Old Overholt Rye

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 Produced by Jim Beam at the Clermont distillery in Kentucky, the brand dates back to the early 1800s and was originally made in the Monongahela (Pennsylvania) style, meaning it was 100% or almost 100% rye distilled in a copper pot still and was sweeter and/or rougher than modern rye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.

Old Overholt Rye
40% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $17 - $22
Acquired: (Bottle) Purchased at BevMo, San Jose, CA $19

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  • You just saved me $11, the price for Old Overholt in Phoenix. To return the favor I would suggest you stay away from Darby’s Rye. It has lots of artificial flavors going on and I think it is another “Age processed” product from South Carolina. I have yet to find anything under $20 worth drinking (always neat).
    Thanks for the reviews, I really enjoy and use them.

    • Hi Don,
      Sometimes you can find Rittenhouse 100 rye for “almost” $20 ($24 here). I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the inexpensive Four Roses (yellow label) and the Wild Turkey 101 bourbon. Look also for Bank Note 5-year blended scotch, which is even cheaper and quite worth drinking neat in my opinion. I agree that under $20 bracket is pretty dismal. 🙂 Cheers!

      • I always have a bottle of Ritt BIB and Four Roses SB on the shelf, both have become favorites. Cragganmore or Macallan 12 is as budget friendly as I will go when it comes to single malts. 🙂

  • I wish Suntory would upgrade this venerable old brand. Further, I wish someone would move production of Old Overholt back to SW Pennsylvania following the old recipes. That is just my honest opinion.

  • The closest I’ve found to a cheap rye Holy Grail is Pikesville Supreme. If you can find it, it can run as cheap as $11 and is worth every penny.

    • Absolutely! Here in DC, Pikesville Supreme is available pretty much everywhere for $11 and it’s an absolute steal – it’s become my daily, and is generally what’s in my primary decanter. Any time someone new is over, I force them to try it and guess the price, and nobody’s been close. It’s not life-changing, but it’s far and away the best value I’ve found on whiskey.

      (Slightly off topic, but speaking of the DC-ish area, I’d love to see SN do a review for Copper Fox Rye and/or Wasmund’s, both of which are excellent)

  • I disagree with your review. For about $14 a bottle, this is great whiskey, especially if you like a bit of pepper/bite on the finish, i.e. rye. The body is very thin and there isn’t really any complexity but there’s also nothing offensive. It’s not boozy and it’s not too sweet. It’s pleasant and very drinkable neat. I haven’t had anything at this price point that equals it. That is, you have to spend at least $20 to find something comparable. Six dollars might not mean a lot to you but, if you’re a student like me, $6 is dinner, and I don’t like drinking on an empty stomach.

  • Agreeing with “RTR”, and defending the family honor. These were Mennonites from Oberholz, Switzerland (S.E. of Zurich )and brought the recipe with them. My family came with Wm. Penn in 1682 to Philadelphia then Lancaster area and on to S.W. Pennsylvania. Wonder what the water they used then is compared to now !