RYE WHISKEY is all the rage these days. It seems that every week a new brand appears on the market. Some are quite good: Michters, Bulleit and Templeton among them. Long before any of those brands existed, however, there was Old Overholt — the first and most famous of the commercially produced Monongahela Rye whiskies of western Pennsylvania.
The West Overton Distillery in Pennsylvania is now a museum and a stop on the American Whiskey Trail.
Photo by Callan Burkhart
Much has been written on the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794), the first armed conflict of the fledgling United States after the Revolutionary War, during which armed settlers in Western Pennsylvania rose up to protest a tax on their self-made whiskey. Many Scots-Irish settlers had just shed blood fighting the British over taxation, both in the British Isles and in America, only to be taxed by the newly formed U.S. government.
The rebellion itself was brief (fading completely when a federal militia of 15,000 arrived), but history books often say this was the beginning of the end of Pennsylvania whiskey. Some say that many distillers fled down the Monongahela River, until it became the Ohio River, then followed that to Louisville, Ky., where they eventually made Bourbon whiskey.
This is interesting but probably untrue for at least two reasons:
• Whiskey was already being made by settlers in Kentucky.
• The century after the Whiskey Rebellion was the best in Pennsylvania whiskey history.
The total cost of the rebellion to the U.S. is thought to have been about $700,000. Exactly 110 years later, one Pennsylvania distiller alone paid more than that amount in federal taxes. The fact is from 1810 until 1919 the most popular whiskey in the U.S. was Pennsylvania Rye. Some studies suggest that 19th-century Americans drank as much as six times more rye whiskey per capita than they do today. This started before the corn whiskies of Kentucky even had a name.
Legally, rye whiskey is subject to the same stipulations as Bourbon: distilled to no more than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol by volume); aged in charred, new oak barrels (at not more than 125 proof); and, if aged for at least two years, may be designated as “straight.” The only real difference between the two in terms of production is the source material. Bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, and rye must be at least 51 percent rye. Technically speaking, the difference can be as little as 2 percent, but the percentages are usually much higher.
In 1810, Abraham Overholt (whose picture appears the Old Overholt bottle) decided to take the family’s private distilling practices public. At the family’s homestead in West Overton, Pa., he began to produce Old Farm Pure Rye whiskey. He began producing about eight gallons a day, but soon was producing nearly 200. Some of the family then began to make other whiskey in nearby Broad Ford, under a variety of names, including Old Monongahela and A. Overholt. In 1860, the Old Farm distillery was demolished and a six-story building was built, which still stands today. It now houses the West Overton Museum and is a stop on the American Whiskey Trail.
Abraham Overholt died in 1870, and his family later began producing Old Overholt at the Broad Ford distillery. Prohibition later did what Washington’s army couldn’t: It virtually destroyed Pennsylvania Rye. The Overton Distillery closed in 1920, but the Broad Ford plant was allowed to produce “medicinal spirits” during the ban. Of the dozens of Pennsylvania distilleries that existed before Prohibition only Old Overholt survived it, albeit no longer owned by the Overholt family.
This new Old Overholt migrated first to Cincinnati then in 1987 moved to Kentucky where it is now owned by Jim Beam Inc., putting an anticlimactic end to Pennsylvania Rye whiskey.
On a recent trip to West Overton I learned these things:
• Henry Clay Frick, one of the greats of the Industrial Age, was born in West Overton and was the last of the Overholt family to actually own Old Overholt whiskey.
• The West Overton Museum is undergoing a major renovation and will reopen for tours in August.
• The three sites on the American Whiskey Trail in Pennsylvania — West Overton, the Woodville Plantation and the Oliver Miller Homestead — have no whiskey available.
• Sadly, in spite of the burgeoning popularity of rye whiskey, its birthplace Pennsylvania today produces no rye whiskey at all.