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- Garrison Hilliard
July 1, 2010, 11:35 pm
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beerfly's Full Review: Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey
It is amazing how fast rye whiskey has disappeared from America's bar
shelves. Fifty years ago every bar in the country boasted at least
five different brands of rye; now you're lucky if you can find it at
all. Call for rye at a bar and you'll get its pale cousin, Canadian
Happily, against all odds, rye is making a small comeback. The buzz in
the spirits press is hot, rye is pure American whiskey, more
red-blooded than bourbon and more explosively flavorful than Scotch. A
small comeback for a niche product, but it stirs my blood to see it.
For rye is a spirit that has become American, just as so many people
have come to this country and become more than they were in their
homeland. Rye covers the distilling history, and the political
history, of America. Come with me, and grab that bottle of Old
Overholt on the bar. Old Abe Overholt is part and parcel of the whole
Rye is the fly in the ointment of that old goose-grease that American
distilling, and bourbon in particular, is a product of Scots-Irish
distilling that came to America from the British Isles. Rye predates
bourbon, by a good 50 years by anyone's reckoning, and it was not a
product of Scots-Irish settlers, but of Germans and Moravians and
other central and eastern Europeans. Rye whiskey was known to them as
karn, a grain spirit of the steppes of Kiev, the Don region, Poland,
and the eastern German states. Unaged, clear, innocent of much flavor.
Today, we would look at this spirit and call it vodka.
These immigrants set up their stills in the new land of America and
made a spirit that would eventually warm the Revolution. For when rum
lost its appeal as taxes went up and the former colonists found a
fervent love for freedom from Great Britain and all its ways, rye was
the native American (-made) spirit they turned to. And Lord, did they
ever turn to it. Consumption of hard liquor per adult was about 6
times then what it is today. They drank it at breakfast, they drank it
in the legislature, they soaked hot peppers in it and sprinkled it on
The settlers beyond the Appalachian Front found that it made a great
way to get their crops to market; two barrels of whiskey strapped to a
mule was much easier to get over the low but abrupt ridges of these
aged mountains than 50 bushels of grain. Rye became the barter basis
of the western Pennsylvania and Maryland economies, so much so that
when the newly established Federal government decided to pay off the
states' war debts with an excise tax of distilling they set the
western region aflame with rebellion; the Whiskey Rebellion.
Once George Washington (a sometime rye distiller himself!) had taken
the Army to the Rebellion and settled it forcefully and fairly, a lot
of the distillers decided to move on downriver to Kentucky. The
government wasn't so obtrusive there. And lest anyone suggest again
that American whiskey is wholly Scots-Irish, let's just remember the
name of a distiller who moved to Kentucky and made it truly big: Jakob
Boehm, better known as Jim Beam's great-grandfather.
Not every distiller left. Those who stayed made rye their stock in
trade as they grew beyond the farmhouse distilleries and built
commercial businesses. Abe Overholt started his distillery in Broad
Ford, Pennsylvania, in 1810. The distillery would stay in the Overholt
family for almost a century, before a series of sales would finally
bring it to rest at... Jim Beam.
But I'm ahead of the story. Rye became a Pennsylvania and Maryland
specialty as somewhere along the line the aging that would make it
truly whiskey was discovered. The Pennsylvania distilleries were so
heavily concentrated along the Monongahela River that rye was often
known by that name, or as "Old Monongahela." Americans drank it
freely, in even amounts with bourbon, and created cocktails for it:
the Sazerac, the Horse's Neck, the Rye Presbyterian. But most rye was
drank straight up, from glass tumblers. It was the archetypal "man's
What happened? Where did rye go? In a word, Prohibition. Prohibition
lightened every American's taste for every type of liquor by forcing
them to survive on cheapened, diluted, and adulterated spirits. Less
flavor equaled less cost and more profit, and that was good news to
the bootlegger. Massive smuggling of Scotch and Canadian whiskies
helped kill the taste for bourbon and rye.
The Mighty Midget
So rye has dwindled. Too strong-flavored for fruity mixed drinks, too
inexpensive to appeal to spirits snobs. But by God, too good to
ignore! Like bourbon, rye is enjoying a renaissance, albeit a small
one. I can find bottles of Beam Rye and even Old Overholt at bars in
Philadelphia; hipness abounds.
A short primer. Rye, like bourbon, is fermented from a mash that
contains a small amount of barley malt, to get the enzymes that
convert the unmalted rye. Unlike bourbon, rye whiskey is made from a
small amount of corn and at least 51% rye. Overholt uses around 61%,
the most in any rye whiskey made. Otherwise, it is made just like
bourbon: distilled to a final proof no higher than 160, put in new,
charred oak barrels at a proof no higher than 125 for a minimum of two
years, no flavoring or coloring may be added, and it must be bottled
at no less than 80 proof.
Sorry to have gone on so long, but not many people know much about
rye, and it's a story that should be told. Now let's get to the nub of
this, and talk about Old Overholt Rye Whiskey. First, it's cheap. A
750 ml bottle will run you less than $10. Second, it's the real thing.
You can get all het up about how complex and beautiful it is. Third,
it makes one hell of a summer cooler with lots of ice and ginger ale.
Let's get all het up. Old Overholt pours a light amber in the glass,
but not as red as bourbon. It is tinged with gold and bronze rather
than ruby. The aroma is plenty fiery, a regular volcano of spice
(pepper, cardamom), rye, and honey, with a touch of dried lavender in
there. Touch it to your tongue or slam it, you'll get the familiar rye
detonation of screaming sweet rye and spices. Overholt is not as
emphatic as Turkey or Beam rye, but it is also less abrupt, a gentler
tornado. Still, I'd surely hesitate before calling it "smooth."
Let this whiskey shine: make my favorite summer-time mixed drink, the
Rye Presbyterian. It's really easy. Get yourself a tall glass tumbler,
at least 12 oz. Fill it with large ice cubes. Pour in 2 oz. of
Overholt and fill with a good quality ginger ale. Stir once, gently,
and garnish with a lemon wedge, if desired. There's a great synergy
here that makes everything taste better... even the ice cubes. I drink
these on the deck or at dinner, and rarely to incapacity. The idea is
to make a big drink and take in so much ginger ale you stave off
drunkenness. Great idea!
Try Rye if you're looking for something new, if Scotches begin to bore
you, if bourbon doesn't seem to be enough anymore. Try Rye. It's the
American thing to do.