Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Old Overholt Rye, 3 year vs. 4 year

straight rye whiskey, 3 years old, 40%, $16 (2015 price)
straight rye whiskey, 4 years old, 40%, $16 (2011 price)

My last post looked at the recent revamping of the long-bottled Jim Beam Rye. This time around I’m going to look at Old Overholt, the other rye brand Beam has produced for many years.

The roots of the Old Overholt brand stretch all the way back to 1810. It was in that year that Abraham Overholt (1784-1870), a Mennonite of Swiss descent, took the family tradition of farm-distilling rye whisky and turned it into a commercial enterprise. He and his brother Christian Overholt (1786-1868) built their log cabin distillery in West Overton (in southwest PA) and began producing their Old Farm Pure Pennsylvania Rye brand. Abraham bought out his brother’s share of the farm two years later, and in 1814 a larger stone distillery with 10 times the capacity of the original was built.

Abraham’s two oldest sons, Henry Stauffer Overholt (1810-1870) and Jacob Stauffer Overholt (1814-1859), began working at the family distillery when they were quite young, and by 1850 they had both become full partners in the business. Demand for their whiskey was so great that in 1855 the family decided to establish a second distillery about 12 miles from the original, at Broad Ford; a site chosen for its river access. Jacob left the West Overton business to run the new enterprise and in 1856 took his cousin Henry O. Overholt (1813-1880) on as a partner. The whisky produced there was sold under the brand Old Monongahela Rye.

After Jacob’s death in 1859, his interest in the Broad Ford distillery was purchased by his father. The distillery was expanded in 1867, greatly increasing its capacity. In 1868 Henry O. Overholt sold his interest in the distillery to Abraham Overholt Tinstman, one of Abraham Overholt’s grandsons. After the deaths of Abraham Overholt and his son Henry in 1870, the company had a complex series of owners, most of whom were family members, but by 1881 the distillery at Broad Ford was owned by the famed industrialist Henry Clay Frick, another of Abraham’s grandsons. It was in the mid 1870’s that the distillery started to use the Old Overholt brand, in honor of Abraham Overholt and with his likeness on the label.

With Frick running the company, Old Overholt became the best selling rye brand in the country, and the entire plant at Broad Ford was reconstructed and enlarged between 1899 and 1905. Frick had sold a one-third interest in the distillery to his friend Andrew Mellon in 1887. As the executor of Henry Clay Frick’s estate, Mellon was able to take control of the distillery in upon Frick’s death in 1919.

The distillery at West Overton was closed at the onset of Prohibition and never reopened. But Andrew Mellon, as Secretary of the Treasury, was able to grant himself a medicinal whisky license which allowed the Broad Ford distillery to sell prescription whiskey and even occasionally produce more in spite of Prohibition. This asset made the company quite valuable during the ensuing period of consolidation in the industry. National Distillers, which formed in 1924, acquired all of the assets of Old Overholt in 1927.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, production resumed at the Broad Ford plant and Old Overholt once again became the best selling rye whiskey in the U.S. But Pennsylvania’s distilling heritage was on a downward spiral as Americans continued their previously established shift from rye to Bourbon, and eventually shifted away from whiskey in general.

National Distillers finally closed the Broad Ford plant for good in 1950 and moved production of Old Overholt to their nearby Large Distillery in West Elizabeth, PA. When National closed that distillery in 1958 they contracted the distilling of Old Overholt out to another Pennsylvania distillery in Schaefferstown, which went by the name Pennco at the time.

Somewhere between 1960 and 1980, National Distillers pulled out of Pennsylvania completely and moved production of Old Overholt Rye to their Old Grand Dad distillery in Forks of Elkhorn, KY. When Jim Beam acquired National Distillers in 1987, that distillery was closed and they switched Old Overholt over to the rye whiskey that they were already producing for Jim Beam Rye.

This was the low point of rye whiskey’s popularity and Beam probably only kept Old Overholt alive because there were still some pockets consumer demand left over from the brand’s heyday. There was no point in promoting Old Overholt, which had become a pretty mediocre product by that point, or trying to differentiate it from Beam Rye.

Fast forward to the current rye renaissance, and these two labels were suddenly fighting for the same segment (bottom shelf mixers) of the expanding rye market. As I mentioned up top, my last post examined the recent re-packaging of Jim Beam Rye and its boost from 80 proof to 90 proof. As a non-age stated straight rye it has to be at least four years old. At some point in 2013 a less noticeable but equally significant change was made to Old Overholt. The four year age statement, which was inconspicuously shown in small print on the corner of the label, was replaced with a three year age statement and made even less conspicuous by moving it to the back of the neck label.

Fortunately I have a mostly full bottle of Old Overholt that’s been in my collection for about 10 years, so I can do a little side by side.

Old Overholt, 3 year
The nose is kind of thin and basic. Some clay (maybe a hint of banana too) and gentle spice notes come through. There’s nothing offensive about it though.
There’s not much up front on the palate, but a burst of flavor soon pops up. The peanut-like “Beam funk” mixes with some Play-Doh notes and floral character.
As it moves into the finish, the rye flavors shift from being floral-based to spice-driven, while the other flavors linger on in the background.
Overall it seems pretty young and spirit-y.

Old Overholt, 4 year
The nose has similar aromas to the three year old, but with more oak, and more depth and intensity.
This one has more weight on the palate and seems better composed, with more continuity. The peanut-like note is much less obvious and there seems to be more tannic, oaky character balancing out the floral and spicy rye notes. The warming spice notes that characterize the finish aren’t too complex, but it winds down with more balance than the three year old does.

Comparing these two along with the two Beam ryes, it’s clear that the company has succeeded in creating more distinction between the two brands, both in terms of their flavor profiles and their packaging.

I wouldn’t rank either of these Old Overholts very high on a list of whiskeys to be sipped neat, but the four year old is better suited to such duty. The three year old is, however, perfectly capable of producing a respectable cocktail. It’s actually the mixing rye that we use where I work, so I’ll give a few examples of drinks that we use it in. One originated before Prohibition, and the other shortly after.

The Ward 8 has several origin stories, but the most likely one pegs its creation a bar in Boston in 1898.

2 ounces Old Overholt
1 ounce Grenadine
½ ounce lemon juice
Combine ingredients over ice in a mixing tin, shake for a five count, strain into an ice filled rocks glass, top with a splash of club soda and garnish with orange and lemon wedges and a cherry.
We use fresh squeezed lemon juice and house made Grenadine (equal parts by volume of fine white sugar and Pomegranate juice at room temperature, shaken vigorously until incorporated), which probably makes a big difference in the quality of the drink.

The Vieux Carré was invented by a New Orleans bartender in 1938. The name is French for “Old Square”, an alternate term for the city’s “French Quarter”.

1 ounce Old Overholt
1 ounce Courvoisier VS
¼ ounce Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Combine ingredients over ice in a mixing tin, stir gently for a 15 count, strain over a single large ice cube in a rocks glass and garnish with a lemon zest.
The original recipe calls for equal parts (3/4 ounce) rye, Cognac and sweet vermouth. After experimenting with a variety of sweet vermouths, none of which he was happy with, our head bartender tried the above recipe and was finally satisfied, so that’s how we make it.

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