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.