In the pantheon of whiskies named after people—Johnnie Walker, Elijah Craig, Jack Daniel’s—there’s one that’s endured longer than any, and carries a verifiably authentic backstory to boot. Old Overholt, America’s most storied and longest-running rye, bears the name and image of Abraham Overholt, an irascible Pennsylvanian who founded a whiskey empire that’s lasted over two centuries.
Many people considered Abe a tough nut to crack during his lifetime, and now the tables have turned: He’s been immortalized in nutcracker form.
This holiday season, Old Overholt has partnered with German nutcracker artisans Steinbach to create a special figurine of its founding patriarch. The wooden Abe, with his oversized eyebrows and trademark scowl, is flanked by a sack of rye grain and a barrel. He sports a gold pocket watch—no doubt keeping track of how quickly his employees are working—and carries a bottle of classic Old Overholt. The hardness of Abe’s demeanor is matched only by the strength of his jaws, which can crack a walnut shell with ease.
This presentation of the Overholt scion isn’t just for fun: It’s rooted in the life of the man and history of the brand. Abraham began making whiskey at his family’s Western Pennsylvania farm distillery in the first decade of the 19th century. Once referred to as an “unruly Mennonite,” he had a reputation for frugality—which is saying something, considering the hardscrabble demands of life on the frontier at that time.
Abraham had the personality traits for success, however: In his lifetime, he took the Overholt rye distillery from being little more than a farm operation to one of the country’s largest whiskey producers. At the time of his death in 1870, A. Overholt & Co. had two distilleries in Western Pennsylvania making well-regarded Monongahela rye. Less than 20 years later, that whiskey had fully adopted Old Overholt as its brand and was being bottled with Abraham’s scowling face on the label. The image was based on a real-life portrait of Abraham and still graces every bottle of Old Overholt today.
Though Prohibition dealt a fatal blow to many whiskey makers, Old Overholt survived. You may remember it as a plot point in the third season of “Boardwalk Empire,” when then-distillery owner Andrew Mellon conspires with Nucky Thompson to keep the facility up and running illegally. That part is all fiction, but Mellon—real-life Secretary of the Treasury—did grant himself a license to sell medicinal whiskey from Old Overholt’s stocks, which kept the brand alive until Repeal.
These days Old Overholt is made in Kentucky, not Pennsylvania, though its original location still stands. Recently that site—now a museum and living history experience called West Overton—began making whiskey once again on a micro-scale, offering visitors a chance to see what it was like two centuries ago, when Abraham himself worked the stills.
The Old Overholt brand has been busy too, releasing new offerings like Bottled-in-Bond and 114 Proof, an amped up version of the classic rye that will please fans of high-proof whiskey. A highly limited Old Overholt 11-year-old came out last year—the oldest rye the brand has ever released.
Any of these bottles would make a perfect gift in tandem with this limited-edition nutcracker. The first run of stiff-legged little Abes, priced at $399, sold out within an hour of release, but a second, more limited batch, which swaps Old Overholt Bottled-in-Bond for a tiny bottle of classic rye, is set to drop on December 16 at steinbach-shop.com if you’re looking to score. The whiskey drinker who already has a cabinet full of rocks glasses and more decanters than they could possibly fill is sure to go nuts over such a unique piece of whiskey gear.
And even if they don’t get one of these iron-jawed Abes, a good bottle of Old Overholt should be just as welcome.
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