Born in P.A. Made in K.Y.
These words flank the picture of Henry Oberholzer. “Who is that,” you ask? Let me use his Anglicized name, then. Henry Overholt is the German Mennonite farmer whose picture adorns the label of America’s oldest continually maintained brand of whiskey. Legends on Wikipedia have it that Ulysses S. Grant and John F. Kennedy both enjoyed the brand. The brand itself was founded in 1810, and is now owned by Beam-Suntory.
Some of you may know the story of Jim Beam being shut down during prohibition and fleeing to Florida to start an orange farm. That’s because in 1919, Henry Clay Frick – a descendant of Oberholzer – left his share of the family business to Andrew Mellon. Mellon, a wealthy banker, helped finance Overholt in addition to large corporations like Westinghouse Electric. Mellon also conveniently served as United Sates Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932, a role that had to have helped Overhold secure a license for medicinal distilling during prohibition.
In the 60s, Overholt was the lone standing survivor and only nationally distributed straight rye whiskey. As the Mad Men era declined, so did brown liquor, and rye took it just as hard – if not harder – than bourbon. In 1987, the brand was sold to Jim Beam, which we all know was later acquired by Suntory. Since 2015, Old Overholt has been branded as the rye counterpart to Old Grand-Dad, which is a beloved value bourbon.
Entering 2024, the rye category seems to be gaining momentum, but it feels like a neighborhood that realtors that have been describing as “up and coming” for some time now. A limited release in the fall is always welcome as another thing to hunt. I guess the question is: is it worth hunting? After all, this brand started as a Pennsylvania Rye; in recent years many people have grown to like rye that comes from Indiana, mostly in the form of MGP product and their 95/5 rye.
MGP rye has powered many a brand, and only the super hardcore consumers may have noticed. In 2021, the state of Indiana decided to pass a bill that defined Indiana Rye Whiskey and several other categories. The defined the Indiana rye mash bill as having to be a minimum of 51% rye, but that is a far cry from the 95/5 that MGP is known for. This seems to be a way for the state of Indiana to claim some cache in a whiskey game that it has long been contributing to.
As state rivalries, go it makes sense. Indiana distilleries like Hard Turth, Starlight, and the Distillery formerly known as MGP put out a very good product, both rye and bourbon. Yet, their neighbor to the south gets all the visitors and acclaim. I’ve also found that many Kentuckians deem 51% rye mashbills to be their style of Rye, not the 95/5 that MGP is known for.
Why do I bring all this up? On the back of the Old Overholt 10 year is a line that I found curious.
“This Kentucky style rye is the result – spice, depth and unmistakable Overholt character.”
What is Kentucky style, truly? Why did Overhold feel the need to take this jab at Indiana? Or, is it a jab at Pennsylvania, that they own the brand and can do what they want? I though there might be one person who can help me with this madness.
Enter proud Kentuckian and author or Bourbon Justice, Brian Haara. He has spoken to me in the past about his thoughts that Kentucky brands need to market their style of rye more often. I asked him to share his thoughts about that 95/5 style of rye, and what other types he has found.
Brian: Each time that I’ve been involved in a blind Rye Whiskey tasting, a 95/5 Rye has never won. I think that’s because a 100% (or 95%) Rye tends to be a one-tricky pony. Plenty of people say that they like it, but it’s telling that nobody ever sticks with it.
The best use of rye grain is for flavoring. While too many Kentucky distilleries skimp on it, I’ve tended to be fan of high-rye bourbon and low-rye rye whiskey, so the 51% Kentucky Style Rye (a.k.a. “barely rye”) has been my favorite style.
Even with Indiana trying to embrace what historically was a Pennsylvania Rye mash bill, and with Sagamore Spirit knocking it out of the park with Maryland Style Rye (without the historical rectifying and additives), I’m not so sure that Kentucky needs to start marketing “Kentucky Rye” as a style, because historically it wasn’t a thing (unlike Pennsylvania and Maryland) and because the name “Kentucky” already has so much cachet. Just being able to call it a “Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey” gives an advantage, whether the distiller uses 51% like most of them, or 56% like Wilderness Trail, or 95% as is available from BBC (Bardstown Bourbon Company). On the other hand, maybe in part because it’s my favorite style, I like that “Kentucky Style” is catching on all on its own to mean “barely rye.”
As for Old Overholt – as a Pennsylvania Rye – historically it would have been made with either 100% rye grain (including malted rye), or at the very least nearly 100% rye grain, but no corn. I’ve never had a pre-Prohibition Pennsylvania Style Rye, but I can still comfortably say that it would have tasted nothing like the Old Overholt 10-year because that’s a Kentucky Style Rye. A 100% Rye is as unmistakable as a peated Scotch.
So with all that being said, is this “Kentucky Style” Rye (branded in Pennsylvania) any good?
Old Overholt Cask Strength Rye Aged 10 Years – Review
121 proof (60.5% ABV). $100.
Color: Burnt orange crème.
On the nose: The first pour blasted me with spearmint in a way that took me aback. I thought Kentucky Style ryes weren’t supposed to have this kind of minty blast. Two pours later, I still get that note in the front, but there is a complimenting Anjou pear note that one can dig into and pull out white peach and green fig.
In the mouth: Spearmint and alcohol hit you, underpinned by that Beam vanilla. The vanilla note is the baseline that is there throughout, as mint and clove turn into baked pears. At times it wants to dip into Indiana Rye territory by threatening you with some of those pickle and dill flavors, but it never gets there. It’s a ride that takes you from minty, to spicy, to sweet, to slightly sweet. It’s a wonderful ride.
Rye can have many styles, and I think my biggest disappointment is that Indiana just decided to use a “barely rye” 51% mandate. As for this limited release: I’m glad to see a release that follows the $10 a year rule, while also following the unspoken rule that it be cask strength! I’ve seen enough limited releases that are at a lower proof but still want that $10 a year. Still, I feel this rye would be better priced at $60 when compared to other heavy hitters at this price in the category, so I feel the need to knock it down a point based on the Malt scoring bands.