WHAT ARE THEY WORTH?

Did I want these? Kinda. But the owner was demanding $1,000 per bottle, which I thought was plain silly.

 

If these were ever to be sold, it would have to be as a complete set, since 6 of the 7 bottles were in such bad condition. Although fill wasnt terrible, they wouldn't be purchased for the merits of their flavor, nor as an investment, and they'd look lousy in a collection... I just didn't see a lot of value in them. Cool, yes. Historical, sure. Bottled money, no. And the owner was stubbornly unwilling to negotiate.

 

Adios, Strange Fitzgerald.

 

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

 

The next day, I narrowed down the key clues.

 

  • These contained real bourbon.
  • Glass manufacture was between 1911 and 1919.
  • The glass was intended for liquor use, and at least one bottle was valid for Old Fitzgerald.
  • Whoever bottled these had limited access to genuine Old Fitzgerald packaging.
  • The labels were cheaply designed and made by a printer who had a poor grasp of liquor labeling, and either nobody noticed the errors or nobody cared about them.
  • The bottling of the bourbon and assembly into this case seemed haphazardly done with little care for appearance or consistency.
  • S.C. Herbst, who proudly put his name on every bottle of (real) Old Fitzgerald, did not have his name anywhere on these.

I knew who'd be able to put this all together.

 

Mike Veach is the only professional bourbon historian in the US. He's the guy the distilleries hire to research the history of their own stuff. I gave him a call and started running through the details.

"Oh," Mike said, stopping me. "Do these have a spelling error?"

I was shocked. Apparently, he had come across one of these bottles when he was assembling the United Distillers archives in the 1990s. And as we traded information, a full picture began to assemble:

 

S.C. Herbst owner of Old Fitzgerald - From WisconsinHistory.org

The haphazard packaging and labels indicated that bottling was rushed. What if that was because Prohibition was about to take effect? Imagine Herbst in December 1919, with his fifty-year-old business about to come to an end in January. At that point he needed to pocket as much money as he could, as fast as he could. So he took whatever whiskey he had left, put it in whatever packaging he had left -- and he had run out of labels, so he had some new ones quickly made by the cheapest vendor available -- whoops, no time to correct those -- and rushed the bottles out the door to a public eager to stock up on anything and everything boozy.


Or, a similar explanation (which Mike really favored) was that a second party owned a barrel, or barrels. Before Prohibition, anyone could buy a barrel of bourbon. So whoever owned this barrel of Old Judge found themselves in a jam, and they bottled it right before Prohibition took effect like in the explanation above. Somehow they acquired some tidbits of real packaging -- maybe legitimately, or maybe even stolen. That could make this sort of like an "independent bottling" of Old Fitzgerald, though a questionable one.

I checked in with Chuck Cowdery, bourbon authority extraordinaire, and he had the same feelings.  "My guess," he said, "would be that it's a merchant or private label bottling of bulk whiskey from Herbst. Maybe from just before the onset of Prohibition, or even during it." 

"Or," Chuck cautioned, "they're counterfeit." Mike had said the same thing, too.

THE VERDICT

 

The final verdict is... we may never know. But that's okay. Whiskey is an adventure, full of discovery, wonder, and ambiguities. The mystique around whiskey is what pulls many people to it in the first place.


You can't know everything about any bottle of whiskey. There are always blanks to fill in -- who-when-where-what-why-how. Intricacies of chemistry and unknowables of maturation. And that which we can't know, we imagine. Full of intrigue, rich in tradition, a part of history.

 

Some of the guys in LAWS favor the theory that these were bottled right before Prohibition took effect, by Herbst himself. He took some of his oldest stock -- distilled back in 1895 -- and bottled it for employees, family, and friends. The packaging and labels weren't important, since it was something that they all knew the significance of, and it wasn't meant for public consumption.

What do I think? Until I can say with certainty what it is, I prefer the mystery.

What do you think?

 

- Adam

 

Enormous thanks to Mike Veach, Chuck Cowdery, Paul VanVactor, Robin

Preston at pre-pro.com, and David Whitten at glassbottlemarks.com

for their time, assistance, and especially for their tireless efforts and

invaluable research into the history of whiskey and its vessels.

 

Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5

 

 

READ EPISODE 2 HERE

 

 

LEAVE A COMMENT

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20 Comments:
 
1.  Posted by  Adam
Thursday, Mar 7, 2013 at 02:08 PM
Okay Sku, I turned on the comments feature. Hope it doesn't blow up the website. (Anyone out there know PHP and love whiskey? We need a hand with something).
 
2.  Posted by  Jordan
Friday, Mar 8, 2013 at 08:46 AM
What's the trouble? I might be able to take a look.
 
3.  Posted by  Dan
Friday, Mar 8, 2013 at 09:08 AM
Great article Adam! I am very curious about who would pay $1,000 a bottle for this uncertain collection. As you mentioned, it would not be for the flavor alone. One of the things I love most about bourbon is the exceptionally quality and depth of flavor that can be found for less than $30, so the concept of paying 4 figures for something that doesn't even taste great is ludicrous! Again, great job with the article and keep up the good work.
 
4.  Posted by  Sean
Friday, Mar 8, 2013 at 09:27 AM
Let's see.....distilled 1895, bottled 1919. Old Fitzgerald. Is this the original Pappy 23?!?

(sorry, just had to try to add to the hype).
 
5.  Posted by  Matt L.
Friday, Mar 8, 2013 at 10:07 AM
Great article Adam, thanks for posting the link Sku. Have any of you all read "The Billionaire's Vinegar"? It's a fun read about some bottles of wine supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson. Lots of history and detective work, same as this story but even more in depth, as its a full length book. Also goes talks a lot about counterfeit bottles of very old wine and some of the people involved in the making of it.
 
6.  Posted by  Mark K
Friday, Mar 8, 2013 at 12:03 PM
Nicely done, Adam. Even if it is only about bourbon...
 
7.  Posted by  sam k
Friday, Mar 8, 2013 at 01:15 PM
I'm leaning heavily toward the private bottling theory. I don't care how close to Prohibition these might have been produced, if it was Herbst doing the bottling, he probably had some sort of packaging stock on hand: bottles, labels, etc.

Even if he were down to the very end, chances that three different types of bottles would end up in the same case is hard to fathom. The labels tell the same story. How bad could the distiller permit those to be (and they're pretty bad!)?

These remind me more of a poorly executed version of the old Pendennis Club (Ky.) bottlings,or those from the Edwin Walters estate (Md.) which in themselves were well done, but sported much plainer labels than the official distillery bottlings.
 
8.  Posted by  Kevin A.
Friday, Mar 8, 2013 at 01:33 PM
Man, this is fantastic sleuthing and a fantastic read. And I second Matt L's rec for The Billionaire's Vinegar.
 
9.  Posted by  Patrick
Friday, Mar 8, 2013 at 01:40 PM
Fun article to read. I like the rush just before prohibition angle. I am in the packaging business and I'll bet that the odd assortment of bottles were samples that they had around. I know my office is full of samples.
 
10.  Posted by  Adam
Friday, Mar 8, 2013 at 11:25 PM
Thanks for all the great comments! Glad people are enjoying the article.

Anyone want to take a stab at why it says "1895" on the bottle? Is that a distillation date or what? I have a theory, but left it out of the article for length.
 
11.  Posted by  Chris Middleton
Saturday, Mar 9, 2013 at 08:02 PM
I do have one question I can an unable to verify from the digital images.

The wooden packing case appears to have a separate black stencil recording the date '1895' suggesting this could have been added later. Nothing sinister, merely an observation

This made me wonder about the label too. The alleged (distillation?*) date is located off-center and is relatively discreet. Could this be a later addition, errata to the packaging, perhaps in error, or a deliberating misleading claim, or a delayed qualification of a fact not previously recorded?

Is the ink on the paper label from the same letterpress run?

This caught my attention as aged whiskeys during the early 1900s commonly and dramatically highlighted age claims with large numerical statements. This would have ensured a price premium through product differentiation to discerning drinkers, so I was puzzled why someone had elected to apply a modest date notation.

*There is also the regulatory overlap from March 28 1879 when bond went from one to three years, followed by the March 8 1880 amendments which also permitted multiple distilling locations for whiskey and for cask evaporation (Carlisle allowance, while transport leakage was enacted in December 20 1879). This was later superseded by the Bottled in Bond Act of March 3 1897 which permitted whiskey (rum, brandy) to be stored continuoulsy for 4 years in charred, recharred, plain, used, reused wooden containers at the site of distillation. Whiskey could now be aged in bond beyond 8 years. Whiskey distilled in 1895 bridged these legal periods, permitting Solomon Herbst a greater maturation interpretation after he had acquired the 1884 Old Fitzgerald trade name in 1900. Perhaps this was coincidence? Or it just adds to the mystery
 
12.  Posted by  sam k
Sunday, Mar 10, 2013 at 09:51 AM
No idea about the date. If it's the date of distillation, there's no point of reference as to when it was dumped from the barrel, so it's meaningless for the age of the whiskey (or to anything else, for that matter)..

The case itself is also stenciled with the date, again with no reference point. I own a number of pre-Pro whiskey cases from PA, and all of them are stamped with both the date of bond (distillation) and the bottling date.
 
13.  Posted by  Adam
Monday, Mar 11, 2013 at 12:43 PM
The 1895 stenciled on the crate is definitely an addition. But the 1895 placement on the label is consistent from bottle to bottle and seems to very much be part of the same printing run. "1895" is actually on the left and right of each label (I'll see if I can post up some additional pics here soon).

Chris, I'm not 100% clear on what you mean by the 1895 date bridging the various bond requirements, but this isn't bonded whisky in any case (at least it's not labeled as such).

1895 has no significance in Old Fitz's or Herbst's history (real or legend) as far as I, Chuck, and Mike could discern.

One additional element is that inside the case, we found the tiniest scrap of the corner of a tax stamp (the rest had corroded away and/or been eaten by mice). The thinking is that could've been a barrel stamp, or perhaps a case stamp -- Sam, do your pre-pro cases have those? I have medicinal cases with stamps, but no Pre. Whatever it was, it does add some evidence indicating that this was a legal sale.
 
14.  Posted by  Tim P
Monday, Mar 11, 2013 at 03:53 PM
Great article Adam! I almost felt as if I was in the store looking over your shoulder while you were tasting it. I'm assuming it smelled better than the Old Dog!
 
15.  Posted by  Josh
Wednesday, Mar 13, 2013 at 06:42 AM
This was a really fun article. Whoever mentioned this being "the original Pappy 23" is on to something. Flip this for $10,000. A fool and his money are soon parted.
 
16.  Posted by  Chris Middleton
Saturday, Mar 16, 2013 at 05:07 AM
Thanks for the reply Adam

The remark about 1895 and Herbst was an esoteric reference. I was suggesting that had Herbst ever had bottled it, knowing it was distilled in 1895, then he was labeling whiskey that coincidently fell between the 4 year and longer bond laws, permitting this alleged batch to straddle the millennium. Adding another oddity of this whiskey conundrum.

I too have no confidence it was Herbst who bottled it, as you and your learned commentators argue, it is most likely a form of 'independent' bottling.

I have observed doctored and counterfeit labels in the industry. Whilst my query was a left field comment, perhaps on closer label inspection it may have revealed evidence of an older fake. In China I've seen fake labels and fake bottles with fake whiskey inside replicating global trademarks. The counterfeiters even produced fake advertising to market their 'parrallell fake brand'. Regulation that began to enforce truthfulness in label and product compliance only appeared after the 1908 US Pure Food Act. The reputable companies were diligent and did not mislead the public, but not all .... even today and especially in the Middle Kingdom
 
17.  Posted by  John Lipman
Monday, Mar 25, 2013 at 03:17 PM
Wow! What a great article, and what great comments. I'd like to add a couple myself, because a few things immediately pop out for me:

(1) The "date" stamped on the wooden case doesn't appear to be a date at all; it's simply the 1,895th case. The counterfeiters may have assumed that to be a date and used it on the labels. These are the same geniuses who used the name Frankforth. It's not impossible that they are not English-speaking. Remember that Jack Daniel's is one of the most counterfeited brands of ANYTHING in the world, and mostly in Asia.

(2) The wooden case itself bears no relationship at all to the bottles. That's already clear in the origial article. Remember that it never actually held quarts or even fifths, only individuals (i.e., minis). It was obviously an empty case that the counterfeiters picked up somewhere, perhaps on eBay. They also picked up several (who knows how many?) old (empty) bottles of pre-prohibition liquor. Since they intended to use the case only to as an illustration to "verify" authenticity on (for example) an eBay listing, the individual bottles did not need to be the same type.

(3) So now we have old bottles and an old case to provide the information. All we need is a label printer and some whiskey. The counterfeiters were smart enough to understand that it might take awhile to sell these and that tea or colored water would deteriorate before long. And besides, at least SOMEONE would actually open and taste (or extract a sample for testing -- after all, at a grand a bottle, someone SHOULD). So a few 1.75 liters of real whiskey (current) for contents would be in order. If they had half-a-brain, they might have chosen current Old Fitz, but if they had a whole brain they wouldn't have. If a test showed a wheated whiskey, that would prove it not to be Herbst's product (the wheated version was born with the Post-Repeal Stitzel-Weller Old Fitz).

(4) And, speaking of tests, the most obvious one would be of the paper and ink used on the label. At a Grover Cleveland per bottle, I would think the owner might consider the following proposition: I (meaning you, of course; I'm not biting on this one) will purchase ALL of those bottles for $1000 apiece, IF you provide, at your expense, a statement from a legitimate, recognized laboratory that the paper and all of the printing actually dates from the time period claimed. I seriously doubt that would be acceptable, and I'm sure we all understand WHY.
 
18.  Posted by  Adam
Saturday, Mar 30, 2013 at 10:57 PM
John, thanks for your well-thought-out comments.

But, I don't think these are recent fakes. You're discussing modern counterfeiting theories and techniques. But these don't exhibit those features. If these are fakes, then they are fakes from nearly 100 years ago. We know this because of everything I've mentioned, but also from things I did not. And for the sake of our mutual hobby, I will never describe those details, since I never want to publish a "How To Improve Your Fakes" primer for the fakers.

I know that sounds like a tease. My apologies there.

The main way we know that these are not recent fakes is by the same bottle that Mike Veach found almost two decades ago. Nobody would fake bourbon back then, particularly as part of a plan in which they would've had to have predicted a spectacular surge in Old Fitz collectibility (which did not exist then). Then they would've patiently waited a couple decades to see if that surge would actually happen, and when it did, they then released the bulk of their "stash." Obviously that sounds silly that way, but you get my point. It just doesn't add up.
 
19.  Posted by  John Lipman
Monday, Apr 1, 2013 at 10:24 AM
You're right; it doesn't.

Except that two decades ago would've been early '90s, and a bottle of "original" Old Fitzgerald would already have been a sought-after item even back then. I agree with Mike Veach's and Chuck Cowdery's opinion. However, I agree with you that these are not being offered by the counterfeiters. I believe the person offering this fully believes that what s/he has is the real deal. Perhaps this crate was inherited or purchased at an estate sale, where it saw the light of day for the first time since the original owner was duped into buying it.

I readily understand your reluctance to divulge potential counterfeit tricks (good for you!), but I'd enjoy a P.M. to see what other tests you have. Needless to say, filtering out counterfeits is important to me as a collector. I'm not a member of the L.A.W.S. (and, as I don't live California, I don't really need to be), but you could contact me via www.bourbonenthusiast.com, where I am known as EllenJ. Also at AmericanSpirits@ellenjaye.com
 
20.  Posted by  Steven
Wednesday, Jun 26, 2013 at 07:48 PM
I can add a bit to this story as I have actually tasted this whiskey. I can tell you without a doubt that it is not tea colored water. It is strong, burning whiskey that does not have the flavor of today's mellowed mixes. The packaging and bottles have been in the same basement in Southern California for nearly 80 years and were recently (a few years ago) rediscovered after the passing of a family member. If anyone would like a taste, there is an open bottle that is sampled occasionally amongst some close friends.
 
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