Auction News: "Dirty Helen", rare bourbon, and the joy of VGS

Auction News: "Dirty Helen", rare bourbon, and the joy of VGS

Some whiskey is good, some is great, and some is VGS. Joe Wilson, head curator and spirits specialist at Whisky Auctioneer, muses on an incredibly rare bourbon in the May auction.

Auction News | 30 May 2023 | By Joe Wilson

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Heritage, genuine or otherwise, is the key driving force behind almost every American whiskey brand. This is the reason so many of them are named after people. The approach varies, however, with some names serving only to elevate the brand itself, whereas others such as Jack Daniel’s and Pappy Van Winkle are at pains to immortalise their namesake. The result is inevitably the same though, and short forms such as “Pappy” and “JD” have become common parlance among a majority who know these names only as, respectively, the world’s most difficult- and easy-to-find whiskies.

There are, however, some brands so rare that the reputation of their eponym still precedes them. “Pappy” is only hard to find, for example, because people know to look for it. A bottle few will have heard of is D.H. Cromwell, a bourbon produced in such limited quantities as to be considered near mythical in status. The figure after whom it is named on the other hand, was about as in-your-face as they came.

Joe Wilson with the D.H. Cromwell bottle.

The individual in question is “Dirty Helen” Cromwell, so-called on account of an abrasive loquaciousness that would often boil over into foul-mouthed tirades at unwitting individuals who dared to order off-menu at her legendary Milwaukee speakeasy, The Sunflower Inn. Off-menu meaning anything other than bourbon or Scotch. With clientele that included names like Al Capone, Johnny Torrio and Big Jim Colosimo, she was not one to be intimidated, nor convinced to change her mind.

One man successful in the latter endeavour, however, was Julian Van Winkle Jnr who in 1946 persuaded Cromwell to switch her sole bourbon offering from Old Forester to Old Fitzgerald, forging a connection, and an affection, between his family and her that has endured long after she passed away in 1969.

This bond was remembered in 1999 when Julian Van Winkle III collaborated with Gordon Jackson of Old Town Liquors in Louisville, Kentucky to produce a unique brand of bourbon to raise money for the American Cancer Society. It contained the same Stitzel-Weller-distilled whiskey as Cromwell’s beloved Old Fitzgerald previously had, was aged 15 years and with only around 70 bottles ever produced, is exceedingly rare. We are delighted therefore to be able to offer one of them in our May 2023 sale at Whisky Auctioneer, marking its first-ever appearance at an online auction.

The name chosen for the brand was D.H. Cromwell, after the Bureau of ATF refused to approve the phrase “Dirty Helen,” although it later softened its stance for a subsequent tribute by Great Lakes Distillery in 2019.

Undeterred, Jackson had some more fun with acronyms on the resubmitted design, labelling the whiskey VGS which Van Winkle has revealed to have stood for the Cromwell-inspired tasting note, “very good sh*t.”

The downside to rarities of this type is that the majority of us will never experience what this really meant, but we are fortunate in instances like this that a peek behind the label can be almost as satisfying as what is beneath the cork. This Dirty Helen bourbon may be hard to find, but her story thankfully is not, and you may just find it to be VGS too.

The successful bidder may choose to open the bottle and find out the true meaning of "VGS".

Whisky Auctioneer's May Auction ends Monday 5 June from 7pm BST.

About Whisky Auctioneer

Whisky Auctioneer is one of the global market leaders and trusted authorities on the buying and selling of whisky and spirits at auction. Founded in 2013 and located in Perth, Whisky Auctioneer utilises its expertise and knowledge combined with its auction platform, to increase interest and passion in the whisky and spirits community.

Whisky Auctioneer endeavours to make the market more accessible for buyers and sellers of any background and geography. Its monthly global auctions feature some of the most comprehensive selections of old, rare and collectible whiskies and spirits available online.

Whisky Auctioneer became the first online auction house to sell a million-pound bottle and outperformed the nearest traditional auction house by 200 per cent in value from spirits sales in 2020, showcasing the move that whisky collectors, investors and drinkers have already made online and firmly establishing their leading position within the modern secondary whisky market.

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