Rye whiskey from western Pennsylvania is the stuff of whiskey legend. The most famous of these bottles are from Old Overholt when it was being made at the Broad Ford plant. Before national prohibition (1920), these ryes were “the” American whiskey.
A Brief History of Rye in America
In the 1700s, farmers in the northern Colonies – who had grown barley in their homeland – found that rye grain grew much better in this new, colder climate. Since they were familiar with turning barley into Irish and scotch whiskies, this new abundance of rye meant: rye whiskey!
In 1791, the very first US domestic product tax was introduced, and it was on whiskey and other liquors. Farmers viewed this as a direct violation of their liberties. They argued that to prevent spoilage of excess rye – which could rot if not quickly gotten to market – it was a practical necessity to convert it to whiskey, which can’t spoil. Farming regions rebelled fiercely and violently. President George Washington sent a militia to quell this “Whiskey Rebellion.” The militia was successful and a peace was struck.
Most importantly, that fight about whiskey was the first real test of the new United States of America, and the powers granted to it by its Constitution. The conflict proved that the federal government could enforce its own laws and resist violence – that the new nation could work.
In 1810, Abraham Overholt and his brother started what would eventually become the Old Overholt brand. Abraham was a farmer, and saved enough money to start a grist mill to ground rye into flour. And what's something else you can do with ground-up rye? Make rye whiskey! Which they did at the West Overton, PA location. (A nice museum is there today). Abraham originally sold his whiskey under the brand name “Old Farm Pure Rye.”
A new distillery at Broad Ford expanded operations in the 1850s. Abraham’s sons/grandsons/cousins later came on board to help run things, and after Abraham’s death in 1870 the whiskey made at Broad Ford was re-branded as Old Overholt in his honor.
The distillery in Broad Ford went through many variations through the years, but things really started to ramp up when sleepy Broad Ford got a dose of Abraham’s grandson, Henry Clay Frick. (This is the same Frick who was one of the most famous businessmen of the robber baron era.)
The story gets more complex as Andrew Mellon got involved and also owned the distillery for a time. Supposedly he “quietly” owned it when he was also Secretary of the Treasury, tasked with enforcing Prohibition. Talk about conflict of interest! There’s little doubt that Mellon had his own personal stash of Old Overholt whiskey during Prohibition. And afterwards, he did his own private bottlings – these are the bottles that show up today with a plain label stating “Overholt Rye Whiskey” and a distillation year. Eventually, the distillery passed to National Distillers, who closed it in 1960.
Old Overholt Bottles and Editions
Old Farm Pure Rye: Originally distilled at West Overton in Scottdale, PA. 100 proof in most known cases. National Distillers owned the brand towards the end and also produced some bottles using their other distilleries, such as the Large Distillery.
Monongahela Pure Rye Whiskey (1850s-1870s): After opening Broad Ford, this new brand was created. Later renamed Old Overholt.
Old Overholt before Prohibition (1870s-1920): Early bottles of Old Overholt came in many sizes, most commonly ½ pint, pint, and quart. It is believed that these were mostly all sold as 100 proof.
During Prohibition (1920-1933): Though national prohibition was in effect, medicinal whiskey was still available with a doctor's prescription. Sold only in pint bottles, these were all 100 Proof with a green tax stamp over the top.
After Prohibition (1934-1960): Now owned by National Distillers, Broad Ford was one of the few rye whiskey distilleries that was able to survive Prohibition. During this time, the flagship bottle was Old Overholt Bottled in Bond 6 year rye. It was produced at Broad Ford up until 1950. In 1942, they produced what might have been the very first barrel-proof whiskey with what is referred to the “script label.” As you might guess, this label had old-timey script with the proof handwritten. It was labeled as “Six and one-half years old.” Many proofs were bottled, including 113 proof, 121 proof, 122 proof, 123 proof, and 127 proof.
Mellon private bottlings: After Prohibition, Richard King Mellon bottled some old vintages for his private use. These simple labels say only “Overholt Rye Whiskey” with a year printed in red. Vintages include 1904, 1905, 1906, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911, and 1912.
The move to Kentucky: (1960-1986): Still owned by National Distillers, Overholt rye was now mostly made in Kentucky. The lower 86 and 80 proof version were becoming more popular and the BIB (Bottled in Bond) more rare. The BIB have more value today.
The Beam Years (1987- Current): The Beam versions of Old Overholt are only 80 proof and the whiskey isn’t near what it used to be. Not much collectable value here.
Other Monongahela Rye Whiskeys
Many other distilleries in the area made delicious whiskey, but very few of those made it through Prohibition, and the few that did unfortunately closed soon after. There were many dozens, if not hundreds, and some of the more famous included:
Large Distillery: Founded 1796, located in Large, PA. Produced Large Monongahela Pure Rye. At its end, also owned by National Distillers and also produced some whiskey for Old Overholt.
Sam Dillinger Distillery: Founded 1837, located in Ruffsdale, PA. Produced Dillinger Pennsylvania Straight Rye Whiskey. Also known as Ruffsdale Distillery.
Schenley Distillery: Founded 1892, located in Schenley, PA. Produced Old Schenley Rye.
Joseph S. Finch Distillery: Founded 1856, located in Schenley, PA. Produced Golden Wedding Pure Rye Whiskey.
Sam Thompson Distillery: Founded in 1844, located in West Brownsville, PA. Produced Sam Thompson Pure Rye. Later this brand was produced by Michters in Schaefferstown, Pa.
Gibsonton Distillery: Founded in 1836, located in Gibsonton, PA. Produced Gibson Old Rye. Also known as Moore and Sinnott.
Guckenheimer Distillery: Founded early 1800s, located in Freeport, Pa. Brand started in 1857. Produced Guckenheimer Pure Rye Whiskey.
Maryland Rye Whiskeys: A quick word here about a slightly different rye from the eastern part of Pa. and Maryland known as “Maryland ryes.” These were rye whiskeys made in a similar style but typically a touch sweeter and sometimes with additives. The most famous of these were Pikesville rye, Rittenhouse rye, and Mount Vernon rye.
Value of Old Overholt and Monongahela Ryes
The value of Old Overholt bottles and the value of Old Monongahela rye whiskeys depends on many factors, and there is no quick and easy answer. But in general, for a bottle of Old Overholt dating from the mid 1980s or earlier, collectors will look to pay in the low hundreds (less for the more recent bottles). For pre-Prohibition specimens in excellent condition, the price can reach over $1,000. Old Overholt from the Broad Ford distillery is what many collectors get most enthusiastic about. Most valuable would arguably be Old Farm Rye distilled at West Overton. Early bottles of Dillinger rye also tend to be very collectible (and no, they have nothing to do with the gangster!).
When valuing a bottle, collectors consider:
Is the seal intact? If not, there is no value.
Is the fill level high? Mid-shoulder is average condition. Below shoulder starts seriously affecting value.
When was it bottled? The earlier, the more valuable.
Is the condition good? Dirty, faded bottles in poor condition can indicate poor storage, which can affect the quality of what's inside. Collectors have to deside what value is worth "gambling" on seriously dirty/damaged bottles.
What is the age stated on the bottle? In general the higher the age, the more it's worth.
Is it a domestic bottling, or export? Exports tend to have less value.