Hancock Park family residence pre-Prohibition cellar

Collecting guide: Rare and pre-Prohibition bourbon

Christie’s specialists Scott Torrence and Noah May offer an expert guide to Kentucky’s finest, which has been gaining increasing attention at auction over recent years

Christie’s Wine & Spirits Department is primarily known for auctions of finest and rarest wines, but in recent years our sales have evolved to offer a much broader selection of rare spirits.

There was a time not so long ago when it was only the finest single malt Scotch whiskies that attracted interest from collectors at the highest level, but those days are now behind us — American whiskey is now a great focus for collectors across the world.

On December 7 Christie’s in New York will be offering the most comprehensive and important collection of pre-prohibition Bourbon ever to appear at auction.

How bourbon is made

Kentucky is the physical and spiritual home of bourbon. It produces almost all of the rarest bottles. Today, the rules that govern the production of the spirit are clearly defined.

‘Straight bourbon’ must be a whiskey that’s distilled no higher than 160 proof (80 per cent abv) and crafted from a fermented mash that is at least 51 per cent corn, put in barrel at not higher than 125 proof and aged in new charred oak for two years or longer.

When these guidelines have been adhered to, the distilleries are free to innovate and experiment a great deal in order to achieve their desired style of spirit. Stylistically, bourbon is typically known for a rich sweetness and enveloping mouthfeel, which it derives from the corn that is central to its production.

Green River Straight Whiskey 1910. 5 Quarts. Estimate $2,500-3,500. Offered in Finest Wines & Spirits on 7 December at Christie’s in New York 

Green River Straight Whiskey 1910. 5 Quarts. Estimate $2,500-3,500. Offered in Finest Wines & Spirits on 7 December at Christie’s in New York 

How bourbon compares to single malt Scotch

Rare bourbon has gained increasing attention at auction over the past five years. Established and new collectors have both come to appreciate the charms of American whiskey — a category that, thanks in part to the spirit’s longevity, offers compelling experiences to the whiskey connoisseur. 

It is very rare to find bottles of single malt Scotch that were distilled in the early years of the 20th century. When it comes to bourbon, however, there are many treasures to be found from this golden era, when production and consumption levels were particularly high.

Pre-Prohibition bourbon

Pre-Prohibition is arguably the area of the market that carries the highest level of interest for collectors. The importance of these pre-1920 bottles lies in the insight they offer into a unique time in American history and culture.

In our New York December 7 auction we will be offering what amounts to the largest collection of pre-prohibition whiskey ever to appear at auction, a truly once in a lifetime chance for collectors of American spirits to drink their piece of American history. Featuring Old Crow 1912 and deep quantities of Hermitage 1914 from W. A. Gaines amongst others, this is truly a unique chance to acquire rarities with perfect provenance and documented history.

Old Crow Bourbon 1912. 12 Quarts. Estimate $8,500-10,000. Offered in Finest Wines & Spirits on 7 December at Christie’s in New York

Old Crow Bourbon 1912. 12 Quarts. Estimate $8,500-10,000. Offered in Finest Wines & Spirits on 7 December at Christie’s in New York

Old Crow Bourbon whiskey

In the 1820s, Doctor James Crow used his medical know-how to develop means to systematically and consistently improve the distillation schedules and output quality for distillers, thereby increasing reliability and profitability. 

He never owned a distillery however — the enormous Old Crow distillery, which now sits on Glenn’s Creek, was built in 1872, some 16 years after Dr Crow’s death. Old Crow Distillery, which enjoyed an excellent reputation, remained in continuous production until Prohibition. It then lay dormant until after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the 21st Amendment repealing prohibition in 1933. 

The original Old Crow plant eventually became what is today Woodford Reserve Distillery. W. A. Gaines, which sold Old Crow, would go on to build its newest distillery a short distance down the same road, next to the one that would later become Old Taylor. All three shared the same water source.


Hermitage Whiskey 9 Years Old 1914. 24 Pints. Estimate $7,000-9,500. Offered in Finest Wines & Spirits on 7 December at Christie’s in New York
Hermitage Whiskey 9 Years Old 1914. 24 Pints. Estimate $7,000-9,500. Offered in Finest Wines & Spirits on 7 December at Christie’s in New York

W.A. Gaines & Co. Distillers

Hiram Berry was born in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, on 16 January, 1821. After moving to Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1848 he later operated a business that supplied the Federal Government with stock and cotton during the Civil War. In his post-war life Berry entered the wholesale liquor and distilling business with W.A. Gaines and E. H. Taylor, Jr., forming Gaines, Berry & Co. which enjoyed success for many years thereafter. 

Gaines, Berry & Co. created the now famous brand known as ‘Old Crow’ before the firm became W. A. Gaines & Co., which was comprised of W. A. Gaines, Hiram Berry and E. H. Taylor, Jr., each from Kentucky, and Frank Stevens, Sherman Paris, and Marshall Allen of New York. The latter partners were signed on to inject much needed funds for the expansion of the growing business. 

The new company’s product line was broadened with the purchase of the Hermitage distillery in 1868 and widespread success followed for many of its brands — some of which are represented in this collection. By 1887 W. A. Gaines & Co. had become one of the world’s largest producers of fine ‘sour mash’ whiskey.

Hermitage Distillery remained in production right up to prohibition when it was then converted into a chair factory. W. A. Gaines & Co. contemplated resuscitating it after repeal, but likely decided it was a futile project due to huge capital investments required. The distillery was eventually demolished in 1945.