By S.D. Peters
As recently as 1995, there were only four American Rye whiskies on the market. One of them, easily the most recognizable of the four, was Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey.
The brand’s history is longer in years than most American states, and at times, storied. Abraham Overholt (the face of Old Overholt today) began distilling his Rye whiskey in 1810, and by 1812 had established a commercial distillery in West Overton, PA, where he produced Old Farm Pure Rye Whiskey. In 1860, Jacob Overholt (Abe’s son) and his cousin Henry Overholt built a second distillery in nearby Broad Ford, and it was here that the first Rye whiskey bearing the Overholt brand was distilled.
The last in the line of Overholts to own the business was the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, Abe’s grandson and Jacob’s nephew. When Frick died in 1919, his stake in the company passed to his friend Andrew Mellon. When Mellon was appointed Secretary of the Treasury in the Prohibition-era administration of Warren Harding, one Union Trust Co. received Mellon’s stockpile – about two million gallons worth of Overholt Rye whiskey.
During Prohibition, Overholt Rye was sold as “medicinal” whiskey – legally by prescription, but also figuratively by speakeasies. It didn’t take long for the press to report that not only did Union Trust Co. happen to manage the Prohibition officer-in-chief’s whiskey stock, but that said chief’s agents had authorized a third party to sell Mellon’s stock overseas. The two million gallons eventually changed hands in 1925, at the cost of not a little (though now mostly forgotten) embarrassment to Mellon.
The Overholt brand, meanwhile, was purchased by the National Distillers Products Co., who owned it until 1987, when National Distillers was bought by Jim Beam Brands. Since then, Overholt Rye has been an active Beam Brand, sold under the name Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey.
The original Overholt Distillery, though inactive, is now home to the West Overton Museum. The Broad Ford distillery, abandoned for years, burned in 2004.
Old Overholt is a Straight Rye Whiskey, aged four years and bottled at 80 proof (40% alcohol). It isn’t fancy, but it doesn’t need to be: if you can only find one brand of American Rye on the shelf, it will be Old Overholt. The plain brown bottle and its simple yellow label testify to this American Rye’s unassuming nature. Although I’ve had no luck uncovering it’s exact mashbill, the nose, taste, and finish all suggest a higher rye content than the minimum 51%.
Old Overholt is special in that it’s the only Rye that still follows a traditional Monongahela (Pennsylvania) Whiskey recipe, and the four keystones connecting each band in the label’s frame of rye grain spikes pay tribute to it’s origination in the “Keystone State”. It’s also one of the oldest consistent styles of whiskey in America.
Held up to the light, Old Overholt has the color of an ocean ebbing from a pebbly beach. Comparisons to the appearance of saltwater aside, there’s nothing brackish about its nose. A few dashes of white pepper impart the spiciness for which Rye is known. Sprinkle it over a bouquet of ripening summer fruit, scented with trace of cracked vanilla beans, and you have a fairly standard Rye. Step away, return, inhale again: similar notes return, but now… is that fruit specifically late summer apples, lingering in an afternoon meadow?
The first sip reveals a short burst of vanilla, prelude to the clove and white pepper that dominate. The finish is a mellow caramel. A second sip is similar, except now the spices mildly color the finish. I find the body somewhat thin (though I’ve seen other tastings which disagree), but smooth – not unlike a Brut Cava.
These are all nice attributes in a whiskey, but for a Rye, they’re average. The qualities that make Old Overholt special are, in the end, of historical importance. Yet this is still a fine example of an average Rye, and it’s reputation as both a starter Rye, and a general around-the-house, go-to American Rye is well-earned. Have it in a Sazerac, or let it stand-in for the Bourbon in any number of cocktails. It mixes well above average.
Old Overholt is THE standard American Rye, and readily available. I’ve found it for as low as $12.99 a bottle (750ml), but the price varies. Don’t pay more than $19 – unless you absolutely, positively, can’t find it cheaper. Old Overholt is, after all, what you might call a “table Rye,” so you shouldn’t go broke trying to put it on your table.