Rye whiskey has enjoyed an amazing renaissance over the last decade (or less) owing largely to the parallel rise in popularity of pre-prohibition cocktails. Straight rye is similar to bourbon in that it is made from a mash of grains, usually distilled on a continuous column still, and aged in new charred American oak barrels. In fact, a legal straight rye whiskey might be 51% rye grain and 49% corn, while a legal straight bourbon whiskey might be 49% rye grain and 51% corn! (Although nobody does this, to my knowledge.) Straight rye is also usually mashed with a small amount of malted barley (around 5%), which is useful for its naturally-occurring enzymes. These help to break down the troublesome rye grain and help release its sugars. By all accounts, rye by itself is a very tricky grain to distill because of its tendency to turn into a sticky, tar-like mess in the mash tun and still. This may be why 100% rye whiskies are uncommon, although they do exist.
Old Overholt has become a staple in the wells of bars around the US, and is often what you’ll get if you ask for a Rye Manhattan or a Rye Old Fashioned. Produced by Jim Beam at the Clermont distillery in Kentucky, the brand dates back to the early 1800s and was originally made in the Monongahela (Pennsylvania) style, meaning it was 100% or almost 100% rye distilled in a copper pot still and was sweeter and/or rougher than modern rye (reports vary). Nowadays Old Overholt is 51% rye, just barely meeting the legal definition, with the remainder made up of corn and a little malted barley for enzymes. It’s aged for three years (fours years in the recent past, the switch occurred around 2013) and bottled at 40% ABV.
Nose: Burning rubber tires. Clove, cardamom, stale spices. Shoe leather. Vinyl polish (“new car smell”). Marzipan.
Palate: Medium body. Mildly sweet. Cinnamon rolls, tanned leather, old hay.
Finish: Very short. Rye malt beer, a hint of cinnamon “red hots” candies. Fades quickly with nothing – not even bitterness.
With Water: A few drops of water adds some star anise and a mild tartness – like cider vinegar – to the aroma. It also brings out a fresh apple note on the palate and lengthens the finish, adding some nuttiness. I highly recommend adding some water if you’re stuck with a glass of this.
Overall: Obviously, this was intended for mixing and not sipping straight. Nevertheless, if I dislike a whisky straight up then I’m not likely to want to make cocktails with it, especially when there are better choices (like Rittenhouse 101, Knob Creek Rye (also from Jim Beam), or even Wild Turkey Rye) which are superior for both purposes. While it makes unoffensive cocktails, which could be seen as a plus (especially for a well bottle at a lot of bars), it also makes uninteresting cocktails. Adding water definitely perks up this rye and gives it a few redeeming qualities, but overall this is not a bottle I would invest in (or recommend) again.