In Praise of Well Liquor #2 Old Overholt Rye

Having rather put the boot into some of the darker aspects of the rye whiskey business, it’s time to show some love to the stuff. Because, when done right, it might just be my favourite thing in the world. That’s over and above even rum, upon which I was practically weaned.

The problem with rye is that it’s scarcity makes it comparatively expensive. Even the excellent entry level Jim Beam Rye costs between £20–30, depending on where you buy it. (Amazon sells it for £20, then it’s upwards from there.) Rittenhouse, also delicious, shows a larger price spread of £33-45, the higher levels being more than double what you’d pay for it in the States.

And that’s before we even start to consider Sazerac, the rye at the heart of New Orleans’s most famous cocktail, at an eye-watering £50 a bottle.

The key question, then, is: is it worth it?

Well…

Yes… Emphatically so.

Especially when you pony up for the Sazerac. With its hints of brown sugar lurking within the caramels imparted by its time in oak barrels, not to mention its cinnamon, allspice notes and slight whiff of a ripe grain field after a fresh fall of rain about it, it is superior stuff — a whiskey of real distinction.

Sazerac’s even a little pricey in the States. They simply don’t make very much of it. But the great survivor, Old Overholt, is made in larger volume.

Old Overholt is a fascinating product. Now produced by Jim Beam, it remains one of the few consistently produced American whiskeys, Prohibition notwithstanding.

It is one of those curious quirks of history. When the last of the Overholts, Henry Clay Frick (grandson of the founder, Abe) died in 1919, just before the 18th Amendment came into effect in 1920, he left the business to Andrew Mellon, who would become the Treasury Secretary in Warren Harding’s prohibition over-seeing administration. At which point the business was looked after by the Union Trust Co., who received something in the region of 2 million gallons of rye.

Whether or not such government connections helped Old Overholt remain distillers of “medicinal” whiskey, available on prescription under prohibition’s repeal in 1933, remains to be seen… What’s more interesting, historically, is that is the only rye whiskey still made to a traditional Monongahela recipe. It is the oldest consistent whiskey style in America.

In the States, it is also cheap. You should be paying about $15. Though not here, where you’re looking at about £30 for a litre. Of course.

But it is still worth it, and not just for the fact that you’re tasting an historical recipe and the favourite tipple of one Doc Holiday. It’s that it’s delicious. It’s clean and bright on the palate, without the sweetness that typifies its cousin, bourbon, and with pleasing notes of cloves and white pepper.

If you’re new to rye, Rittenhouse is perhaps the place to start. It’s friendlier than Old Overholt, which takes rye’s austerity of flavour very seriously. But, as with many of the taciturn persuasion, once it warms up to you, you’ll have found a stalwart friend.

If only there were more of it lurking in British bars.

American Whiskey’s Dirty Little Secret

It’s not just the craft gin market that’s exploded over the last few years, but the craft spirit market in general. In terms of brown liquor, that means American whiskey, of which in Britain alone, we drink a million litres a month. (And not all of that’s quaffed by me…)

You can develop and bring a white spirit like gin or vodka to market in a little over six months. But, if you want to tap into the American whiskey boom — and why wouldn’t you, it’s one of the fastest growing bits of action on the market — you haven’t just the distilling and marketing hurdles to clear, you have to age the damned stuff too. Which means you’re looking at about three years before you see a return on your investment.

A lot of people have been prepared to make that commitment. In 2000, there were just 24 craft distillers in the US. Today, that figure’s pushing 500. Even Rhode Island has two of them. It’s six and a half times smaller than Wales, and the Welsh only have three.

(I know, I know—it’s facts like these that you keep coming back for…)

But a lot of other people aren’t. Which brings us to bourbon’s and, more especially, rye’s dirty little secret: the Third Party Distiller.

This is how it works: we’re going to create a rye or bourbon brand. Let’s call it Colonel Smellysox’s Old Number Seven. And we want to do it as cheaply as possible. So we’re not going to invest in a still, nor are we going to pay good money to employ a master distiller. We’re going to buy a bunch of raw spirit, but it in barrels and leave it in a temperature controlled warehouse until we can water it, bottle it and sling it out to the public. We’ll probably use some of the money we’ve saved to ensure that Colonel Smellysox’s Old Number Seven has a bottle and label designed to give it shelf presence. Then we sit back, and…

Cha-ching.

The biggest third party distiller is an outfit called MGP, based in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Using a massive distillery site previously owned by Seagram, they pump out barrels and barrels of spirit for a host of clients who don’t much like to advertise the fact. But the biggest clue to who’s who is a whiskey that says it’s older than the brand selling it.

Egregious offenders have included Whistle Pig Rye — “hand-bottled in Vermont”, factory distilled in Canada, retailing at almost £75 a bottle — Bulleit Rye, High West, George Dickle Rye, Angel’s Envy (which also now employs a master distiller, so they could be weaning themselves off the teet) and Redemption, among others.

Templeton Rye actually over-reached and were busted for misleading marketing.

Now, obviously, there’s nothing morally wrong with this. With a little of the old Marketing Linguist Two-Step, none of them are actively lying to the drinking public. But I’d argue that they are passively lying to us. At the very least, they are abdicating half the job of whiskey making. They have no decision to make about their water source. They have no control of their mash-bill. And these are two vital components in the whiskey’s final flavour.

In this, they remind me of people who come up to you and say something along the lines of: “You’re a writer? I’ve got a great idea for a movie. If I tell you the idea, then you can write it and we’ll split the money.” To which I would reply either, “The idea’s the easy bit, you numpty,” or, “Fuck off.”

Buying from third party distillers is cynical and disingenuous. And it will continue for as long as there is no reason for brands to tell us where the spirit in the bottle actually comes from.

In the mean time, if you’re looking for something that has been loved from beginning to end of its creation, make sure the bottle tells you where it was distilled.