THE LEONIS COLLECTION
J. B. Leonis was many things before success came to him during the roaring twenties. Those early experiences usually involved wine or spirits.
He was brought to America by his Uncle Miguel. When his uncle died, JB would go on to connect with a Frenchman and vintner in Los Angeles who brought him into his business. From there, JB would leave to develop a patch of land into a vineyard and a store on the route to the harbor not far from where Los Angeles dumped its trash. There, he reinvented himself first as a merchant with a county liquor license then as a real estate developer and a city founder.
In 1905, he was the driving force for the creation of the City of Vernon, a unique “exclusively industrial” city south of the Los Angeles city limits. JB saw that the Los Angeles area needed a manufacturing and factory hub complete with access to the three railroads who would transport materials into the factories and finished goods to markets. His political skills and entrepreneurial drive made it all happen. At the same time, Los Angeles became virtually a “dry” city before full prohibition hit thirsty Angelenos. Vernon countered in those years by becoming the premier entertainment area with sporting events like boxing and baseball. Liquor and beer flowed in places like Jack Doyle’s Bar next to the baseball field. It was labeled the longest bar in the world with thirty-seven bartenders. Down the road, the Vernon Country Club, became legendary as the first night club in Los Angeles.
Leonis had become a successful wine and liquor businessman before he became a banker. Through his mercantile business he supplied Doyle’s Bar, (JB also owned the land it sat on and received reports of the workings of the establishment from city investigators as a Vernon City Councilman.) At the Vernon Country Club celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith enjoyed beverages from JB's stores. He had helped the proprietor, Baron Long, procure the only city liquor license in Vernon for a restaurant. JB had a keen eye for people who he could trust and Long would become a lifelong friend and business associate. After his country club days, Long went on to partner in the famed Aqua Caliente gambling resort in Tijuana and to later create the star studded “Biltmore Bowl” in Los Angeles.
Seeing the rise of prohibition, JB built hidden prohibition vault rooms into his two new residential properties. One built in the late 1920s was in the fashionable Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The other was a weekend retreat and working ranch in Little Tujunga Canyon (whose neighbor was the famed Hollywood filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille). The prohibition vault rooms were each constructed behind book cases which open to reveal a bank vault door and combination lock. JB could easily get the doors as a banker and sneak them into the final construction. It is unknown if JB was amassing supplies of alcohol and whiskey to carry through the prohibition era. Upon the death of JB’s grandson, Leonis C. Malburg in 2017, the family discovered over 40 cases of unopened bonded whiskey distilled as early as 1914. These and stores of quart whiskey bottles were stored in a mercantile inventory style in each of the prohibition vault rooms. The pre-prohibition spirits lay untouched for over a century. The Leonis collection is a legacy of an American original.
Richard Nordin, Los Angeles Historian and Author of The Iron Fist, The Immigrant Journey of J. B. Leonis
HISTORY IN A BOTTLE
PRE-PROHIBITION KENTUCKY WHISKEY AND MORE
To contemplate the fascination with truly old distilled spirits, one need only be mildly familiar with the major moments in history to understand the passion girding the curiosity from acolytes of this emerging collecting category.
Travel with me back in time to the opening decade of the 20th Century when the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk excited minds to the possibilities of human flight, back to when the New York subway opened just a year later in 1904. Set your mind to a time when bicycles and horses are the dominant modes for fast transport. This is a time of unparalleled imagination and unimaginable suffering.
A young 26-year-old Pablo Picasso will shock the Parisian art world with a departure from his familiar blue palette to a rose-colored palette in his masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Contrast this with the context of a 1908 vintage, Kentucky-born whiskey on offer today which was first distilled under the same autumnal moons overlooking Henry Ford as the first sales of his eponymous Model-T Ford came to market. The 1908 Hermitage Pure Rye Whiskey by W.A. Gaines would remain in barrel, aging gracefully at a time when U.S. explorer Robert Peary becomes the first man to reach the North Pole, the birth of “abstract” art and emergence of Wassily Kandinsky push artistic boundaries, and China becomes a republic. This is the time of the Woolworth Building bringing New York to its tallest height ever and Grand Central Station becoming the world’s largest rail station. In the west, Hollywood would establish its first film studio, the Nestor Film Company located at Sunset & Gower in a defunct tavern that was shut down by anti-alcohol activists – a portent perhaps of more temperance to come. By the Fall of 1916 when this barrel matures, the Titanic will be at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and the Great War in Europe will be well under way.
This is the history of just one bottle in the collection.
LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY GREATER LOS ANGELES
As the 19th Century ended in Vernon, California J.B. Leonis opened a mercantile company called Manhattan Station that operated as an importer/wholesale liquor dealer attending to the needs of local merchants and tourists going between the harbor in San Pedro Bay and downtown Los Angeles. J.B. received his first retail liquor license issued by the State of California in 1898 for the princely sum of $25 annually. A staggering fee when you consider that J.B. purchased the family home that same year for $250 (or $7,400 today). For the next ten plus years, J.B. would be a “merchant”, as the 1900 census listed him, as he tried to grow his future empire.
We are lucky to have preserved for us some of the original business invoices detailing the purchase of old whiskey, a case of Cliquot (presumed Veuve Cliquot), cases of La Loma (wine?) and Old Ripy and Old Kentucky pints and ½ pints, and then random items like hoses and wire, sprinklers and machined bolts, scythes and horse muzzles, shovels and pruning shears. Whether these last items are business or personal use items, we do not know. What is revealed to us, however, are detailed cellar records kept of alcohol inventory right down to the proof percentage! The remnants of this once immense inventory are before you now.
THE HOME CELLAR
The affluent residential area of Hancock Park, Los Angeles rests in the central region of the city in the western shadow of downtown Los Angeles, flanked in the north by Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire to its south. This wealthy enclave was developed by the Hancock family with profits from oil drilling in the former Rancho La Brea area in the 1920s around the grounds of the Wilshire Country Club, a private golf club, and is home to many of the city’s elite businessmen and women. The area is notable for grand, architecturally distinctive residences.
The home of J.B. Leonis’ family is indeed a grand one, complete with a basement (very unusual in an earthquake-prone city) and, curiously to this Specialist’s eye, a 1920s-era Maytag crank start washing machine. I can only imagine what a luxury item this must have been for housemaids of the day. The cellar itself is hidden behind an imposing, ornate, ten-bolt vault-style door built by the Diebold Safe and Lock Co. of Canton Ohio, which is further hidden by a “prohibition era” façade. Upon opening the vault and crossing the threshold, one walks back in time.
The whisky cellar was home to massive volumes distilled spirits. Some labeled and bottled, taxes paid stamps abound, others perhaps not so as there are no fewer than 38 demijohns found at this location containing unlabeled distillates, old port, very old Moscatel, old sherry, items labeled “Very good whiskey 104” and “Very old whiskey 104.” Truly a unique and once-in-a-life time discovery for a Specialist. Of these latter items the family had sparse records and in the end given the enormity of the overall collection and the volume (!), it was decided such highly government-regulated items would prove too challenging to sell.
To assess the remaining cellar’s quality, Christie’s Specialists from Los Angeles, New York, and London participated in sampling representative bottles. We are unified in opinion that these pre-prohibition whiskies are indeed special, supremely unique – especially when sampled alongside their modern iteration – and represent an era that cannot be remade, only revisited.
Christie’s has proudly worked alongside the family, their historian, and representatives to bring this once in a lifetime collection back to life. For some of these bottles it has been over 100 years since they were last offered for sale through the family’s mercantile business. We hope you will appreciate the sliver of history these bottles represent and enjoy them as they were originally meant to be.
With the generous support of our client Christie’s is proudly presenting a wide range of examples from this collection at tasting events this Fall in Los Angeles and New York. Please contact the department for details.
Vice President, Senior Wine Specialist
Hermitage Pure Rye Whiskey, WA Gaines 1908
Copper Distilled pure Rye Whisky; Made Fall 1908, bottled Fall 1916. Hermitage Distillery No. 4 7th Dist. Of KY; W.A. Gains & Co. Distillers, Franklyn County, KY. 50% alcohol by vol. nicked, bin-soiled, and highly stained labels
Levels four just below mid shoulder and one low shoulder
5 quarts per lot