The Story of Old Overholt: One of the Best American Rye Whiskeys

The Story of Old Overholt: One of the Best American Rye Whiskeys

Boasting a longer provenance than bourbon, rye was America’s first whiskey – and no rye whisky is more cherished today than Old Overholt, with a history spanning the Whiskey Rebellion and Prohibition.
Boasting a longer provenance than bourbon, rye was America’s first whiskey – and no rye whisky is more cherished today than Old Overholt, with a history spanning the Whiskey Rebellion and Prohibition.

B ourbon may be America’s best-known whiskey style, but rye has a longer and much richer provenance. Records detail its production in Massachusetts as early as the 1640s, and by the Revolution it dominated the East Coast, with many of the best rye whiskey distilleries located in western Pennsylvania. But the country’s love for the layered, spiced flavors of Pennsylvania rye whiskey did not survive Prohibition, and by the mid-twentieth century the state’s legendary distilleries were headed to extinction.

Today, old fashioned straight rye whiskey is finally making a comeback, and pre-Prohibition Pennsylvania rye is especially coveted. That’s true not only because of its complex flavor profile, but because each bottle is a unique piece of history – and none more so than the Old Overholt, one of the oldest continually produced American whiskeys, which features prominently in the Whisky & Whiskey auction on 13 June 2024.

The Old Overholt brand’s origins lie in a small farm village called West Overton, about forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Abraham Overholt, a German Mennonite farmer, began distilling there in 1810, less than a generation after Alexander Hamilton led US troops through the area to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Overholt’s straight rye whiskey proved popular, and in 1959 production expanded to a nearby site called Broad Ford, which soon grew to be one of the largest distilleries in the world.

Abraham’s grandson, the Gilded Age tycoon Henry Clay Frick, took over the distillery in 1881, and a few years later he adopted the “Old Overholt” label for his flagship rye. By the end of the century Old Overholt straight rye whiskey could be found in bars across the country: It was just as popular among rough-edged cowboy towns out West as it was in sophisticated establishments back East, where it provided a solid, expressive base for cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.

Abraham Overholt began distilling in the farm village of West Overton, PA, in 1810. Images via Wikimedia Commons

Frick was friends with another financier, Andrew Mellon, whom he brought on as a minority partner in the distillery. When Frick died in 1919, control passed to Mellon. That was a year before Prohibition and two years before Mellon became Secretary of the Treasury, with an agenda that included enforcing the new ban on distilling. Even though Broad Ford received a license to continue making “medicinal” whiskey – one of the few to do so during Prohibition – Mellon’s stake was politically controversial, and he sold it in 1925.

Mellon’s dalliance with distilling has become a piece of pop culture lore: It provided a plotline in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” with the actor James Cromwell playing Mellon. Broad Ford restarted after Prohibition, but Old Overholt was never the same. Eventually production shifted to Kentucky, with a new recipe and a significantly reduced reputation. Today, modern Old Overholt is distilled at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky by A. Overholt & Co, a subsidiary of Japan’s Beam Suntory.

Henry Clay Frick (left) and Andrew Mellon (right) were both owners of Old Overholt at different points of the distillery’s history. Some of the most sought-after bottles come from Mellon’s private pre-Prohibition stockpile. Images courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the sale, Mellon didn’t get out of whiskey. He stockpiled cases of original Old Overholt rye whiskey, enjoying some and giving away others as gifts. His stash of about sixty cases remained largely intact until 2015, when the estate of one of his descendants, Richard Mellon Scaife, went up for auction. Because they were meant for Mellon’s personal collection, the bottles bear few commercial markings, like proof, ABV or age (experts believe it is about 100 proof, and between four years and twelve years old). These bonded bottles are, however, vintage dated – a rarity for American whiskey – ranging mostly in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Bottled-in-bond pre-Prohibition American rye whiskey has become a coveted collector’s item over the last decade. The best rye whiskey for collectors seeking antique bottles, nothing ranks higher than one of Mellon’s private-reserve Old Overholts – a chance not just to own but to drink a piece of American history.

Old Overholt Rye at Auction

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