Said to be America’s oldest continually maintained whiskey brand, Old Overholt celebrated its centenary in 1910 — a full decade before Prohibition. More than 100 years later, what is known and what is told about the brand’s history often blurs the lines of fact, speculation, and unsolved mystery. As whiskey brands go, it’s a tale as good as any.
Despite its historical significance, the Pennsylvania-born rye seldom gets the recognition it deserves from mainstream drinkers. Many may not even know it at all. The fact that Overholt occupies a place that, if not on the bottom shelf, is then at least not quite eye level in liquor stores, surely doesn’t help.
For dedicated rye drinkers, Old Overholt’s flavor profile may also be a stumbling block. While the brand doesn’t disclose what’s in the mash bill, it must contain at least 51 percent rye by law. Overholt’s light and sweet profile suggests it barely exceeds that figure, with the influence of sweet corn almost as pronounced as the spicy bite of rye. If ever there were a rye that seems tailor-made for bourbon drinkers, this is it.
But all familiar with the brand would agree it encapsulates the very idea of a “workhorse” whiskey: versatile, affordable, and approachable if lacking the nuance of more expensive bottles.
That reputation could yet change with some recent upgrades to its core lineup. Meanwhile, a pair of imminent limited-edition releases seems poised to pique the interest of hardcore whiskey geeks. Put simply, there’s likely never been a better time to become acquainted with “Old Abe” Overholt.
The History of Old Overholt
Established in West Overton, Pa., by Abraham Overholt in 1810, Old Overholt remained a family-owned brand for almost a century. During this time, it grew to become one of the largest whiskey producers in America, aided by new large-scale facilities at the original West Overton site (which remains intact to this day) and in nearby Broad Ford (which sadly does not). The brand gained its now-iconic “Old Overholt” name in 1888, following a rebrand from “A. Overholt & Co.” that also saw the late Abraham’s scowling portrait added to the label.
Old Overholt slipped from family control in 1919 when Abraham’s grandson, Henry Clay Frick, passed away. But it remained in good hands, especially with Prohibition on the horizon. In 1921, then-majority owner Andrew Mellon was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. With that position came the privilege of granting “medicinal” whiskey licenses to select distilleries, allowing them to sell their existing stocks during Prohibition and fire up the stills with the federal government’s permission. It was no surprise, then, when Overholt’s Broad Ford facility was among the few that received a license. (The fires under the original West Overton facility’s stills would sadly never reignite.)
Multiple milestones throughout the 20th century marked the slow decline of Old Overholt and the rye category in general. Keys to the Broad Ford distillery changed hands more times than those of a used Toyota. The whiskey’s proof and age statement bobbed up and down with fluctuating demand and the fickle tides of drinking trends. Production at the Broad Ford distillery finally ceased in 1951, though the whiskey continued to be made in Pennsylvania for a few more decades. To this day, neither drinks historians nor Old Overholt representatives are exactly sure where.
When current owner James B. Beam Distilling Co. (now part of Beam Suntory) acquired the brand in 1987, Old Overholt packed its bags and left the Keystone State for good. It wasn’t long before the Pennsylvanian rye picked up a Southern drawl. After dropping the proof from 86 to 80, Jim Beam ramped up the sweet corn in the mash bill and dialed down the spicy rye to what most aficionados believe is around 51 percent. All that remained of Old Abe’s legacy was his name and face on the label. By this point, the signature scowl had already softened to a frown.
New Beginnings for Old Abe
Little changed with the brand in the 30 years following the Jim Beam acquisition, until a bottled-in-bond (BIB) release arrived in 2018. For the first time in over 50 years, drinkers could once again enjoy 100-proof, four-year-old Overholt. Even more exciting announcements arrived this year.
First, and perhaps least importantly, was a packaging upgrade. The bottle’s plastic black cap would change to red, while the portrait of Old Abe would regain a grumpier appearance flanked by the terms “Born in PA” and “Made in KY.” More significantly, the standard Old Overholt was bumped to 86 proof, and both this and the BIB release are now non-chill filtered, retaining some of the esters and fatty acids that were previously lost.
“It’s for historical reasons but also to make a better liquid for bartenders to help with cocktail creation,” says Bradford Lawrence, rye whiskey specialist for Beam Suntory.
More exciting still was news of two limited-edition releases: a 114-proof, four-year-old rye and a 92.6-proof, 11-year-old bottling. Both are expected to drop this fall (September or October) and will be sold exclusively in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Brand representatives say the 11-year-old is a one-off release, but the 114-proof release may yet return with wider availability.
The Ubiquitous Appeal of Old Overholt
The news no doubt caught the attention of whiskey collectors and turned the heads of drinkers who have overlooked OG Overholt because of its “inferior” ABV content. Bartenders, by contrast, have long been on Old Abe’s side. In interviews for numerous VinePair articles, industry pros have consistently praised Old Overholt for its versatility, affordability, and suitability in cocktails such as the Old Fashioned and Manhattan.
And it’s not just talk. Along with über hip amari and barely palatable regional spirits, Old Overholt can count itself among America’s numerous “bartender’s handshakes” — especially in its home state of Pennsylvania.
Located in the heart of Philadelphia, BAR is a popular post-shift hangout for servers and bartenders. The bar sold “a ton” of Old Overholt on any given pre-Covid night, according to bar manager Ricky Powell. “We offer a 16-ounce High Life and a one-ounce cowboy shot of Overholt Bonded for $7, all day every day,” Powell says. “Last year, we sold 2,000 shots of Overholt, and most of those were with a beer.”
It’s a deal that makes sense for both bar and post-shift bartender. “An industry kid will come in and put a $10 bill on the bar. He’ll rip a shot, crush a beer, and he’s in and out for 10 bucks,” Powell says. “The bar’s happy — we made money — and I’m happy because I made a decent tip. So it’s a win-win-win situation.”
While a compelling argument for Old Overholt’s affordable appeal, by no means should the rye be viewed as just a shot to enjoy with beer. Powell himself insists you can make great quality cocktails with Overholt. “Not only is it affordable, it’s approachable,” he says.
In some markets, this particular quality has proven to be key.
Kurt Hernon, owner of Lorain, Ohio’s Speak Of The Devil, estimates his bar would have sold its 1,000th bottle of Old Overholt by June 2020, but for temporary coronavirus closures. The bar only opened in late 2017, meaning it averages a bottle of Overholt per day under ordinary circumstances. In a city whose population is 40 times smaller than Brooklyn’s, that’s no mean feat at all.
Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that when he and wife Page opened Speak of the Devil, craft cocktails were still a foreign concept in Lorain. A mid-sized, post-industrial city, the only other watering hole in the town’s downtown neighborhood at the time was a sports bar. “We were told we were absolutely insane,” Hernon says.
If anything could win locals over to the concept of craft cocktails, though, it would be Overholt. “There’s nary a bar in Eastern Ohio or Western Pennsylvania that you don’t see Old Abe staring back at you,” Hernon says. Rather than simply serve the spirit neat, he uses the soft, approachable rye as the base for classics like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan, and proprietary riffs like the 6/4/74 (a rye-based Mai Tai).
That Overholt is relatively low proof compared to most modern whiskeys also worked in his favor, Hernon says. It offers the chance to serve cocktails with an accessible profile, ideal for those switching from beer or wine for the first time. And for those who previously sipped straight bourbon, the high-corn mash bill of the rye whiskey was surely a familiar friend.
“It literally is the brand that built this bar,” Hernon says.
Published: August 13, 2020