Monday, April 27, 2009

Tasting Notes #1: Old Overholt

The first in an occasional series.

Old Overholt, among America's oldest whiskey labels, is not what it used to be. Around 1810, Abraham Overholt (grandfather of Henry Clay Frick) began distilling rye on his farm in western Pennsylvania. When he started a commercial operation, he named the whiskey Old Farm. In 1859, his son built a new distillery to continue production of Old Farm as well as a new spirit named for the Overholt family.

Now made by Jim Beam, this whiskey tastes rather different than the pre-Prohibition version.

Often, Old Overholt is the only rye whiskey one can easily find. I've lost count of the number of times that I asked a bartender if they had rye--and they responded by offering me this. In those situations, it can be a life saver.

Wide availability often means that this is the first rye anyone ever tries. And one could do worse. Most aficionados describe Old Overholt as light and palatable. They see it as something for mixing rather than for sipping. I quite agree. It makes a fine Manhattan for one's first rye cocktail.

Recently, I decided to put this venerable four-year old spirit to the test. Here goes:

Appearance: Pale, even yellow-brown. Thin legs on the inside of the glass after a swirl or two.

Smell: This is important. Much of what we "taste" is actually smelled. Sweet, with an almost licorice smell. Undercurrents of maple syrup and candy and smoke.

Taste: This whiskey hits the palate with a shot of honey, then nougat. Definite warmth and vanilla in the middle, fading into spice. Then a little char.

Finish: An aftertaste that's a bit cloying and then sharply astringent. There doesn't seem to be much body.

In the end, there's not a lot of oak or complexity in this whiskey, and it seems light at nearly every stage on the palate.

That said, for around $13 a bottle, it's not bad (the price seems to vary widely--I've heard that it goes for more than $17 in some markets, and less than $10 in others). It's not my first choice for sipping whiskey. But it does make a mean cocktail (especially in one of the classic rye whiskey drinks). And as an introduction to the world of rye whiskey, it's perfectly appropriate--accessable and cheap, something different than bourbon, but not too far afield.



lars christiansen said...

Nice beginning to a new series. Very much looking forward to future reports, as my own experience is limited to Templeton and Old Overholt.

lars christiansen said...

Also didn't know about the relationship between Overholt and Frick. It won't change the way the whiskey tastes, but it might change what I think about when I drink it.

evdebs said...

I shall never drink Old Overholt again! Henry Clay Frick is a villain. If only Alexander Berkman had been a better shot. I will finish the parts of the two bottles I have left and never gain by this treasonous whiskey. To read of Frick on May Day is a drag.

A rye-drinker said...

Frick eventually sold the distillery. But before that, he was such a rapacious capitalist that he completely screwed over a number of people on the Overholt side of the family whom he had joined with (briefly) in some local business ventures.

So fear not, evdebs--many of the Overholts likely felt the same way you do about Frick. You can drink Old Overholt with pride, knowing that, like American workers, it was subject to the selfish whims of a money-grubbing industrial titan.

evdebs said...

Say what you will in defense of Frick, Rye Drinker, but my position is unmovable. Your most recent update, well informed as always, indicated that he is not simply the grandson of the distillery’s founder, but a former owner. In some ways, knowing that Frick is so intimately associated with rye leaves the patriotic spirit somewhat diminished in my eyes. But it is May Day, Frick’s least favorite holiday, and I fear I am revealing my irrational feelings toward this worst of the robber barons, Henry Clay Prick.

A rye-drinker said...


I am sorry that you construe my earlier comment as a defense of Frick. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was, however, trying to defend Old Overholt, a noble brand with a pedigree that blemished only briefly by the obtrusive hand of the robber baron.

evdebs said...

Ok, Rye Drinker, I was perhaps too rash in my rejection of Old Overholt. And I was certainly unfair in my suggestion that you defened Frick. I was, simply put, overwhelmed by a sense of worker solidarity on May Day. I will consider again, patronizing that rye of my youth, Old Overholt. If I find that as I pour or drink the whiskey I cannot escape images of Frick I may have to end my nearly 25 year relationship with the spirit, to my mind, the best reasonably priced whiskey available. But for now, I will remain open minded. Cheers!

A rye-drinker said...


You are a giant among men. Hope you had a great May Day!

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