Monday, August 1, 2011

Old Overholt. Rye Whiskey's Grand Old Man.

You’ve probably heard about the rye whiskey revival. It’s real, just still very small.

There are several new brands out there, and some old brands have been revived, but there is one — seldom mentioned by many of rye’s new fans and misunderstood by many others — that is the granddaddy of them all:

Old Overholt.

In about 1810, Abraham Overholt (1784-1870) and his brother shifted their family enterprise from general farming, in which making whiskey was a sideline, to making whiskey as a primary occupation. Their farm was about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The business thrived and Abraham brought his sons and then his grandsons into it. The A. Overholt Distilling Company continued to be owned and run by his descendants until it was closed by Prohibition.

Better known than Abraham Overholt or his whiskey is his grandson, Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), one of the great turn-of-the-century American industrialists sometimes known as ‘robber barons.’ Overholt gave Frick his first job.

With his share of the family’s whiskey fortune, Frick began to invest in coal mines. Then he manufactured coke, which is essential for steel production.

Frick’s extraordinary wealth came primarily from steel and railroads, but he got a little of it from whiskey. Under his ownership, Old Overholt became the best selling brand of rye whiskey in the country.

When Prohibition began, the Overholt company obtained a medicinal whiskey license, which made it attractive to Seton Porter when he began to accumulate medicinal permits, whiskey, distilleries, and brands in about 1927 for what became the National Distillers Products Corporation.

After Prohibition, Old Overholt took its place in the National portfolio as their primary rye. Since National was one of the ‘big four’ companies that dominated the post-Prohibition industry, that automatically made it once again the top selling rye whiskey in the country.

But rye whiskey never recovered the share of market it had enjoyed before 1920. The ratio of bourbon-to-rye sales kept shifting in bourbon’s favor until rye was almost extinct. National Distillers eventually closed all of its Pennsylvania distilleries and shifted Old Overholt production to Kentucky, to the Forks of Elkhorn distillery outside of Frankfort where it also made Old Grand-Dad bourbon.

Jim Beam inherited Old Overholt when it merged with National Distillers in 1987. Beam immediately stopped distilling at Forks. When the rye whiskey made there ran out, Beam simply used the rye whiskey it was already making for Jim Beam Rye. Beam has done little with the brand except continue to make and distribute it.

You would expect Old Overholt to taste like Jim Beam Rye and it does. It tastes like it may be selected for more tannic barrel notes, because it has a bit more bite.

Rye production in Kentucky didn’t begin in the 1980s, when the last of the Eastern rye distilleries shut down. Even before Prohibition, Kentucky distilleries like the ones operated by Beam family members routinely made both bourbon and rye, so the Beam rye recipe probably has an old pedigree within the family. The whiskey has its detractors, but it is a legitimate style.

I’ve never had a problem finishing a bottle of it.


sku said...

Fascinating. I didn't know about the Frick connection to Old Overholt. From now on when I drink it I will toast the Homestead strikers.

Wasn't Mt. Vernon rye owned by National Distillers at that time as well? I'd be interested to hear more about that distillery.

As for me, I have a lot of trouble finishing the current bottling of Overholt...too sweet and not enough rye flavor.

Marty said...

So all that is different between the JB Rye and Overholt is barrel selection ? Or am I missing something Chuck ?

Chuck Cowdery said...

It may also be older or younger, and barrel selection, to match a brand flavor profile, is no small thing, but yeah, that's basically it.

hubbit said...

I've seen ads for a few whiskeys that had both bourbon and rye versions, from the 1930s and 1940s. Old Crow comes to mind; they advertised an Old Crow Rye along with their Bourbon. Since they were part of ND, perhaps Old Crow Rye was a bottling of either Old Overholt or Mount Vernon, which was ND's other rye.

I've seen a picture of a bottle of Old Fitzgerald Rye from the Herbst era; this, of course, gets me wondering as to whether rye was produced on a small scale in Kentucky, or whether something like that would have been purchased in bulk and bottled under the famous brand.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Since rye whiskey was generally more popular than bourbon pre-Prohibition, most distilleries made both. The Trust probably started the trend of distilleries specializing in one or the other.

Justin Victor said...

Great article Chuck. I have a follow up question about the history of Old Overholt. Can you speak to the history of Old Overholt as to its bottled strength (abv)over its history in the last 50 to 60 years? My father used to sip this whiskey a long time ago to cure a sore throat. He claimed it worked. I would like to think he was simply enjoying a nice rye whiskey.

Anyway, as I sip on a recently purchased bottle I cannot help but think it could be significantly improved if bottled at a higher strength. What say you?

Unknown said...

hey chuck, do you know where old overholt was distilled under national distillers before they moved it to KY? Was it at continental in philly or large? or somewhere else? I can't seem to find this information.