Whiskey Review: Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey

I feel like every time I see the word “old” in branding, I immediately distrust it. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve been too jaded by marketing hype for whiskey brands over the years, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the “old” in this case was legitimately bestowed. The spot on the whiskey shelf, on the other hand, is something it’s going to need to prove itself to earn.

History

This brand has what might possibly be the most stereotypical Pennsylvanian background. In 1800, Henry Oberholzer, a Mennonite farmer of German descent, moved to a 250+ acre farm in western Pennsylvania. His family had a long history of distilling a version of rye whiskey common in Germany and so Henry set about applying that knowledge to build a new distillery in West Overton, PA. That style of German-inspired Pennsylvania rye came to be known as the Old Monongahela style.

Ten years later, Henry’s son Abraham Overholt (who had since anglicized their last name) took over the distillery and made it into a proper business. Sales grew rapidly, producing 12 to 15 gallons of rye whiskey per day and by 1843 advertisements for the product were seen as far away as Baltimore. The increased success led to a new distillery facility being built on the banks of the Youghiogheny river(a tributary of the Monongahela) in 1854, and the business was formally incorporated in 1859 as A. Overholt & Co.

Abraham died in 1870, and in 1881 Abraham’s grandson Henry Clay Frick took over the distillery. Frick is mostly known as Andrew Carnegie’s partner in the United States Steel company monopoly and for his anti-union stance, and he ran the distillery as an affectionate side project in homage to his family’s history. At the urging of one of his business partners, they renamed the distillery Old Overholt in 1888 and decided to put Abraham Overholt’s picture on the bottle.

Frick died in 1919, leaving his share to Andrew Mellon (who is probably most famous these days as the wealthy businessman who founded the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, which was later incorporated into the Carnegie Mellon University). When prohibition hit in 1920, Mellon was by was Secretary of the Treasury at the time under the Harding administration and was thus able to secure a permit to continue producing medicinal whiskey and keep the business in operation. However, under political pressure from the prohibitionist lobby, Mellon would sell his shares in the company shortly thereafter in 1925. The company would eventually be owned by the National Distillers Products Co.

After the Second World War, whiskey fell out of favor with the American drinking public and sales plummeted. By the 1960s, Old Overholt was the last remaining nationally distributed straight rye whiskey on the market, and sales continued to decline until the brand was eventually sold to Jim Beam in 1987 and production moved from the Pennsylvania distillery to their combined distillation facility in Kentucky.

Since 2015, Old Overholt has been marketed together with Old Grand-Dad as “The Olds.”

Product

For something with a storied and interesting past, there’s very little actual information about the contents of this bottle.

As a rye whiskey, the assumption is that the spirit starts out life as a collection of grains and mainly rye (with some corn and malted barley typically added in for flavor). Rumors are that the grain bill has shifted closer to a traditional bourbon these days… but since they don’t disclose the actual numbers, there’s no way to know.

What we do know is that since this is a “straight” rye whiskey there are a few requirements here. Beyond the highly technical alcohol content requirements, we know that this spirit was distilled and then aged in charred new oak barrels for a minimum of two years.

Packaging

Normally, there are a lot of things about this bottle design that I would say are outdated and detract from the experience… but in this case, given the historical context, I think it’s actually pretty charming.

In general, the bottle is a standard spirit bottle shape with the exception of some embellishments on the shoulder of the bottle. The dark-tinted glass is topped off with a plastic screw-on top.

What’s probably most striking is the label. It’s a weathered, off-white color imitating an aged label and has some of the filigree around the edges reminiscent of something you would expect from something in the 1800s. The type font is big and bold, and ol’ Abraham Overholt’s face is front and center on the bottle as it has been for a hundred years.

It feels like Jim Beam is counting on some level of nostalgia for this bottle to work… and in general I think they did a good job. But for me, that plastic screw-top cap on the top is really ruining the impression. Change that to a proper stopper and buyers would sense the history (and corresponding price tag) accordingly.

Neat

Right off the bat, I’m suspicious. There’s a distinctly malty aroma coming off the glass here… something closer to honey Teddy Grahams than to a piece of rye bread. I don’t think that rye grains are the only thing in here.

Beyond that oddity, there isn’t a whole lot going on in the aroma. There’s a touch of orange citrus and some sweetness in there but, otherwise, nothing particularly remarkable.

Taking a sip, there’s definitely the common vanilla and caramel flavors that you would expect from a whiskey… but not a whole lot of the pepper spice that exemplifies a rye whiskey. It tastes washed out and flat, not quite bland but approaching that level.

On the aftertaste, though, I do get a bit of that peppery aspect; however, it is overpowered by a weird flavor reminiscent of Nilla Wafers.

On Ice

I feel like the whiskey heard me calling it bland and uninteresting and responded “hold my beer.” This is pretty much just a glass of mildly flavored alcoholic water at this point, which I guess is a technically accurate description of whiskey… but not a particularly flattering one. There’s a touch of vanilla and caramel way in the background, but that’s the extent of the flavors.

Amazingly, there’s even a bit of bitterness that has made its way into the spirit with the ice. Which is strange because the addition of ice usually hides any bitter or unpleasant flavors.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

At first, things actually seem pretty good.

There are the vanilla and caramel flavors up front, which balance out the angostura bitters. Overall, it’s a drinkable cocktail… but then the aftertaste kicks in. And it’s nothing but bitterness. Really, just a waste of some good bitters at this point.

(And I’m still blaming the bitters at this point, not the spirit — but just wait until we get to the next drink…)

Fizz (Mule)

Worse than being bland, this is aggressively bitter. Usually, I praise a whiskey for adding something to a mule, but in this case there’s nothing but stale Nilla wafers and bitterness. It throws the whole thing way out of balance and, in general… is not great.

As for the aftertaste, that bitterness hangs around and ruins that as well. There’s no escape, except pouring it down the sink.

Overall Rating

I like the story and the concept, but the whiskey is as bitter as the old man on the label. There’s nothing of note or value here, although I really wish there were. It seems like a prime brand to make a really great rye whiskey and brand / distribute under… but I’m not sure if they are unfotunately actively seeking out the lower end of the market, staying too true to the original recipe, or both.

This belongs in a museum with a strict “look, don’t touch” policy.

Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey
Produced By: Old Overholt
Owned By: Beam Suntory
Production Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Rye Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $16.49 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:

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Overall Rating: 1/5
I like rye. I like straight rye. But I don’t like this.

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