Collecting guide: Rare and pre-Prohibition bourbon

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


Hancock Park family residence pre-Prohibition cellar

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.’

Our online sale from 16-30 July features a range of collectables from this emerging category. 

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 our December 2018 auction in New York we offered what amounted to the largest collection of pre-Prohibition whiskey ever to appear at auction. Featuring Old Crow 1912 and deep quantities of Hermitage 1914 from W. A. Gaines among others, it was a unique chance to acquire rarities with perfect provenance and documented history.

Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery

This most collectible of Bourbons started out under the guidance of the original Pappy, one Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle Sr., who began working for the liquor wholesale W.L. Weller & Sons as an 18-year-old in 1893. Fifteen years later, along with another salesman from the firm, he bought the company. In 1910 they purchased the A Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Louisville. Making fine bourbon was his aim, or as he put it, he ‘simply tried to be honest and make a good product’.

Pappy’s son, Julian Jr., ran the distillery from 1964 until it was sold in 1972. He worked primarily in marketing but as a side project he created the Old Rip Van Winkle label which his son Julian III took over in 1981. Julian then purchased the Old Hoffman Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, for storage and bottling. Buffalo Trace bought the W.L. Weller label in 1999, and as of 2002 has been producing the Van Winkle bourbons to the same exacting standards as the long line of Van Winkle family members.

Today the bourbons have a cult-like following. Drunk by the late Anthony Bourdain and the New York chef David Chang, these bourbons have become incredibly collectable.

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.

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 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. 

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. became W. A. Gaines & Co. 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. 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 until Prohibition, when it was then converted into a chair factory. The distillery was eventually demolished in 1945.

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