WHAT ARE THEY WORTH?
Did I want these? Kinda. But the owner was demanding $1,000 per bottle, which I thought was plain silly. [As of 2017, that might be an arguably fair price... times have changed!]
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:
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 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?
(Originally published March 2013)
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.
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