The explosion in popularity experienced by rye whiskey has become old hat to anyone following the whiskey and cocktail industry by this point, so it’s a little bit surprising that certain venerable old brands haven’t seen some sort of refreshment or expansion a little sooner. One of those old brands is Old Overholt, that classic bottom shelf rye whiskey currently produced by Beam. In its classic 80 proof format, you can routinely score a 750 ml bottle of Old Overholt for around $15, and in this price range it’s not like you can ask for much better. It’s a reliable standby and well selection at bars.
Now, though, Beam has finally gotten around to creating a new twist on the Old Overholt name—a bottled in bond, 4-year, 100-proof expression that is the first of its kind for the brand in more than 50 years. The target demo seems pretty clear—at a still reasonable MSRP of $25, this product is meant to go head-to-head against the ubiquitous and beloved Rittenhouse Rye for the title of “best value for classic whiskey cocktails.” We’ll be judging it as such.
Of course, that’s not to say you don’t have other cheap rye options from Beam that are even more affordable, because you do. The reformulated 90-proof Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Rye (no age statement) can regularly be found for $20, and as already mentioned, the 3-year-old, 80-proof Old Overholt is similar, if not even cheaper. Both contain what is essentially the same recipe as the new Old Overholt Bonded, differing only in in age and strength. It essentially boils down to the question of whether you think a few extra bucks is worth a bit of additional age and strength … or whether you’d be better off with Rittenhouse for the same price. So let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, Old Overholt Bonded seems a touch hot and fairly classical, with dusty rye grain and lumber-like woodiness. I get a whole lot of citrus here, chased by apples and a hint of herbaceousness.
On the palate, this rye is sweeter than expected, betraying its relatively high corn content—all of the Beam ryes based on this recipe reportedly contain just over 50% rye—with a lot of brown sugar notes and toasted rye bread. This still tastes fairly young to me despite the additional year of aging, as the booze is pretty assertive. Apple/pear fruitiness makes for an interesting combo with bready and leathery notes, although there’s a papery quality that I don’t love. At the very least, I would say that there’s no shortage of assertiveness here—if you like the profile of Old Overholt 80 and were hoping for a stronger and more punchy expression of that, then this could be just what you’re looking for.
However—I also happened to have a bottle of Rittenhouse Bonded Rye on hand, so I tasted them side by side. In comparison, I found the Rittenhouse to actually be less expressive than the Old Overholt on the nose, but ultimately more balanced. Here, you get more impressions of red fruit and baking spices, with a profile of red berries, orange citrus, caramel and pepper. Like Old Overholt, it’s also a bit hot on the palate.
Ultimately, if I was reaching for a 100 proof bonded rye in the $25 range for a cocktail or straight sipping, I’d have to give the edge to Rittenhouse, which has been the king in this category for a while. It has an easy sense of cohesion to its profile that the Old Overholt can’t quite match.
With that said, I think there’s plenty of room in the market for the lower proof expressions of these Beam ryes—when you look at the store shelf and see one for $15 and one for $25, there’s savings to be had.
Old Overholt Bonded is worth a try to see whether you find its profile to be superior, but I have a feeling that it will have its work cut out for it while trying to take on other ryes in this price point. Still, at $25 you won’t regret taking a chance on it next time you’re at the package store.
Distillery: Jim Beam
Style: American straight rye whiskey
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $24.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.