Old Overholt/New Overholt
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
A few months ago, Beam/Suntory announced they were making some changes to their beloved Old Overholt Rye Whiskey. Old Overholt is the oldest continuously operating whiskey distillery in the US and this isn't the first time they've tinkered with the formula. At the height of the rye whiskey cocktail craze in 2013, the company reduced Old Overholt's age statement from 4 years to 3 years, presumably to keep up with demand.
This time around, the age statement remains the same, but plenty else has changed.
Start by examining the bottle. You can spot a few cosmetic differences – the label got a makeover and the black cap has been replaced by a red cap to match the Bonded expression.
The other thing you'll notice is the proof has increased, moving from the familiar 80-proof to a slightly punchier 86-proof. Theoretically, this change appears to be a positive one. It's not such a huge jump – it shouldn't alienate the neat sippers accustomed to this lighter rye, and any increase in proof provides a stronger base in cocktails.
The last and final change is the biggest: the bottle now proudly proclaims that Old Overholt is a “Non-chill Filtered” whiskey.
Chill filtering whiskey
Chill filtering is a process where spirits under 92 proof (46% alcohol by volume, or ABV) are chilled to below-freezing temperatures, typically between 26 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This process removes particulate matter found in the spirit from production and aging, such as charred barrel flakes and other barrel sediments, fatty acids, proteins, and esters. These bits can create a cloudy appearance in chilled spirits, but otherwise do not effect the flavor.
Or do they? Removing the fatty acids, proteins, and esters inevitably results in a loss of texture and flavor (which is comprised of both taste and smell). How much flavor gets lost is up for debate, as is whether the loss of these components is to the detriment of the spirit. Or is it, in fact, a benefit?
Once I discovered the changes in store for this beloved rye, I made sure to squirrel away the last few ounces of my remaining bottle to compare against the new reformulation. So let's taste!
Tasting old v. new Overholt
They appear pretty much identical which makes sense since the time spent in-barrel hasn't changed.
On the nose
Old: Peanuts, oak, cherry, marzipan, green apple, vanilla, nutty, spicy.
New: Immediately more heat on the nose, but a milder aromatic profile with less movement overall. Rye, faint tropical fruit, mineralic. More stone fruit than the 80 proof, but less red fruit and less nuttiness.
On the palate
Old: Roasted peanut, dried red fruit. Leathery, mineralic finish. Nutty and a little salinic.
New: Oilier texture, more salinic and mineralic, slightly bitter, more bite. Herbaceous and full of spicy rye with some faint stone fruit. The peanut is there, but dialed back. Tannic wood notes with some tropical fruit funk on the finish.
With the last couple of ounces of the 80-proof older expression, I chose to make a cocktail. An Old Fashioned style cocktail (Old Fashioned or Sazerac) seemed obvious, but this family of drinks tends to be more about “seasoning” the spirit with bitters and scant portions of sweeteners or liqueurs rather than testing its ability to play well with other ingredients. For this reason, I chose a Manhattan as it has a universally familiar profile and only 3 ingredients.
When making these Manhattans, I opted for Cinzano Rosso vermouth for its versatility. As an Italian sweet red vermouth, it represents the category well. It's full-bodied, confectionary, slightly herbal, and succinctly bitter. Cinzano hits all three points on what I refer to as the “Vermouth Triangle” (confectionary, herbaceous, and fruity) and has the telltale “cola” quality found in most Italian sweet reds (usually from a cinnamon/vanilla combination).
2 oz rye whiskey
1 oz sweet red vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Old: Nut city, USA! Perfectly balanced. Fruity nose and palate, with peanut, black cherry, and pleasant rye spice through and through. Harmonious from start to finish.
New: Far more herbaceous and less nutty with a drier, astringent finish. Needs a heavier vermouth that either commits to the confectionary (Cocchi di Torino, Carpano Antica) or leans into the herbal (Bordiga Rosso, Cinzano 1757, Contratto Rosso, M&R Rubino).
At this point, I unfortunately ran out of the 80 proof, but with plenty of the new 86 left, I can officially confirm it makes a tasty Sazerac.
The new 86-proof is a spicier, drier, more herbaceous spirit. It's arguably a truer expression of Old Overholt and I love it. You're tasting less of the barrel and more of the spirit.
The dialed-back barrel notes of the new bottling make for a spicier, more herbaceous rye whiskey which further distances itself from other similarly priced ryes on the market (Rittenhouse, Redemption, Jim Beam). Unfortunately, much of the darker red fruit notes are also absent, replaced by some funkier, but more subtle, tropical notes and almost acetone esters.
This won't make for a 1:1 swap in your standby cocktails. Prepare to make minor adjustments not only for the increase in proof and texture but for a different core set of flavors.
Considering the old 80-proof bottling, it seems chill filtering stripped enough of character from the whiskey that many of the dominant flavors on the nose and palate ended up coming from the barrel – the telltale peanut is the giveaway. Nuttiness, vanilla, caramel, coconut: these are all common flavors imparted from barrel aging. This is characteristic of most American whiskey, and a gripe levied against the category as a whole: too much of the flavor comes from the barrel. Having just read Thad Vogler's “By The Smoke and The Smell” I know this complaint well, but don't agree with it being a universally Bad Thing.
I kind of wish both could co-exist if for no other reason than nostalgia and familiarity, so I'll personally be on the lookout for the last dusty bottles of the 80 proof for as long as I can.
Update: After picking up and going through another bottle of the new unfiltered Old Overholt, I'm officially all-in. I'm really happy with the way it's been holding up in cocktails. If there's one thing 2020 has taught me, it's not to worry about the way things were.