The Rise & Fall of America’s Oldest Whiskey
In 2010, the 200th anniversary of the founding of Old Overholt, the oldest continually-maintained brand of American whiskey, passed without any fanfare. No commemorative bottling. No advertising campaign. No party. No press release. Not even so much as a tweet. Then, a couple of years later, the brand’s owner noticed that it was still around and, having long ago lowered its proof to the legal minimum, promptly lowered its age from four years to three.
For a century and a half, Overholt straight rye whiskey had been a benchmark of quality, old and strong and full of flavor. Ulysses S. Grant drank it and so did JFK, and now it was hovering over the bottom shelf.
Old Overholt, with an unbroken chain of ownership and production that stretches back to 1810, was a national institution, the flagship for Pennsylvania’s long and proud tradition of whiskey making and for rye whiskey in general. Then American whiskey got hit by the late 20th century and almost didn’t survive the experience. Somehow, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey managed to survive singed but relatively intact. Rye didn’t die, at least, but it was certainly on life support. Now, there are new brands of rye and prestige bottlings of old ones.
And yet Old Overholt, the greatest of them all, is still working the booze world’s Hollywood Squares circuit, running out the clock in speed rails and on bottom shelves from coast to coast. It’s not too late to save it, though. The recent surge in popularity of straight rye whiskey has also increased demand for Overholt (hence that cut in age).
Where there’s demand, there’s a possibility of revival, and if any brand deserves a full revival, it’s Old Overholt Rye Whiskey. It is one of the foundation stones of American whiskey, and its heritage is precious.
This is its history, from log cabin to belching smokestack to corporate boardroom. What follows is longer and descends into more geeky detail than my usual work here at The Beast, and I ask your indulgence. The story is an illuminating one, I believe, and an important one (then again, as a native of Pittsburgh, in the whose vicinity of which most of it unfolds, I would say that). But even in the bare-bones version I’ll present, it’s it is an intricate one, and such things take some space to unfold.
In 1800, Henry Oberholtzer, or “Overhold,” as he anglicized it, a 61- year-old farmer from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, loaded his family and all his worldly goods into wagons and took the long and primitive road over the Allegheny Mountains to Western Pennsylvania. There, he and his sons cleared 150 acres of wilderness on the banks of a creek that fed into the Youghiogheny River, a tributary of the mighty Monongahela, and set to farming.
Like many German Mennonite farmers, Henry was, among many other things, a distiller. It was only good husbandry: grain and fruit converted into spirit would not spoil, was far easier to transport and could be exchanged for money or necessary goods. Farm distillers like Henry tended to be opportunists: whatever was ripe and in abundance, into the still it went. But Henry was also a German Methodist, and the part of Germany his father came from had made a specialty out distilling “korn,” or rye, since at least to the 1500s, and there is documentation of German Methodists making “korntram,” or “rye-dram” in Pennsylvania as early as 1760.
At some point, therefore, the Overholts built a log still-house and started making small amounts of whiskey out of the grain they were growing. In 1810, Henry’s second-youngest son, Abraham, then a young father of 26 and a weaver by profession, took over the management of the still-house and turned it into a business, although most likely not a full-time one. The exact circumstances are murky, but as Abraham’s son Christian recalled in 1904, after that “there was no Overholt connected with the manufacture of whiskey except father.”
At first, the distillery was an exceedingly small-scale affair, where the grain was cracked for mashing with a mortar and pestle. As the years went by, however, Abraham paid more and more attention to the distilling. Rye whiskey was making the transition from a rough, backwoods bust-head to something you could pour in a Charleston clubhouse or New York smoking room. Abraham, who rapidly earned a reputation as someone who knew how to make this whiskey right, took advantage of its popularity and began turning his distilling into a proper business. By the 1820s, he was apparently making some 12 to 15 gallons of whiskey a day, and making money at it. Overholt’s location would have helped: the Monongahela fed into the Ohio, the Ohio fed into the Mississippi, and the Mississippi flowed down to New Orleans, from where whiskey could be shipped to just about anywhere. No need to hump it over the mountains to get it to market. Before the decade was out, “old Monongahela” was an American benchmark for quality whiskey.
In 1832 Abraham rebuilt the distillery in stone and expanded its capacity more than tenfold. Clearly, something was working. A couple of years later, he built a substantial new gristmill, further streamlining production as his sons no longer had to haul his grain away by wagon to be milled. This investment paid off, and not only because it opened a profitable sideline in the flour business: in 1843 Overholt’s “old rye” was being listed by name in newspaper advertisements as far away as Baltimore. This was quite unusual—whiskey distillers had not yet learned to brand their product and sold almost all of their whiskey by the barrel to wholesalers and retailers who sold it. Only the very best distilleries had enough of a reputation that their name was worth advertising.
Abraham’s business was very much a family concern, involving two of his four sons and various sons-in-law and grandsons. In 1854, however, those sons, Jacob and Henry, struck out on their own, joining up with their cousin Henry (the Overholts were frugal when it came to first names) to build a large, modern distillery at Broad Ford, six miles away on the banks of the Youghiogheny—and, more importantly, right next to the tracks of the brand new Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad. There, they made “Old Monongahela” whiskey. In 1859, perhaps spurred by the family competition, Abraham tore down his distillery and gristmill and combined the two functions in a large new brick building, six stories high and 100 feet long and capable of producing some 860 gallons of whiskey a day. That same year, however, Jacob Overholt died and Abraham seized the opportunity to buy out his two-thirds share of the Broad Ford distillery. Suddenly, Abraham was a big distiller, making Overholt whiskey at both of his large, modern distilleries, plus a cheaper brand, “Old Farm,” at West Overton. He acknowledged his new status by incorporating his business as A. Overholt & Co.
The Civil War did nothing to hurt Pennsylvania’s rye whiskey business. Indeed, by the time the war was over Abraham was a rich man, although a good part of that came from the discovery of coal on his land. When he died, in 1870, his state amounted to a more than respectable $350,000. The next few years saw A. Overholt & Co.’s ownership pass through a dizzying round-robin of partnerships, made up for the most part from family members, some of whom didn’t know how to run a business.
Things didn’t settle down until 1881, when one of Abraham’s many grandsons took the reins. Henry Clay Frick, son of Abraham’s daughter Elizabeth, was born on the West Overton property in 1849. By the time he took over the company, he had been a millionaire for four years, making his fortune selling coke—in this case, the coal derivative, although considering his profits it might as well have been the other stuff. Frick, well on his way to becoming one of the America’s great robber barons, didn’t need the money. For him, A. Overholt & Co. was a sentimental plaything; his Rosebud, as it were. Nonetheless, he was smart enough to diversify the risk, bringing his friend and banker Andrew Mellon in as one-third owner and selling another third to one Charles W. Mauck, who got two-thirds of the profit in exchange for running the business.
By the 1880s, the rye whiskey business was at its peak. Kentucky’s 254 operating grain distilleries, large and small, made far more whiskey, including a lot of rye, but the real rye specialists were the 76 in Pennsylvania and the 21 in Maryland, states where they had been focusing on the stuff for well over a century. The makers of “Eastern rye,” as the product of those two states was known in the industry, had evolved a set of technologies and procedures uniquely adapted to making rye whiskey. In Kentucky, whether they were making bourbon or rye the small distillers used copper pot stills, much like modern microdistillers do, while the large ones used big, state-of-the-art column or continuous stills, just as they do today. Large or small, bourbon or rye, they used a sour-mash process, where some of the spent wash from the still went into the next batch of fermenting wash, and tended to age their whiskey in flimsy, unheated wood-and-tin rickhouses.
In Pennsylvania and Maryland, however, the rye distillers used a sweet-mash process, eschewing the spent wash, and stored their barrels in substantial, heated brick or stone warehouses, warding off the low winter temperatures that slow aging to a crawl. But the real difference was in distillation. Eastern rye, you see, relied on the so-called “three chamber” or “charge” still, an American invention of the early 1800s that was entirely extinct and forgotten until last year, when Colorado’s Leopold Bros. had one made and installed for making rye (we’ll see how that turns out in 2019). It’s worth explaining how this device worked, as it’s a prime piece of American ingenuity, and an integral part of the history of our whiskey (from the 1810s until the 1860s it appears to have been the dominant type of still used for all American whiskies). If technical explanations make your eyes cross, I suggest you skip the next two paragraphs.
The three-chamber still usually took the form of a tall, tapered column built out of cypress— or cedar-wood staves and hooped with iron (the Leopold Bros.’ version is made of copper, as some were then). Inside, it’s divided by horizontal copper plates into three compartments. The bottom one has a pipe going into it carrying live steam and an outflow valve for spent wash. There are two or three upside-down “J”-shaped copper pipes going out the top of that chamber into the one above it, and a copper pipe leading out of that middle chamber, through the top one and into a doubler or “thumper keg,” like the one many bourbon distillers still use. That, in turn, leads to the standard condenser.
The way the whole thing works is you fill the top two compartments with your wash and let steam into the bottom one. The steam rises through the J-pipes and bubbles up through the wash in the middle compartment, stripping off the alcohol. The alcohol-rich steam exits through the top, pre-heating the wash in the top compartment on the way, goes through the thumper, which further purifies it, and gets condensed into whiskey. Meanwhile, you use a valve to drop the depleted wash from the middle compartment to the bottom one and the top to the middle, filling up the top with new wash. When the wash in the bottom compartment is stripped of alcohol, you let it out of the still and repeat the dropping-down process. Easy.
The charge still occupies the ground between the pot still and the continuous column still, much like the bolt-action rifle stands between the muzzle-loader and the machinegun. It demands manual operation, but it’s still cheaper and more efficient than the pot still, performing the equivalent of two and a half distillations at once. The product that comes off of it is cleaner and lighter than pot-still whiskey, but richer than most column still whiskey. Eastern rye distillers seemed to like it, anyway: an 1898 Bureau of Revenue study found 13 of 16 big rye distillers using the charge still, nine of them going with wood, while only one of 10 bourbon distillers used it. Judging by the pre-Prohibition chamber-still ryes I have been fortunate enough to taste, it yields a whiskey that’s got plenty of oily pot-still texture but without the wooly sharpness that pot still rye often possesses.
Unfortunately, no description of the processes used at Broad Ford or West Overton has yet been found—there was one journalist who toured the Broad Ford plant in 1880, when it was turning out some 3,450 gallons of rye a day, and “examined the various processes through which the grain passes.” Unfortunately for future historians, his “ability for remembering technical names is [was] below the average,” as he confessed, and he could “give no account of it.” But companies that used copper stills almost always made mention of the fact in their advertising as it was a signifier to the public of old-time authenticity. Since Overholt’s advertising never made that claim, one can assume that it used the wooden three-chamber stills.
Charles Mauck, about whom almost nothing is known, proved to be an inspired manager, not only of the distillery but also of the Overholt brand. Under his tenure, the company adopted “Old Overholt” as the official name for its whiskey and, in 1888, a portrait of Abraham himself as its logo. It also followed the lead of Old Forrester bourbon and moved to selling its whiskey primarily in bottles, rather than barrels. Each bottle carried old Abe’s portrait front and center on the label, where it still resides today. When the Bottled in Bond act passed in 1897, which guaranteed the age and provenance of whiskey that followed its provisions, Overholt took immediate advantage of it, although its whiskey was often bottled at well above the legal minimum of four years. The company even began advertising, regionally at first and then nationally, still a novelty for a distilling company (advertising traditionally had fallen to the retailers). It all paid off: by the turn of the century, Old Overholt had become a national brand.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. On Mauck’s watch, the company weathered another lengthy and disruptive expansion and survived two disastrous fires at Broad Ford, the second of which cost it almost 15,000 barrels of whiskey, or four months’ production at the then-current capacity of 6,450 gallons a day. It also divested itself of the antiquated West Overton property and headed off an attempt by some other family members to make their own Overholt whiskey there. But as the enterprise that Abraham Overholt started in a log cabin among the tree stumps of his father’s homestead in 1810 moved into the 20th century, A. Overholt & Co. cemented its position as, if not the largest producer of Pennsylvania rye (that honor belonged to the nearby Gibson distillery), then certainly the most prestigious one.
Next week, we’ll look at Overholt’s rocky path through the twentieth century, and rye whiskey’s triumphant revival.