Talking wine and spirits at Manhattan’s 21 Club

In the once-secret wine cellar of the former speakeasy — which housed the private wine collections of Gerald Ford, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and more — Noah May introduces whiskey, cognac, burgundy and Madeira offered on 8 and 9 December

‘Coming to the 21 Club at the time of its opening in 1929 would have been an extraordinary experience,’ says Noah May, wine specialist at Christie’s in New York. ‘The restaurant upstairs was the speakeasy, and below was where the wine and spirits were hidden away.’

Surrounded by a fabulous collection of bottles in the legendary Manhattan venue’s basement, he talks us through some of the highlights from the forthcoming A Study in Distinction  and Finest Wines and Spirits  sales in New York on 8 and 9 December. 

He begins with a bottle of Overholt rye whiskey from 1909, produced by one of the oldest whiskey distilleries in America to have remained in constant production. The whiskey, he notes, ‘spent a long time in wood and was bottled after Prohibition. It brings to mind rural Pennsylvania at the turn of the century — it’s bottled American history.’

‘One of the things that draws people to wine is that each bottle follows a life journey that mimics our own’ — Noah May

An incredible 1788 cognac, one of the oldest and rarest examples of cognac known today, was bottled for the Café Anglais, then one of Paris’s grandest restaurants. ‘Whoever opens it today will have a once-in-a-lifetime experience,’ says the specialist.

Also offered on 9 December are bottles of 1806 Madeira imported by the Goelet family, hardware merchants who are also cited in literature as having owned sailing ships. Many of the bottle names refer to the vessels that they were shipped on, such as Brig Twins, Frances  and Juno. Since Madeiras are intentionally put through an oxidative process, they are particularly robust.

May describes a magnum of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée Conti, 1988, offered on 8 December in New York, as ‘what many collectors would consider the holy grail of Burgundy. These are wines known for their delicacy, extraordinary perfume and longevity.

‘One of the things that draws people to wine is that each bottle follows a life journey that mimics our own,’ the specialist continues. ‘The creation of a great wine or spirit is arguably the greatest instances in which man, nature and time work together in perfect unison.’