Main image

Collecting guide: Rare and pre-Prohibition bourbon

Christie’s specialist Noah May offers an expert guide to Kentucky's finest, which has been gaining increasing attention at auction over the past five 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.

In December 2016, for example, a lone barrel — originally equivalent to 38 750ml bottles like the one below, of which four bottles had been consumed — of Blade and Bow 24-Year-Old sold for $95,550 in New York, making it the most expensive liquor ever sold at Christie’s in the United States. The historic Stitzel-Weller distillery in Louisville, Kentucky — known as the ‘Cathedral of Bourbon’ — where the Blade and Bow had been distilled in 1991, sadly ceased production a year later. Its founder, the legendary Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle, coined the company’s motto: ‘We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must. But always fine bourbon.’

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.

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 September, as part of our upcoming Christie’s Wine Online/NYC  sale, we are delighted to present a small selection of extremely rare, pre-Prohibition jugs of straight Kentucky bourbon, alongside other rare bottles. Few examples of these whiskies have been offered at auction, making this a unique opportunity to acquire both Belmont Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Blue Ribbon Kentucky Whiskey in a rare-size format.

Blue Ribbon Kentucky Whiskey Old Style Bourbon 1901.  One gallon per lot. Estimate $6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Christie’s Wine OnlineNYC, 26 September to 10 October
Blue Ribbon Kentucky Whiskey Old Style Bourbon 1901.  One gallon per lot. Estimate: $6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Christie’s Wine Online/NYC, 26 September to 10 October

One of the finest of its time: Blue Ribbon Kentucky Whiskey 

Eminence Distillery Company’s Blue Ribbon brand was revered as one of the finest of its time. The company’s owner, George Benz, had emigrated in 1853 from the small town of Osthofen in Germany, at the age of only 15. A dozen years later Benz went into partnership with Major C.J. Becht to establish a liquor wholesale business importing wines and other spirits.

After the death of his partner 13 years later, Benz began expanding his distilling business across the country to help establish a reliable network of distillers for his wholesale business. Over the next decade, he became a part-owner of distilleries in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Indiana, but without doubt Benz’s most prized and lauded distillery was the Eminence Distillery, which he owned outright. It was here that he produced Blue Ribbon, which was promoted across the nation.

Belmont Bourbon 1900. One gallon per lot (Lots 307-311). Estimates $5,000-7,000. These lots are offered in Christie’s Wine OnlineNYC, 26 September to 10 October
Belmont Bourbon 1900. One gallon per lot (Lots 307-311). Estimates: $5,000-7,000. These lots are offered in Christie’s Wine Online/NYC, 26 September to 10 October

A Kentucky classic: Belmont Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Belmont Distillery Co. is one of the venerated old Louisville brands that has long been consigned to history. The company was formed by George H. Moore and Max Selliger. Moore came from a family of Louisville distillers, while Selliger, born in Louisville in 1852 and 17 years Moore’s junior, was the son of a milliner. Clearly he realised that the whiskey business offered more rewards than the hat industry at that time in Kentucky.

The two men worked hard to build their business, operating another distillery, Astor, immediately adjacent to Belmont. Their presence in the market grew exponentially between 1882 and 1896, when Moore died, and continued to succeed under the sole proprietorship of Selliger, who strove to establish the brand across the US. 

The Belmont brand displayed a large bell underneath the words, ‘This Whiskey Was Mashed in Little Tubs and Distilled on the Old Fashioned Hand Made Sour Mash Plan.’  As with so many others, the arrival of Prohibition in 1920 caused the distillery — and with it a golden era of whiskey production — to be closed.