Baker's Pure Rye 1847
Distillation Year

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Extreme closeup showing 1847 on label
The label states the year this was distilled: 1847.

But for the sake of objective analysis, how can we confirm that's what that number means? There are plenty of whiskey bottles that list dates on them that mean something else besides the distillation year. 

If this sounds like a lot of work to explain something that common sense says is obvious -- you're kinda right, so feel free to skip ahead. But since scientific inquiry doesn't give a damn about common sense...

Glass analysis indicates this whiskey was bottled (after barrel aging) in the 1850s or early 1860s. So we should verify: were vintage-dated whiskeys a “thing” then? Did anyone even care?

Yes. They were a thing. Whiskey historian Fred Minnick explains that prior to about the 1840s, something might just have been advertised/sold as "Old" whiskey. But after time…

 

…gradually bourbon [this is rye, but subject to the same circumstances] became so commonplace that the merchants separated their offerings from others. For example, Louisville merchant James Cromey advertised Old Bourbon "2 to 6 years old" for sale, offering a unique age differentiation from his competitors. In the 1840s, Cromey's competition… advertised his barrels' vintage, such as 1833 or 1834.

 

So when this was sold, a distillation date was understood and appreciated, especially by the connoisseurs this rye appealed to. Remember, this was a rare, bottled and labeled product. That made it high-end, expensive stuff. The buyer wanted to know what they were getting.

Snippet discussing Baker's 1847Even back in 1943, the Greig catalog called special attention to the date: "It will be observed the oldest whiskey in this catalogue is Baker's of as long ago as 1847."

 

ELIMINATING OTHER EXPLANATIONS 

 
This is a bit of a rabbit hole, but science demands we take a dive down it.

What if there's something we don't recognize about 1847? Something that 150+ years ago would've been naturally understood.
  
First: 1847 historic events. Was there anything that made it a particularly special year?
 
Battlefield in action
Not meaning any disrespect to your great-great-great granduncle born then, but: nope. Even at that famous New York sale in 1943, the catalog struggled to list significant 1847 events. They came up with three: 1) James K. Polk was president; 2) US forces captured Mexico City; 3) The British Museum opened.
 
It would require a serious stretch of imagination to think any of those things would be commemorated by printing “1847” on a rye whiskey bottle in Baltimore a decade later.

Second: could “1847” have meant something important in the history of the whiskey itself (aside from distillation)?

Detail of Jack Daniel's label saying: Awarded the Highest Gold Medals at St. Louis, Mo. Exposition 1904, Leige Belgium 1905...If it did, we'd expect the label to explain that importance. For instance, Jack Daniel's won a gold medal at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, and their bottle still lists that date, among others. But Jack Daniel's also explains what the date means. Because who keeps track of what year any whiskey won anything? If "1847" had a meaningful and proud connection to Baker's, advertisements for the brand would've touted that. None such ads exist. [1]

Next: was 1847 significant in the history of W.T. Walters & Co? No. The company didn't exist then. [2]

Finally, we might ask: if 1847 is the vintage year, why isn't there a bottling year? Because there doesn't need to be. When someone buys a new bottle of whiskey, they already know what year they're living in (at least, most of us do). Bottling dates are nice, but never necessary.

Simply put: 1847 meant distilled in 1847, because there's no decent reason to doubt that it didn't.

Next page: Bottling Year >>

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[1] I did find one modern source claiming that Henry Baker founded the town of Bakersville in 1847, which is incorrect. This probably stems from a combination of errors: it confuses Baker's original settling in the Somerset/Glades area in 1813 with his later helping establish Jefferson Township in 1847 (Jefferson Township was created out of Somerset). Bakersville was and is a village – i.e. a general area that was/is called that, but not an official government entity. This also gets conflated with the next note.
[2] Attentive readers/researchers may point to sources that state W.T. Walters & Co. was founded in 1847 -- this is erroneous. It originates from a mistake in William Walters' 1894 obituary, since parroted in books, articles, and other whiskey websites.
          How we know (mostly tedious): Walters' biography states he moved to Baltimore in "early 1841," and entered into partnership with Samuel Hazelhurst to form Hazelhurst & Walters. Baltimore Sun announcements back this up, announcing the firm on January 1, 1841 (sp. "Hazlehurst"). But Walters' biography also says 
(seemingly incorrectly) that in 1850, Hazelhurst left and Walters opened a new firm with Charles Harvey, called Walters & Harvey, which became known as W.T. Walters & Co. But my research found "Walters & Harvey" ads as far back as 1847, and Hazelhurst must've left sometime then, because the "Walters & Harvey" ads in 1848 call them in parentheticals "Late Hazelhurst & Walters." The first mention of "W.T. Walters & Co" I could find was in Aug 1850. Yet ads for Walters & Harvey still ran through 1851... so both of these companies seemed to co-exist for a while in the early 1850s. Regardless, W.T. Walters & Co wasn't founded in 1847. However, since Walters was bringing in whiskey at that time with Harvey, that could account for the stock this bottle later came from... although Edwin Walters would later say they started sourcing for the brand in 1851... so who knows.
          Why the mistake (actually interesting): The overhwelmingly likely reason for the mixup was because at the time of Walters' death, and for many decades after, his history in the liquor business was quietly and "politely" ignored -- because the temperance movement was growing and there was a strong stigma against alcohol. Walters had become a respected public figure, a benefactor to Baltimore and Washington, a railroad millionaire, racehorse breeder, etc. Discussion of his liquor-laden past would've been "inappropriate" in general, and downright disrespectful in eulogy. His obit in The Baltimore Sun is the premiere example of that. They dedicated one-third of an entire, fullsize newspaper page to his death -- yet only a tiny paragraph mentions W.T. Walters & Co at all. What's more, it doesn't even say what the company actually did! It simply and politely describes them as being "importers" in a "narrow field." Whoever was responsible for that obit didn't need to pay very close attention to those details (nor would they have wanted to), and that deliberate and respectful lack of focus almost certainly lead to the error.
 

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