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 distilleries located in western Pennsylvania. But the country’s love for the layered, spiced flavors of Pennsylvania rye did not survive Prohibition, and by the mid-twentieth century the state’s legendary distilleries were headed to extinction.
Today, 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 Old Overholt, one of America’s oldest continually produced whiskeys.
The brand’s origins lie in a small farm village called West Overton, about forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Abraham Overholt 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 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 label “Old Overholt” for his flagship rye. By the end of the century Old Overholt 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.
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.
He didn’t get out of whiskey, though. Mellon stockpiled cases of Old Overholt, 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 or age (experts believe it is about 100 proof, and between four and twelve years old). These bottles are, however, vintage dated – a rarity for American whiskey – ranging mostly in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Pre-Prohibition American whiskey has become a coveted collector’s item over the last decade. For people looking for 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.