Very Very Old Fitzgerald
Very Old Fitzgerald was one of the rare instances where something labeled "A Collector's Item" actually did become a collectors item. It's probably because of that phrase and the fancy packaging that many bottles have survived to today.
Old bottles of Old Fitzgerald are particularly valuable because of the association with the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, whose whiskey has become highly sought after by enthusiasts. Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle ran Stitzel-Weller after the repeal of Prohibition through 1964, and Pappy became a legend amond bourbon aficionados. Stitzel-Weller was closed in 1992, which also helped drive the distillery's mystique. In 2013, plans were announced to reopen.
Very Old Fitzgerald was "Bottled in Bond," which means it was issued at 100 proof under US government supervision. However, some BIB versions were not 100 proof. Those were for export, and US labeling rules didn't apply.
Pappy Van Winkle retired from the distillery in 1964, and passed away in 1965. His son Julian Van Winkle Jr. continued to supervise the brand through 1972.
Most commonly seen is the 8-year-old Very Old, followed by the Very Xtra Old 10-year-old and Very Very Old 12-year-old. The Very Very Old 15-year-old and Very Very Old 18-year-old are rarely seen.
Prior to 1962, the 10 and 12 were only labeled "Very Old" (instead of with two "verys"). In 1960, the 10 year old began appearing with a green Bottled-in-Bond stamp, and in 1962 the "Very Xtra Old" designation seems to have been phased in. In 1962, the 12yo began appearing with a green stamp. In 1964 (or perhaps later 1963), the 12 was restyled and renamed "Very Xtra Old" and Very Very Old," respectively. You will find bottled-1963 12yo VVOF in both name styles, but we're not sure if those weren't actually labeled for retail sale until 1964.
Very Old Fitzgeralds are often found with a personalized label -- typically on the shoulder -- stating that it was bottled for a person or organization. This was a service promoted around the holiday season, similar to the way you can get a custom-engraved bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue today. Other editions were special releases, bottled exclusively for certain people and organizations (notably the Chicago Blackhawks and Wirtz family), and some may read "Barrel 121 Proof" on the shoulder label.
There were also special-edition decanters younger than the 8-year-old; however, these tend to qualify as just "Old Fitzgerald" (which can still be quite collectible) rather than being in the "Very..." category.
Dating is straightforward. Bottled-in-Bond domestic bottles should have a green tax stamp over the top that lists Made and Bottled dates (until about 1982, when you can find some with non-dated Bottled-in-Bond stamps). On all expressions through 1972, the front label (and sometimes back) will list Barreled and Bottled years.
Blue tax stamps designate bottles for export, they should also have dating information on them.
Sizes available were 1/2 pint, pint, 4/5 quart (a "fifth gallon" or just a "fifth"), and gallon. It's our feeling that the smaller bottles sometimes did not preserve flavor as well as the larger. But, we do get some disagreement about that from the whiskey community. And remember, palates are like fingerprints, everyone's are different.
Valuing a very old bottle of Very Old Fitzgerald can be tricky. We are in the midst of a bourbon boom (2013-14), which means there are many people new to whiskey out there -- if you find the right person, there's no telling what they might pay. Experienced collectors are going to look for a better deal than someone who is brand-new to collecting and desperate to get some bottles onto their bar.
Today, the premiere public venue for selling collectible whiskey in the US is Bonhams NY Whisky Auction. Keep in mind that the house takes a large percentage of the final price, and that auctions are contests to see which person will pay the very most for something. In other words, auction pricing is different from what experienced collectors will look to pay.
When valuing a bottle, consider the following:
Prior to Prohibition, Old Fitzgerald was also a premium brand. Such finds are very rare. Value is difficult to gauge since they're seen so infrequently, and also because pre-Prohibition Old Fitzgerald was not produced by the Stitzel-Weller distillery. (It's the S-W association that adds so much desirability to bottlings from after Prohibition). Of course, very few people today have tried "Old Judge" Old Fitzgerald -- Old Judge was the main distillery supplying the brand before Prohibition -- so it's not fair to say whether it was better or worse. Such things are a matter of personal taste anway.
This page is just what we know! It is not complete, nor perfect, and we value any input you may have.