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The Last Call – Tasting History with Pre-Prohibition Bourbon

When this slim supply of old liquor is gone, it is gone for good – so be warned and act now!

I am going to present something monumental to contemplate: The chance to open and experience a piece of history. Picture a whiskey that was distilled in 1917, just as the world was gathering into an arena for WWI, Old Grand Dad was laid into a barrel, where it stayed until 1933. In that time, WWI and Prohibition had both come and gone. 1933 was the same year Hitler began to rise to power again and the Noble Experiment had finally ended; this was the year this particular bottle of Old Grand Dad was bottled. I’m sure some heavy discussions occurred over that whiskey, and maybe some hard decisions were made too.

Surprisingly, if you look carefully, you can still find this whiskey to enjoy. That is only one intriguing aspect of vintage, collectible Spirits. In them, you are presented with a chance to enjoy something that is not available anymore; but without determined effort, commitment, investment—and a healthy dose of luck—you are likely to not find them. We are going to talk about the why, toss in some great tips and steer you in some good directions.

Bill Thomas, Proprietor Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Washington D.C., reveals this perspective regarding vintage US Whiskey: “Pre-Prohibition whiskey isn’t as much about collecting for me as it is about drinking history. Sometimes you find that rare bottle that you want to admire for a while but ultimately you need to drink it. Many Pre-Prohibition whiskey bottles are all that’s left of some great old distilleries, that were unable to come back after Prohibition.”

“You can’t have a better tasting of a brand or a distillery, than having 100 years of distillation in front of you. There is something transcendent about drinking a 1918 bottling and contemplating the World Events that took place in that year”. Bill Thomas

Taking that idea to a marketing level, this 1934 advertisement in Better Home and Gardens magazine perfectly sums up the ‘why’ behind the intrinsic appeal of “Pre-Prohibition Whiskey.” The headline says it all, but the subhead copy drives it home with “It’s dwindling fast and it’s strictly limited so better act quickly if you want to reserve some of this true vintage liquor for your own cellar.”

A Taste of Time In A Bottle
Their finite rarity is the easiest way to understand the power, the lure, the potency and the beauty of vintage American whiskey—in Prohibition, there was a break that almost broke the industry. After Prohibition was lifted the fortunate few that had been able to coax or cajole their doctors out of medical prescriptions for whiskey had a huge group of friends interested in procuring some of these delicious whiskeys to enjoy for themselves that were still in a surplus that had made it through prohibition. Some of the whiskey lay hidden in cellars, warehouses, and private collections. Also, some of the whiskey had even aged all through Prohibition in barrels, this is what the advertisement above was speaking about, but everyone wanted some of the precious whiskey that came out on the other side of prohibition. People in the know found these American treasures and bought whatever they could, just to have a few bottles or cases of extra rare old American Whiskey on hand for special occasions or to save as a testimony to the future.

Fast forward into the 2000’s and this treasure is even rarer, but you can still find it. The situation at hand is perfectly described by Wyatt Peabody, a wine and spirits expert at Soutirage, a Yountville, California merchant that retails rare wines and spirits: “Having witnessed [yet another] whiskey explosion over the past five years—which has sent limited-release whiskey prices through the roof—I am fascinated by the relative value of pre-Prohibition-era spirits. When one compares the annual frenzy, and subsequent premiums paid, for highly-allocated perennial brands, with distillates that were made a century ago, the contrast is stark.”

“People are actually paying more for Pappy 23 (that was made in the 1990s), than a bottle of whiskey distilled in 1916—when Woodrow Wilson was President (of all 48 states), we had yet to enter WWI and General Pershing’s Calvary was pushing Pancho Villa across the Mexican border. I mean, would you rather drink brands or history?” Wyatt Peabody

The Golden Era of American Whiskey
Can you imagine that? Experiencing Bourbon or Rye from the pinnacle of its production, the absolute peak of its powers, the summit of natural innovation that leads to what is easily understood as the golden era of American whiskey.

After Prohibition, it all changed; it had to. Now, the marketplace was more defined, the demand was much higher and a majority of producers did not make it out of Prohibition. With fewer distilleries making more and more whiskey, the resulting structure of the U.S. Spirits industry became a much more industrial process.

The rising need for production and the attendant industry consolidation demanded it. Before Prohibition was the time of natural expansion, innovation, evolution, refinement and the defining of what Bourbon (and by extension Rye) needed to be; it was the time of the highest appreciation without the port-Repeal demands of the market dictating production. It was in this era of amazing quality and taste that American whiskey came into its prominence into its figurehead position as the capital spirit and America.

We have to remember, even before Prohibition, there were breaks in whiskey’s production that caused big interruptions in supply and a focusing of attention by consumers. There were many battles, but U.S. Whiskey gradually came into its own; there was a refinement of taste preferences and an evolution in the skills of the distiller’s.

When WWI ended and production picked back up to full steam, the dissent of the vocal minority of the population eventually led to the “Nobel Experiment”, Prohibition. From a boon of production before Prohibition then, ‘POW’, American Whiskey is illegal. Sure, if you had the foresight to stash some away, or a connection to get a prescription for “medicinal” or “illicit” whiskey you could still have a drink, but was it the beautifully articulated whiskey from before? Some made good medicinal whiskey and some got creative with ‘distribution’, but it is obvious and easy to see that ‘MANY’ distilleries shut their doors never to reopen.

Fortunately, there were some that made it; it is a good question to ask is what differed, in production after the end of Prohibition? Most distilleries, during Prohibition, didn’t maintain their “jug” yeast; this was a key (usually a secret) to the flavors of their whiskey. After Prohibition, distillers were forced to buy yeast (generally favoring faster strains), or go through a laborious process of “finding / creating” a new “jug” yeast. Because of inefficient technique and distillation mechanisms, Bourbon and Rye had previously been distilled to a lower alcoholic proof, and typically entered the barrel for aging at an even lower proof; the impact of this is remarkable. We would also have to address that water sources had changed. If not by sheer locality, the well water had evolved because the change in depletion or this or that distiller had switched to municipal water for convenience, or the use of extreme filtration to control flavor profiles. Water is used in every stage of the production. And these are just a few of the reasons.

It is good to keep in mind this wise quote from Edgar Harden, owner of London, England-based Old Spirits Company:

“The attraction of vintage Bourbon and Rye is that it both opens a window onto the past and rewards the drinker. This is not to say that every bottle of vintage Bourbon or Rye is delicious and flawless, but on the whole, if one chooses well-preserved examples that have been properly cared for then the whiskey will be interesting at the very least and possibly something that you will always remember.”

Harden, who visits the U.S. periodically, notes: “The further back one goes, particularly to the Prohibition era and beyond, the likelihood is high that the whiskey will have been left in barrel for an extended period; and, given the “rough and ready” style of production and the lack of chill-filtration, this prolonged contact with the barrel can yield whiskies of profound depth, richness in scent, color and flavor and smokiness that are truly unlike anything produced since. I sometimes sit, a measure of some American whiskey of extreme age in hand, and contemplate what the industry was like in Kentucky, Pennsylvania or Maryland in the late 19th century through WWII. Which brands are lost and which survive? The rich history is truly conveyed by the whiskey itself.”

The Where and How
But where and how do you find these precious treats? Well, I was talking to Peter Jarjour, owner, Flask Fine Wine & Whisky, Studio City, California, and he told me a story about driving from Indiana on the way to visit family and thinking while he was in the area, he went and checked out the local liquor stores to see what he could find. Searching in one of the older shops in town he noticed a pint of Old Sunnybrook bottled just after the Prohibition on display with no price, so he went and asked the clerk about it. The clerk tried to discourage Peter by saying: “You don’t want that. The last one of those my boss sold was SUPER EXPENSIVE”. Peter, unswayed asked: “How much”? The clerk responded $200. Well, needless to say, Peter had a discussion with the store owner and took that bottle with him.

The moral of this story is good hunters are always looking!

The truth is that Pre-Prohibition spirits are becoming more difficult to find by the day, and the fact is that there are very few of them remaining. There are places that specialize in these kinds of things, like aforementioned Old Spirits Company in the UK or Soutirage in the US.

Soutirage has one of the most extensive collections in existence—William A. M. Burden, a renowned entrepreneur, and collector of fine wine and spirits; meticulously built it if you call them they will even hunt for you if they don’t have it! If you are in Los Angeles you can visit Peter, at Flask Wine & Whisky. Another piece of advice from him is telling everyone who’ll listen that you love and are looking for vintage whiskey. He puts his rare finds on his website and because everyone knows about this passion, it is widespread knowledge and people contact him out-of-the-blue with bottles to purchase. Sometimes they come in bearing full, unopened wooden crates; sometimes it is just a couple bottles they found in their grandparent’s house after they move out. The point of this is telling everyone what you are interested in, they may have bottles stashed that they will share—sell—have seen or will help you to find while they are traveling.

There is a need for caution, warns Scott Spaid from whiskeybent.net, a rich site that is dedicated to the history and collecting of full, sealed American pre-prohibition whiskey bottles, prohibition-era medicinal whiskey bottles, and miniature whiskey bottles. “The biggest thing I have learned from collecting prohibition medicinal whiskeys is that the brand doesn’t matter the vast majority of the time. For example, I have a 1/2 pint Old Fitz and a 1/2 pint Waterfill and Frazier. Both were distilled by Mary M. Dowling, one of a few fascinating female distillers. The juice in both is the same but the brands are completely different. The W&F is correct in that the distiller matches the brand, which is so rare. The Old Fitz, not so much!
Notice how the Old Fitz is 15-year-old and the W&F is 16 “Summers” old. Marketing at its best. In a nutshell, with prohibition-era medicinal whiskeys, the most important thing to pay attention to is the tax stamp and NOT the main label.”

Discerning “Ancient Liquors”
When I asked Warren Bobrow, author of ‘Whiskey Cocktails’, about the subject he said this: “It’s a rarefied world of ancient liquors. I myself have tasted the effect of time on old spirits and can offer the following: airtight. Air is a killer for old spirits. If the bottle gets opened drink up! If the fill is too low, unfortunately, low fill means air got in. You might do better to pass.

But, I think if money is no object then, by all means, buy and drink whatever you can afford.”

That makes me want to go hunting for some dusty whiskey bottles, open them up, and experience flavors from another era. Remember, Whiskey doesn’t change in the bottle if stored properly (very little, if at all). No matter what you will drink history. Every sip will have a story to tell and if you are fortunate a moment to share.

This is why we search for these treasures, icons of another time, and testaments to where we have been and what we have done.

Here are some very nice recommendations from Wyatt Peabody from Soutirage, “I am particularly fond of turn-of-the-century ryes (Pennsylvania and Maryland), Yellow Label and Stewart’s are among my favorites, both of which have evolved with stunning grace and poise; the J.B. Beam 1911 was then a regional brand made in limited quantities; while difficult, if I have a favorite, it’s probably the Old Jordan Sour Mash Whiskey 1891—nostalgia aside, given its age, everything about this whiskey is extraordinary: it was bottled-in-bond at a remarkable 112-proof in 1908 and, to this day, it shows the concentration and thickness of an old Cognac, but it’s all Bourbon: mouth coating and unctuous with a touch of salinity.

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  1. I’ve been trying to collect old whiskey bottles and have had some luck at antique shows, yard sales, and flea markets. Have even had some luck on social media. My favorite finds are bottles of 1910 Gibson Rye bottled in 1918, 1914 Old Charter bottled in 1917, and “Old Style” whiskey bottled by a Chicago pharmacy in 1917 all full with their original seals.
    Have even found a bottle of Otard brandy from a New York city grocery store bottled in 1875, still full and sealed with an extra long cork with very little loss of the fill level.

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Written by Forrest Cokely

Forrest is a Charter Member of the Ministry of Rum Connoisseurs Cabinet and Rum XP, an internationally recognized judge for competitions; he is Bar Smarts Certified, SWE Certified Spirits Specialist, a member of the Compagnie des Mousquetaires d’Armagnac, and an expert in all things alcohol.

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