Welcome to the Bourbon Bunker?

Welcome to the Bourbon Bunker?

So you thought there were only a handful of bourbons? American correspondent\rCharles K. Cowdery tracks down some collectors who have hundreds

Production | 23 Feb 2004 | Issue 37 | By Charles Cowdery

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What do you consider a well-stocked drinks cabinet? For some people, two or three bottles will do. For others, 10 or 20 are plenty. For John and Linda Lipman of Cincinnati, Ohio, 400 different bottles of American whiskey is little more than a good start.The Lipmans began collecting American whiskey in 1997, as souvenirs from their trips to places in the USA where whiskey is or has been made.“John had five or six bourbon bottles in my spice rack,” says Linda. “I told him that if he wanted more, he would have to build a shelf in the basement, because I needed the rack for my spices.”Today, many shelves later, their collection – augmented by whiskey advertising signs and other memorabilia – fills the basement and threatens to engulf the rest of the house.One highlight of the Lipmans’ collection is a bottle of Pennsylvania straight rye whiskey produced in 1878 by Thomas McMullen & Co. Another is a Mt. Vernonrye, bottled in 1914, that they found in a Maryland antique shop, complete with its original box and lead seal intact. “We collect history,” says John.Bobby F. Cox Jr. of Clermont, Kentucky, is another avid collector. His ‘bourbon bunker,’ as he calls it, has a collection approaching 200 bottles.“It started during the Y2K scare,” says Bobby, whose home stands in the shadow of one of Jim Beam’s distilleries.“I didn’t buy a generator, but if anything happened I figured a few nice bottles of bourbon might come in handy while waiting for the lights to come back on.”Bobby’s pride and joy is a case of George T. Stagg Bourbon from the original release in 2002. This limited bottling of uncut and unfiltered 15-year-old bourbon from Buffalo Trace sold out quickly among bourbon aficionados.Bobby has used a couple of bottles for trades and has, of course, sampled some, but most of the case is intact.He also owns a rare pre-Prohibition bottle of Old Sunnybrook bottled-in-bond rye whiskey.Mark Rickey of Staten Island, New York, launched is collection just three years ago. Mark has about 200 bottles on display and 359 in total. You can view photographs of them on his website at http://home.si.rr.com/paradox7/. (The Lipmans also have a web site at http://www.ellenjaye.com which shows some of their collection and chronicles their extensive travels.)Mark’s collection emphasises those American whiskey expressions produced for export and not therefore generally available in the USA.He relies on friends and acquaintances around the world to keep him supplied with the latest releases.“It is a bit tough to get the export-only bottlings, such as the Duty Free releases that Wild Turkey is known to do,” says Mark. “But searching out new bottles is sometimes half the fun.”One of Mark’s prizes is a bottle of 19-year-old A.H. Hirsch bourbon which he recently acquired.“I found it by luck, not even knowing a 19-year-old version existed,” says Mark. “I later found out that it was a one-time-only bottling done in early 1993. Only 190 cases were produced.”Mark is also proud of his complete set of Maker’s Mark bottles with wax seals in the colours of all the NFL football teams.“There can be only 300 complete sets out there because there were only 300 of the San Diego Chargers bottle made, and that’s only if no one happened to open one to drink it,” he says.A collector named Bill, in Kansas City, Missouri, stockpiles American whiskey along with guns, knives, watches, fountain pens, and old Hewlett Packard calculators.“I’ve always enjoyed mechanical things with a bit of history and mystique,” says Bill. “American whiskey lacks the mechanical connection, although the distilleries are pretty neat, but the industry is definitely rich in history and mystique.”Like most of the group, Bill’s collection began by accident.“I figured I was on the collector path once I had acquired over 50 different bottlings,” he says.He is most proud of his boxed bottle of bonded 8-year-old Very Old Fitzgerald, barrelled in 1950 and bottled in 1958. It was a wedding gift to his parents from his grandfather.“Besides the sentimental value, the fact that it was produced under the direction of Pappy Van Winkle adds to its significance,” he says. “I wouldn’t sell it for any amount.”Like Bill, Omar Montejo collects fountain pens in addition to bourbon.Omar, who lives in South Florida, concentrates on limited edition exports, whiskey distilled at the now-defunct Stitzel-Weller plant, and bourbons aged 15 years or more. He has about 120 bottles.The question of drinking the collection always comes up.To drink or not to drink? About one-sixth of Omar’s bottles are open.Bill taps many of his and that’s why he isn’t interested in collecting Prohibition-era medicinal whiskey, much of which spent too many years in wood.“Some of the Prohibition-era stuff I’ve seen, smelled and tasted really scares me,” he says.Others who want to have their collection and drink it too have tried a one-for-the bunker, one-for-the-pantry strategy.“Once my goal was to have a drinking bottle and a backup sealed,” says Bobby Cox. “However, that doesn’t hold true now. There are some that I plan only to have a bottle to save, and some that I drink.”For the best whiskeys, one bottle in reserve isn’t enough.With products such as George T. Stagg and Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, he tries to buy a case.This is practical for many collectors because, unlike single malts, most American whiskey is relatively inexpensive, rarely exceeding $50 a bottle.“You don’t have to be wealthy to develop a very comprehensive collection,” says John Lipman. He doesn’t hesitate to open almost any item in his collection.“It doesn’t do anyone any good in the bottle,” says John.The community of American whiskey collectors is small, so there isn’t much trading or reselling.Recently, a small secondary market has emerged on eBay, the internet auction site.The rare bottles – often the Prohibition era medicinal whiskey Bill eschews – go for hundreds of dollars.As it has with so many things, the internet is making it easier for American whiskey collectors scattered across the country to communicate with each other and exchange pictures of their treasures.Though still too small to yet be considered a phenomenon, the growing collector community is yet one more indication of a new vitality in the American whiskey industry.
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