I have seen a barfight in Tennessee and a fierce lovers’ quarrel at a high end restaurant in Manhattan. I watched the 2016 election in my friend’s Greenwich Village bar and World Cup football games with day-drinking Brazilians in dive bars in Queens. I have never, however, been more on edge around alcohol than I was on one freezing cold Friday night at Christie’s, the venerable auction house in Manhattan.
On December 7, Christie’s held an auction that included hundreds of lots of rare wines and spirits, among them an exceptional assortment of pre-Prohibition whiskey found in 2017 in a secret vault constructed by a wealthy banker behind a bookshelf at his California estate during Prohibition. It was the largest private collection of pre-Prohibition whiskey and it included more than 40 sealed bottles of bonded whiskey, some distilled as early as 1914.
Among the treasures: cases of century-old pint bottles of Hermitage whiskey distilled in 1914 and splashed with the admonishment “A pure whiskey for medicinal use;” Old Crow distilled in 1912; and that brandished itself as, “Whiskey without a headache.” Among many more.
With auctions making headlines in the past few months, like the 60 (or so) year old Macallan that went for an unfathomable 1.2 million pounds ($1.5 million) at Christie’s London in November and another Macallan commanding $1.01 million at Bonhams Hong Kong in May, I suspected I wouldn’t see any records be broken, but having never watched an auction before, I headed to Christie’s airy, refined quarters, striking distance from the grand Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, to bear witness to this unprecedented event.
So why the anxiety? I watched as the practiced auctioneer, a young charismatic type who dropped the gavel with a dramatic flick of the wrist, worked the room.
Dispassionate as his introductions of each new treasure may have been and how subjective the call-and-response interaction seemed, at first, at least, his propriety gradually, well, hours later, loosened when he started dropping sly comments. (“Sold, to a bidder in France! France deserves it, he’s up late enough,” he remarked of the whisky-lover logging his bids online. “I’m sure it’s very good, sir,” he assured to the buyer of a Berry Brothers TK that went for $11,000, up from a starting price of $6,000. “Hong Kong come back. No regrets, Hong Kong... There you are.”)
My purse, my person, my extremest means; lie all unlocked to your occasion
With the astonishment akin to a rural farmer’s daughter taking her first stroll through Times Square, I watched at the auctioneer ushered each bottle’s price up and up and up. It could escalate by several thousands during the course of 90 seconds.
It was like a poker game in quick-time—or better yet, a tennis match at a higher velocity. What especially struck me was the way he started building a rapport with bidders, beckoning to the high-roller in Hong Kong through the ether or the person “on my left,” or anyone else, whether a digital or 3-D presence, if they went silent in a heated bidding war.
But what struck me the most was the anonymity of it all. It was “Hong Kong” and “Florida” and “Massachusetts” and “on the phone.” It was patrons and their purses, one and the same, a condition that Shakespeare points to in The Merchant of Venice when Antonio assures his friend Bassanio, “My purse, my person, my extremest means; lie all unlocked to your occasion.”
Helping a friend is arguably much more noble than buying antique hooch, of course, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to these bottles. Will they be drunk around a table during a special occasion? Sipped in a moment of quiet contemplation? Will they be displayed on a shelf, a token of status? Hidden in a secret vault, discovered decades from now.
Then again, there’s a poetic justice to it all. An old, rare bottle of whisky getting dispatched to a nameless buyer somewhere on this planet is every bottle’s destiny anyway. The many workers in a distillery make the spirit in anonymity, so it should be consumed that way, too. Whisky doesn’t show favour or discriminate. By belonging to anybody, it belongs to everybody.