Friday, October 25, 2013

What Andrew Mellon Really Did With Old Overholt

James Cromwell does a wonderful job with a small role in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." His is one of the actual, historical characters mixed in with the fictional ones in the hit series, which recently launched its fourth season.

Cromwell plays Andrew Mellon, then Secretary of the Treasury. At this point in the series he is relatively new to the job, having been appointed by President Warren G. Harding in 1921. He served under the next two Republican presidents too, until 1932. Then he was indicted and tried, but never convicted, by the Roosevelt administration.

In Season Three, we learned that Mellon owned the Old Overholt Distillery in Pennsylvania. The script writers have him conspiring with Nukie Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) to operate the distillery illegally. As Treasury Secretary, Mellon had partial responsibility for enforcement of the Prohibition laws.

Mellon, a banker, was one of the richest men in America. He was good friends with Henry Clay Frick, who made his stupendous fortune supplying coke to the steel industry. Frick was the grandson of Abraham Overholt, who had responsibility for his family's still on their farm near Pittsburgh starting in about 1800. By the time Frick came along toward the end of Abraham's life, Overholt's rye whiskey had made the family rich. Overholt employed many family members, including Henry Clay. After Abraham died, Frick muscled out the other cousins and took control.

When the Old Overholt Distillery needed financing to grow, Frick sold half of his two-thirds to his pal Mellon. He also made Mellon the executor of his estate. So when Frick died in 1919, Mellon gained full control of what was by then one of the largest and most successful whiskey distilleries in the country.

We don't know if Mellon did any of the evil things depicted in "Boardwalk Empire," but we do know one thing he did that would be unacceptable today.

This was before the days of blind trusts and concern about conflict of interest. Mellon was considered a great man, a supremely successful businessman who chose to end his working life as a public servant and philanthropist. No one questioned it when, as Treasury Secretary, he granted himself a lucrative franchise in the form of a medicinal whiskey license.

The license allowed Old Overholt to legally sell existing whiskey stocks ‘for medicinal purposes only,’ but not to distill. Medicinal whiskey companies didn't make a lot of money, but the license was valuable. Because of it, Mellon was able to sell Overholt for a good price.

Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey is still sold today. It is made and owned by Jim Beam.


Ken said...

Hey, Chuck. Used to be only one rye at my nearby store, the Beam with the canary-yellow label. Which I did enjoy once upon a time. But I haven't bought rye in a long time, and now there's almost 30, most over $30. Here's what's under $30, would you be so kind as to advise which all to try first? And maybe why, if you feel inclined.

Pikesville Rye $29 1.75L
Jim Beam Rye $14
Old Overholt Rye $17
Darby's Reserve Rye Whiskey $22
Bulleit Rye Whiskey $25
Rittenhouse Rye 100 $26
JP Wiser's Blended Canadian Rye Whisky $27
Sazerac Rye 6yr Old Whiskey $28 (out of stock)
James E Pepper 1776 Straight Rye Whiskey $29

Chuck Cowdery said...

The Wisers is Canadian, nothing like the others. Start with the Rittenhouse. If you like that, try the Beam or Overholt. Darby's and Pepper are private label, hard to know what you're getting there since they won't tell you who made it. Bulleit is MGPI Indiana rye, very different from the others. Pikesville is just a younger version of Rittenhouse, both made by Heaven Hill. Try the Sazerac when it's in stock.

Ken said...

Thanks, Chuck! I look forward to a new learning experience.

EllenJ said...

Pepper doesn't hesitate to tell you it's MGP rye, but *I* can tell you it's not like anything else MGP is supplying to bottlers. Today's Jim Beam version of Old Overholt is really not far off from the version National Distillers left for them back in 1987. But the ND Overholt had changed dramatically by then, and not for the better. Pepper, on the other hand - and unlike anyone else's MGP rye I've tried - taste remarkably like the old pre-'80s Old Overholt. If you prefer your rye whiskey to tast like bourbon with just a bit more rye flavor, go for Rittenhouse or even better Bulleit. If you want the real deal, go for Pepper 1776. And if you want the best rye ever (better than VWFR, even) get the 15-year-old version.

Anonymous said...

I'd avoid the Darby like the plague. It is 'aged' for months and uses the TerrePure method in place of real aging. It tasted as bad as you'd imagine. Shockingly bad given the price. I'm all for innovation, but they are deluding themselves that they can make whiskey taste good in that short amount of time.

Anonymous said...


Great write-up Chuck, I enjoying watching the show, and I love Cromwell's turn as Andrew Mellon. Good to get the real story on his ties to Old Overholt, though creative license on HBO shows doesn't bother me much, as long as it keeps people tuned in. If Boardwalk goes the way of Deadwood and dies a premature death, then I'm going to lose it. J Edgar just showed his face, and Al Capone is on the rise! Love this show.

Also, I've got to second EllenJ on the love for the Pepper ryes. Something different to em, and I don't know what it is, but I find them mighty enjoyable.

Ken said...

I'm intrigued by EllenJ's Pepper recommendation (and Wryguy's endorsement). I don't know what I prefer yet (my Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish tastes are all over the map) so I'll be trying multiple. Great tip on the Darby, that's just what I need to know, where not to spend what little money I have left. Someday I'll probably graduate into the 2/3 of ryes that are over $30, but that day is not today.

Anonymous said...

First, grab the Sazerac whenever you can. It will be bold, but it will be a great way to explore how rye differs from bourbon. As for the others, the Beam and the Overholt are very similar, and if you like that Beam signature style in their bourbons you'll find it in those two ryes as well. I've always enjoyed Bulleit, and it would probably be my second choice from your list. Its a little less spicy than the Sazerac, but more relaxing. As for the Pepper, I haven't opened my bottle yet, so I can't weigh in. Given what's already been said, that might need to be tonight.
And when you're ready to step up (and if you can get your hands on any of them) Sazerac 18, Thomas Handy, Masterson's and the infamous Van Winkle 13 are my favorite big ticket ryes.

Anonymous said...

Darby's Reserve Rye Whiskey is massively over priced. You can buy much better classically produced and aged Rye for the same amount or less.
It smells like an oak log you pull out of fire and douse with water. The taste has some sort of odd fruity taste that is more of an aftertaste than a lingering finish.
Do yourself a favor and pass on this one.
It is selling only because it is a novelty.

Anonymous said...

There is a very small distillery in Ohio that makes a product called "Old Homicide"....'it's to die for'....sells for $95.00 for a bottle of 160 proof, bonded rye whiskey

Unknown said...

My last name is Overholt.
Always was curious if there is any relation.
We drink Old Overholt because we like it not just the name.