I have been told plenty of times that I’m a hard person to please. When this does occur, I almost always consider the experience ryeveting. One of these ryeveting experiences happened during my first visit to a cocktail bar in Japan. I forget how I learned of this place, but I went to Bar K in Osaka.
I can still remember the cocktail which I ordered from the seasonal fruit part of the menu. I was asked what kind of flavors I wanted so I asked for something with rye. I forgot what description I said but the bartender, Ryu-san, made a mix of Old Overholt rye, mashed fresh peach, peach liqueur, (I think) lemon juice and blue curacao. The mix was blended and served in a julep cup with mint as garnish. I’ve never had a rye and peach together before that. It was a match made in heaven.
This was in October of 2014. October is Autumn in Japan and peach is in season. If you’ve had peach from Japan, you’ll know of its heavenly flavor and unctuous texture. If Isaac Newton was sitting under a peach tree, he wouldn’t have been bonked on the head and thought of gravity because he would have eaten all of the peaches growing on that tree.
The early 2010s was also a time when rye whiskey was still hard to get. The primary American whiskey producers were still playing catch up to the resurgence of the demand for rye. I remember the Sazerac Rye being on allocation or easily being sold out. There was a 1 bottle per person policy in K&L. Yet, I noticed all the bars I visited in Osaka, at that time, had Old Overholt Rye. All the bars I visited in Osaka last year still had them too.
I had never encountered Old Overholt Rye before Bar K. The rye brands I knew then were only Rittenhouse, Sazerac and Templeton, since I was only paying close attention to the US market. So, I asked the bartenders how come they have this. I was told it’s the, or one of the brands, of rye whisky that’s been in Japan for the longest time. So, I asked the young bartenders, who can mostly speak English, why this is so? The most common answer I got is their masters have always had it. The owner and master in Bar Umeda told me his favorite cocktail is a Manhattan with Old Overholt Rye.
That trip to Osaka made me curious about the brand. I ended up learning about its dusty versions which are bottled at 43%. These versions are said to be way better than the current 40% versions. This was also the time when I was learning about the glory days of dusty bourbon from bygone distilleries like AH Hirsch, National Distillers and Stitzel Weller.
Old Overholt is, apparently, the oldest continually-maintained brand of American whiskey. It was founded by Henry Oberholtzer. Henry, who was the head of the family, moved his family from Bucks Country, Pennsylvania to West Overton, Pennsylvania. The journey lasted six months. Their last name was eventually anglicized into Overhold and later became Overholt. They added a still to their farm in 1803 which was operated by Henry.
By 1810, Henry’s son Abraham had started assuming control of distilling operations. Abraham passed away in 1870. The ownership changed hands for a few years until it went to his grandson, Henry Clay Frick. Henry was already a millionaire thanks to dealing with purified coal known as coke. Henry brought in friend banker Andrew Mellon to be a one-third partner along with Andrew Mauck to handle operations. In 1888, Mauck oversaw the re-labeling of the distillery’s product as Old Overholt in honor of Abraham, whose scowling face is on the label until today.
Henry passed in 1919. Mellon then inherited his shares to become the dominant partner. Prohibition happened then of course. Mellon, was luckily, sworn in as President Harding’s secretary of the treasury in 1921. He suddenly became responsible for the administration of “medicinal” whiskey licenses, which included his own.
Due to the pressure from temperance movements, Mellon sold his shares in A. Overholt & Co. and the Broad Ford distillery (another distillery made two of Abraham’s sons) to the National Distillers after Prohibition. The last drops of Overholt rye came off the Bradford stills in 1951. Prohibition had taken its toll. It changed the drinking habits of America. As a result, rye whisky fell out of fashion and demand declined during the 40s. Most of Pennsylvania rye distillers did not recover.
Luckily, the brand persisted. It was one of the few rye whiskeys that continued to be distributed nationally. Though, details of its production during the middle of the 1900s are not clear. After the Large Distillery, which was owned by National Distillers, closed in the mid-1950s, no one really knows who made Old Overholt. Except that the rye continued to be distilled in Pennsylvania.
Jim Beam acquired the brand in 1987. Which means the rye whiskey is now made at their Clermont distillery in Kentucky. Aside from now being distilled in Kentucky, the mash bill is also now a high-corn one. It used to be rye-heavy and bottled at 100 proof and bottled-in-bond. Now, it’s bottled at 3 years old and at 40%. Though, it looks like Beam-Suntory is trying to go back to the brand’s roots. Jason reviewed the rather new, Old Overholt Bonded which came out in 2018. Also, according to this Whisky Advocate article, the rye started being bottled at 43% again earlier this year.
Old Overholt Rye (1976) – review
Distilled in Pennsylvania; 4 years old and 43% ABV.
Color: iced tea.
On the nose: I initially get strong heat which gives way to consistent scents of peppers, cinnamon, adzuki beans and rye spice. In between those are undertones of leather, old wooden furniture, orange peel oil and medicinal notes. After a bit more concentrating, I get some old wooden furniture and hints of thyme. As I was moving the glass away from my nose, I got whiffs of vanilla, toffee, BBQ sauce and cherries. After repeating it I get hints of Starbucks’ toffee nut latte.
In the mouth: Like on the nose I get consistent tastes of peppers, cinnamon, adzuki beans and rye spice. But this time there’s a flash of orange gummy bear and cherry syrup. It gently opens up to give off undertones of toffee, vanilla, orange peel and coconut syrup. After letting this sit for a few more minutes, I got BBQ sauce.
I checked Whisky Auctioneer to get an idea how much this would cost today. A 1976 recently sold for £525. I’m lucky I didn’t have to pay a lot for the dram and sample I had. This isn’t something that jumps out at you like most of the contemporary American ryes. This something one should enjoy slowly.
I got a surprising amount of heat that, in my experience, shouldn’t be there due to the abv. I also expected this to have mellowed down and how old the rye is (in actual time). Luckily this dissipated which let this old-timer show the life it had in it. It was like seeing an old man warm-up for a dance. You expect tired moves but as the performance keeps on going, the stride comes back. The good stuff is finally shown off and ends with a bang.
Old Overholt Rye – review
Distilled in Kentucky; 3 years old (back of the neck label) and bottled at 40% ABV.
Color: iced tea.
On the nose: Soft rye scents, cherries and oranges with an undertone of cinnamon followed by the same BBQ sauce notes I get in the 1976. Behind the BBQ sauce notes are the herbs, leather and old wooden furniture. At the end are the toffee and vanilla scents.
In the mouth: Straight forward oranges, rye, cherries, peppers and BBQ sauce. There’s a flash of sour plums and apple juice, more oranges and some diluted root beer.
On the nose, this is not too different from the 1976. But the scents come in a different order and the rye spice is softer. Aside from being much more straightforward in the mouth, it tastes different too. But this bottle only cost me around $14. So, for something I can sip and mix with, I’m not going to complain about a solidly cheap whiskey.