I first learned about rye whiskey in the mid ‘90s, when my twin obsessions with American history and Eisenhower-era lounge music led me to explore retro cocktail recipes — many of which were made with rye. One of the first things I discovered about rye was that it had fallen out of fashion. When I tried to buy some at my local liquor store in Upper Manhattan, there were only two bottles available. One of them was, I believe, Wild Turkey. The other was labelled Old Overholt, featuring an antiquated-looking label with the portrait of a stern-looking 18th or 19th century man. I bought it for about $15, tax included.
As I later found out, rye whiskey’s popularity had been in decline since as far back as the 50s, largely due to shifts in tastes after Prohibition ended in 1934. Consumers began preferring lighter Canadian whiskies and later, vodka. I also learned about the history of Old Overholt; it had been around since 1810 and had survived Prohibition by selling its product as “medicinal whiskey”. It was originally distilled in Pennsylvania until the 1980s, when Jim Beam bought the brand and relocated its operations to Kentucky. It had always been 80 proof and was aged for only three years.
Despite its low proof and young age, I fell in love with Old Overholt from the first sip. It had a unique flavor profile, characterized by light nuttiness, caramel sweetness, a touch of leather, and a noticeable spice. It quickly became my liquor of choice. Being a bachelor at that time, I would attempt to impress dates by concocting retro rye cocktails such as the Ward 8 and the Brooklyn. It was always fun evangelizing about the charm of rye and recounting stories of its cocktail glory days.
The newest expression in Old Overholt’s 210-plus year history is its first cask-strength bottling in eight decades.
In the 21st century, the resurgence of rye gained momentum slowly, accelerating significantly with the introduction of brands such as WhistlePig, a robust, 100 proof, 100% rye whiskey that excelled in cocktails and impressed whiskey enthusiasts in search of something fresh and thrilling. However, due to a limited advertising budget, Old Overholt remained a cult favorite frequented by bartenders, even if it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. But in recent years, Beam (now Beam Suntory), led by Bradford Lawrence, the company’s rye whiskey specialist, has made efforts to give it a more distinguished spot in the rye whiskey world and restore its former grandeur.
Flagship Old Overholt is now aged for four years instead of three and bottled at 86 proof instead of 80. A bonded expression, was reintroduced, and limited edition one-offs were released to appeal to collectors. Old Overholt Extra Aged Cask Strength Rye, the first cask strength Old Overholt since the 1940s, is now available. It’s bottled at an uncanny same strength as the ’40s edition, 60.5% ABV, and aged for 10 years.
This is not the Old Overholt of your grandparents’ era. It’s not crafted in Pennsylvania anymore, and the three-chamber stills that gave it its unique taste have largely disappeared into history, although Todd Leopold of Leopold Bros. has recently built one and is producing some remarkable whiskey with it. Upon tasting pre-Prohibition Old Overholt, there’s a clear familial likeness, with notes of sweet, peanut brittle, and honey being present in both old and new versions, along with finishes of dry spice, hints of oak and cinnamon.
Despite the high proof, the cask strength is easy to drink. At $99.99, it’s fairly priced for a 10-year, cask-strength rye, although limited supply and secondary market factors could potentially raise the price. According to the brand, cask strength Old Overholts will become a regular feature, although this specific batch from 2012 is a one-off.
Oh, and I pledged to spotlight the elderly man on the label. This prominent figure is Abraham Overholt, the visionary who initiated the legacy for the brand in 1810. His stern, frowning face once adorned Old Overholt’s bottles for a plethora of years. As mentioned by Bradford Lawrence, during the 1960s, when brown spirits and especially rye whiskey were fading, a decision was taken to remodel Grumpy Abe’s image and soften his stare. When I purchased my first bottle, Abe seemed kind and almost fatherly, though not exactly cheerful. However, with the revival of the whiskey, Grumpy Abe has returned, now appearing as dour as he did over a hundred years ago. His glance seems to pierce through the years, reminding us that the process of creating excellent whiskey isn’t always filled with laughter and enjoyment.