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Discover how Old Overholt, America’s oldest brand of whiskey, was developed at West Overton.
Whiskey distilling has been a tradition at West Overton since 1803. Henry Overholt, who purchased the original 263 acres of land, installed a two-still distillery with a capacity of 150 gallons. Whiskey was a popular spirit throughout the 19th century and uniquely important to western Pennsylvania.
Henry was distilling whiskey not long after the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s. Following the Revolutionary War, the young federal government enacted a tax on distilled spirits to cover debts incurred during the war. Farmers on the Pennsylvania frontier, particularly in and around Washington County, protested this tax because they often turned their surplus grains into whiskey. President George Washington led troops to put down the violent rebellion in 1794, and the tax was later repealed by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. These events show that farmers in Pennsylvania went to great lengths to have autonomy over their farms, and that whiskey was an important component of their operation.
Henry Overholt maintained the small-scale distilling operation secondary to the family farm. After his death in 1813, his youngest sons, Abraham and Christian, took over the farm and distillery. In 1818, Abraham purchased his brother’s shares and led the business for the next forty years. Abraham’s wife, Maria Stauffer, had strong family connections to Mennonite church leadership that allowed Abraham to pursue the whiskey business without the church’s condemnation. The family’s Mennonite values emphasized resourcefulness and stewardship of the land, demonstrated by the distillery’s centralized operations at West Overton. Much of what was needed to produce and sell whiskey was produced on site; they grew rye in the fields, processed grain in the gristmill, crafted wooden barrels, and disposed of waste “mash” from the distilling process by feeding it to hogs.
The Overholts produced Monongahela rye, a type of whiskey named for the local Monongahela River. Monongahela rye can be traced back to German, Dutch and Swiss colonists settling in Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century, many of whom were Mennonite. Unlike other whiskeys, the recipe involved using rye as the grain rather than corn, creating a deep, rich and full-bodied flavor profile. Achieving this taste involved many processes that the Overholts maintained on site, including harvesting and milling grain, mashing grain to convert starch into sugar, fermenting the mash into alcohol, collecting a portion of the distilled mash, and storing the whiskey in oak barrels.
Abraham increased the distillery’s productivity and expanded its facilities, transforming West Overton into a rural industrial village centered around whiskey production.. A stone distillery replaced a log distillery by 1832, a steam-powered gristmill was built to process grains, a separate malt house was added to softening grains before fermentation, and an on-site cooperage produced 2,750 barrels for the distillery alone in 1850. This culminated in 1854 when Abraham and his son, Henry Stauffer Overholt, partnered to form the A. & H. S. Overholt Company. They added a larger, off-site distillery in Broadford, Pennsylvania, which produced 100 bushels of Old Overholt whiskey per day. A major expansion at West Overton occurred In 1859, when the company replaced the smaller, separate distillery and gristmill with a 5.5 story brick building to house both the distillery and gristmill.
While the whiskey business became more professional and sophisticated, distilling remained responsive to the seasons, affecting productivity and worker income. This contrasted the heavy industries developing in the 19th century that ran at a continuous pace. For workers at West Overton, this meant they started with low pay in March and April, rose to a peak in May and June, slid a bit in July, peaked again in September, and dropped off in October.
Whiskey distilling remained a central part of West Overton, even in the late 19th century when the coal and coke operations on site became more profitable. In 1906, the distillery at West Overton was revived and operated by a new West Overton Distilling Company not owned by the Overholts. From 1906-1914, the new West Overton Distilling Company constructed seven-story warehouses with a combined capacity of 30,000 barrels of whiskey next to the 1859 distillery. Prohibition, however, put the whiskey distillery out of business. In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the production, importation, transportation, and sale of “intoxicating beverages.” Henry Clay Frick and partner Andrew Mellon, having sole ownership of Overholt Company that acquired the new West Overton Distilling Company, liquidated its physical assets and began demolishing some related structures, including the warehouses. The enforcement and penalties of the 18th Amendment were carried out by the National Prohibition Act, or Volstead Act, passed on January 17, 1920.
In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the production, importation, transportation, and sale of “intoxicating beverages.” Henry Clay Frick and partner Andrew Mellon, having sole ownership of Overholt Company, liquidated its physical assets and began demolishing some related structures, including the warehouses. The enforcement and penalties of the 18th Amendment were carried out by the National Prohibition Act, or Volstead Act, passed on January 17, 1920.
In 1933, amid the struggles of the Great Depression, the federal government repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and instituted its first farm subsidy, which initially included corn but not rye. Distillers favored producing bourbon, made from corn that was less expensive and easier to process. In turn, Monongahela rye never reached its pre-Prohibition popularity. In 1927, the Overholt Company was acquired by National Distillers. National Distillers & Chemical Corp’s distilling division was in turn acquired by American Brands and its subsidiary James B. Beam Distilling Co in 1987. Today, Beam Suntory produces Old Overholt in Kentucky.
In 2020, West Overton Distilling began producing its own brand of Monongahela rye whiskey at the Educational Distillery, reviving a tradition that dates back to the early 19th century.