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Earlier this month, Fred Minnick made some headlines by proclaiming how terrible this year has been for new American whiskey releases. I have to be honest, I agreed with him on most of his points. In fact, I was inspired back in September to write a “Most Disappointing Whiskies of 2023” article that was born out of similar frustration. I was 6 weeks away from publishing my Top 10 most memorable bottles of 2023 list and I still didn’t feel like I had found enough whiskies that really stood out.
But if there was one bright spot in 2023, it was the absolute beasts that came out in the cask strength rye whiskey world. First we had the summer of Jack Daniel’s Barrel Proof Rye Whiskey where these high-octane behemoths set our hearts – and tongues – on fire. Next there was the 17th release of Parker’s Heritage Collection – a 128.8 proof, 10 year old Rye Whiskey (marking it as the oldest age-stated rye whiskey Heaven Hill has ever put out). And then came Jim Beam with their 10 year old rye whiskey that they’ve bottled under their Old Overholt line.
Old Overholt – The man, the myth, the frown
Old Overholt is one of the oldest, continuously produced whiskies in America. It’s never died out, it’s just changed hands. The most recent transition came in 1987 when National Distillers sold its spirits brands (and warehouses full of barrels) to Jim Beam. This guaranteed the old Pennsylvania brand would continue to be produced in Kentucky for the foreseeable future.
But change is coming to Beam and their portfolio. After years of being left to rot in mediocrity, “The Olds” brands of Beam (Old Grand Dad, Old Overholt and Old Crow) are slowly being invested in (well, maybe not Old Crow). Old Overholt was a bottom shelf rye whiskey for years until a special 11 year old release saw limited distribution in 2020. Enthusiasts took note and while that 11 year bottling wasn’t given glowing reviews, it did bring some much-needed attention to the brand.
What barrels are going into Old Overhold 10 Year Barrel Proof?
It took a few years to see what was next, but according to the TTB, Old Overholt looks like it’s going to go back to its Pennsylvania roots with the introduction of a new mash bill that uses 80% Monongahela Rye grown in the Keystone State. These barrels are only 4 years old at the time of writing, but should (will?) eventually become the recipe for the entire brand. Pennsylvania Rye was known for it’s high rye usage and the lack of corn in the recipe – so it’s refreshing to see it regain its history.
Until then, the 10 year old barrels in Old Overholt use the standard Beam rye whiskey mash bill. We don’t know what the exact ratios are, but it’s almost certainly 51% rye with a large amount of corn. This is the same recipe that Knob Creek uses too.
The barrels chosen for this release were drawn from Warehouse V which is located on the Clermont campus. There were two other Old Overholt labels submitted to the TTB for the same release that showed they planned to use Warehouses E and M as well but I’m not sure what came of those.
Warehouse V is a single story warehouse (much in the same way that Four Roses ones are) that was built in the 1960s. The ricks on the inside are 12 barrels high – double that of Four Roses – and have a unique elevator system that came move around the warehouse to access the barrels no matter which rick they’re on. I imagine this setup looks a little bit like a larger scale model railroad. However, since they were built in the 1960’s, they have reliability problems and see frequent breakdowns. A couple of these elevator warehouses have been torn down over the past years so there is a very real possibility that this one will be too (will that make this more of a collectable then?)
The 2023 release of Old Overholt sees around 170 barrels being batched together – making this a slightly larger release than, say, all of the Old Forester 150th Anniversary Batches put together but smaller than a typical batch of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. Beam decided to leave it at barrel proof which was 121 proof for this Warehouse V release.
So what can we expect from the third-oldest rye whiskey released from Beam over the last 10 years? Let’s find out. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: My first impressions on the nose is that it smells just like a Jim Beam bourbon. I get lots of caramel along with well-developed oak, cinnamon and the typical Beam nuttiness. But after letting it rest a little bit longer, the fruits begin to come out. Cherries, unripe peaches and apricots are a surprise. Whereas most rye whiskies have herbal or botanical notes, I find an earthiness. It’s not the off-putting, young craft kind though. Wrapping up the scents are a bit of honey and nutmeg.
Palate: This tastes like a high-rye bourbon to me. But it also doesn’t necessarily jump out as a Beam product. I find that the heat is held in check despite it’s 121 proof point and that It’s very well balanced. There is a peppery/cinnamon spice that follows throughout, which is somewhat typical of Beam ryes. But the fruit notes I get from the apricots, cherries and orange cream soda are delicious.
Lighter notes like lemongrass, vanilla and the smallest amount of bubblegum are perfectly suited in a rye whiskey like this. The oak is well integrated and feels like it’s on the verge of becoming bitter (but don’t worry, it’s not). Normally I find herbal notes in rye, but the closest thing here a kind of “hay” taste. It’s not bad, just different. An oily mouthfeel accompanies each sip and it’s really hard to put this down.
Finish: For 90% of the whiskies I try out there, the finish either follows the nose or the palate after the sip is complete. This Old Overholt bottle seems to have a finish with a mind of its own… and I like that! Out of nowhere, Cherry Twizzlers appear along with flat ginger ale. The oak evolves into a more refined, seasoned kind. Otherwise, cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper spices keep the spice level on a low-simmer letting you enjoy the full depth of this rye whiskey. It’s very well done!
This is an extremely competent, flavorful rye whiskey that has many layers to explore. It’s only “downside” (if you can call it that) is that it’s slightly hindered by an unavoidable black pepper sensation that follows it throughout. It doesn’t ruin it, but I wrote it off like a kind of like seasoning on a dish of food; it doesn’t drown out the other flavors, it just helps them out a little bit.
The age shows itself well, too. Many times, I don’t find oak that sticks out this much on a rye whiskey until they really start getting up in age. Yes, this rye whiskey has gotten up in age but what I’m trying to say is that I’ve had 10 year old MGP ryes without much oak at all. So if you’re more of a bourbon drinker that appreciates oak, you’ll like this one.
The one big reason that makes me give this rye whiskey the nod is just how good the value is. The MSRP is $99.99 but I expected the secondary market to easily double that price. To my disbelief, the secondary has barely capitalized on this bottle with many sellers simply doing “Cost + Shipping” or bundling it with other bottles. This blows my mind. Is this a sign that people don’t like it? After what I drank, surely that can’t be the case.
So while everyone else seems to be ignoring these, I encourage you to rush out and find one. It’s a perfect example of Kentucky Rye Whiskey that is better at being a rye whiskey than this year’s Parker’s Heritage was (even though the Parker’s is better overall). That’s unbelievable considering the scarcity of the Parker’s and the widespread availability of the Overholt.
So if you are in agreeance that this year has been somewhat lackluster on the bourbon front, then join me in making 2023 the “Year of Rye Whiskey” by getting a bottle of Old Overholt 10 Year. It might be one of the most unique and satisfying rye whiskies pound-for-pound out there today.
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