by U.S. presidents, four-star generals, corporate tycoons and world-renowned writers.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning…
Old Crow Bourbon is named after Dr. James C. Crow. Born in Inverness, Scotland, Crow trained as a physician and chemist in Edinburgh. When he moved to Kentucky in 1835 at the age of 46, he not only brought a Scotsman’s love of whiskey but also took to distilling with a chemist’s scientific approach.
Crow began distilling at Glenn’s Creek and Old Oscar Pepper distilleries in Woodford County, Kentucky — the site of today’s Woodford Reserve Distillery. There, he pioneered advances in the sour mash process. He is considered the first to test his mash for pH and was decades ahead of peers by testing pre-ferment sugar content. He is also credited with advancing the use of charred oak barrels. His ‘Old Crow’ brand came about to differentiate the aged spirit from the unaged newmake’ common whiskey’ most available at the time and was considered the first documented use of barrel aging among Kentucky whiskey makers.
Crow died an untimely death at age 67 while working at the distillery. He left his recipe, and his techniques were continued. But the barrels he filled earned legendary status after his death. In many ways, these barrels earned a cult status resembling a mid-19th century version of Pappy Van Winkle among bourbon lovers.
It was General Ulysses S. Grant’s favorite whiskey. When detractors of Grants complained of his drinking to Abraham Lincoln, barrels of Old Crow were what he referred to with his reply: “Can either of you tell me where General Grant procures his whiskey? Because, if I can find out, I will send every general in the field a barrel of it!”
Later, when Mark Twain visited the distillery in the 1880s, the brand publicized it as what might be considered an early celebrity endorsement.
The brand’s popularity continued until Prohibition. When distilleries were again able to make bourbon after its repeal in 1933, Old Crow was reestablished and became one of the best-selling bourbons in the world. At this time, it was still made using Dr. Crow’s original recipe.
But during the 1960s and 70s, customers began to see quality standards decline. In his book ‘Bourbon, Straight,’ author and bourbon historian Chuck Cowdery noted that contamination in the backset used during the sour mash process created problems with fermentation that led to off flavors making it into finished bottles.
These production problems couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Bourbon and aged whiskeys, in general, hit a cliff during the 1970s and 80s as baby boomer tastes steered towards clear, unaged products. When Jim Beam purchased the brand in 1987, they closed the facility and began bottling Old Crow using barrels filled with the same mash bill as the other products in the Jim Beam portfolio.
Old Crow vs Jim Beam: Mash Bill
Today, Jim Beam and Old Crow share the same mash bill of 75 percent corn, 13 percent rye and 12 percent malted barley.
While they utilize the same mash bill and will undergo similar distillation processes, many factors of the production process help to explain the difference in overall flavor. In addition to maturation — which will be examined in the next section — distillation, barrel placement, blending and dilution are among the factors distiller consider while practicing their craft.
Old Crow vs Jim Beam: Distillation, Production & Maturation
First, let’s examine distillation — the act of separating the alcohol vapor from a mash of fermented beer.
In bourbon enthusiast communities, you will often hear mention of cut points when describing the distillation process. This idea may be more easily described using a double distillation in a traditional copper pot still as an example.
Beer is pumped into the still at about 5-10 percent alcohol by volume, or 10-20 proof. The distiller will conduct a stripping run to boil off alcohol vapor and then condense and recollect it as low wines at about 30-percent ABV or 60-proof. Next, these low wines are pumped back into the still and are distilled to make whiskey — which, in the case of bourbon, cannot be distilled to over 160-proof.
During the final distillation, cuts are made to separate the clear spirit coming off the still into three distinct collections: heads, hearts and tails.
Heads contain low-boiling alcohol compounds, including acetone, aldehydes and methanol. If these nasty chemicals make it into the finished product, it’ll end with a brutal hangover at least and can even lead to death in extreme cases.
The hearts cut is the good stuff. This clear spirit newmake or white dog spirit will be placed into the barrel to become whiskey.
As the boiling point in the pot reaches 212 Fahrenheit — the boiling point of water — oily congeners known as tails take over the flavor of the spirit coming off the pipe. This cut is where the distiller’s olfactory senses earn their keep. Some congeners contained in the tails are desired to pull some flavor from the barrel. After all, if only pure ethyl alcohol is captured, the resulting spirit will resemble vodka more than whiskey. But these farty flavors can easily overwhelm a spirit and make it taste like junk if the proportion of tails becomes too great. So, the distiller must walk a fine line that only comes with practice.
Now, let’s consider the column still. This large cylinder is filled with plates. Using continuous distillation, stills can operate up to 24-hours a day, with beer constantly being fed into the beer still at one end and clear, unaged spirit coming from the other.
Each plate in a column still can be considered to perform a distillation, so as the evaporated spirit climbs from one plate to the next, it recondenses and is distilled again. Using a modern large-scale column still — like the ones found at the Beam operated plants in Frankfurt and Boston, Kentucky, the distiller can pull the precise levels of ethanol, congeners and water desired. What’s more, each tray in the system may have an exit valve that leads to a condenser, so that top trays can pull heads, middle trays pull hearts, and bottom trays pull tails. This system is the most efficient way to distill bourbon and results in little waste.
However, to reach peak efficiency spirit pulled from various trays may not all be uniform in quality.
Here, we must emphasize we are speaking in hypothetical terms. We have not discussed Old Crow’s production practices with Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe or any production team members. But it may be helpful to the new bourbon enthusiast to better understand these production practices that are quite common in the world of Kentucky bourbon.
Some brands may utilize newmake spirit that contains higher concentrations of congeners and other impurities and tag them for specific use. The best hearts cuts may be destined for premium brands, while lower-quality products tagged for value brands.
Both brands use the same new American oak barrels with No. 4 char levels. But once the barrels are filled with juice, they may be housed in different rackhouses and on various stories within them. The sweet spots could be saved for high-end small-batch and single-barrel products, while areas with less beneficial micro-climates may be reserved to house value brands. And, of course, the length of time in the barrel is the biggest determiner of flavor — more time in the barrel can have a way of smoothing out even the roughest distillate given a long enough time span.
Again, rather than describing specific production practices for these two brands, we offer a broad overview of modern distilling practices. Hopefully, this description may help the curious drinker understand how two products that started out so similar may have drastically different flavors in the bottle.
Price Point & Value
Old Crow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey will cost you about $10 for a 750mL bottle at 80-proof, placing this product squarely in the value segment of bourbon brands.