Bourbon is now firmly in the sights of serious whiskey collectors

The days of Kentucky bourbon playing second fiddle to Scotch whisky are well and truly in the past
By Liza Weisstuch
Extensive, painstaking research into newspaper archives and historical records, forensic studies, chemical analysis, and good old-fashioned detective work has revealed that the brown-glass bottle embossed with ‘Evans & Ragland LaGrange, GA,’ a grocer and bottler, contains the oldest American whiskey in the world. Distilled sometime between 1763 and 1803, it’s going up for sale at Skinner Auctioneers in late June and the hammer price is expected to be around US$40,000 (GBP£28,745). [This issue printed before the auction took place.]

That’s a veritable bargain compared to the $1.04 million (£751,703) realised by The Macallan Peter Blake 1926 60 Years Old at Bonhams in Hong Kong in 2018. Or the Yamazaki 55 Years Old that sold for a cool $645,125 (£466,989) at Bonhams last August, setting a record for Japanese whiskies at auction.

America’s whiskey industry is, of course, younger than Scotland’s and less exotic than Japan’s, but bourbons and ryes have captured collectors’ attention in the last two decades and the fascination – if not fanaticism – with these categories doesn’t look to be going away any time soon.

There's a community that'll make anything a 'unicorn' if they think it's rare enough

Unlike barrels slumbering in the dark corners of Scotland’s well-tracked warehouses, late 19th- and early 20th-century US whiskeys were hidden away during Prohibition and often forgotten about. They’ll turn up today because someone found them in, say, a grandfather’s basement. For that reason, they often come with rich, colourful stories.

The Evan & Ragland bottle’s lineage stretches back to Jack Morgan, son of financier J.P. Morgan, who gifted it to James F. Byrnes, a US Supreme Court Justice and confidant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Byrnes, who was also Secretary of State under President Truman, gifted it to the anonymous current owner’s grandfather. You could make the case that what the US whiskey industry lacks in gravitas, compared to Scotch, it certainly makes up for in personality. Of course, Scotland has Mr Walker and Mr Dewar, but Americans would outnumber them around a dinner table. See: Jim, Jack, Booker, the Van Winkles, George T. Stagg, E.H. Taylor, Col. Blanton, and so on.
Building your selection of bourbon

While familiar distilleries in Scotland and Japan are regularly represented on the global stage, some collectors pursue American whiskies expressly because the distilleries are obsolete (more on that in a minute). But arguably the more prevalent kind of bourbon collector is the person who was turned on to pricey bourbons by the high-profile Van Winkle phenomenon. Collectively, that obsession broadened to encompass the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Parker’s Heritage Collection and a number of other highly allocated releases.

It’s safe to say the internet is to credit (or blame, depending on your outlook) for the exponential growth of American whiskey collecting. Between eBay, forums, Facebook groups and Craigslist, information proliferated, curiosity grew and whiskey transactions went gangbusters, giving rise to a largely illicit secondary market and inflating retail prices tremendously. The biggest crackdown came in June 2019, when Facebook removed the group Bourbon Secondary Market, which had more than 55,000 members at its downfall. That October, 46 state attorneys general signed letters urging Facebook, eBay and Craigslist to crack down on illegal alcohol sales.

An entire lingua franca has evolved around the new-world marketplace. To ‘clear the shelves’ is to buy up whatever you can find of a release and sell them for profit on the illegal secondary market. Opening a rare bottling to establish your status is referred to by the NSFW term ‘dick swinging.’ The price of that, however, is ‘#lostprofitz.’ The act of stocking your shelves with rare whiskey is ‘bunkering,’ which can elicit ill-will if you post too many photos of your haul.

“Is this really collecting? Or is it exacerbating the market and causing a self-fulfilling prophesy?” asked Josh Feldman, a writer and collector in the New York region whose collection numbers around 500. “You’re seeing this in auction pricing. People understand that it’s a sound economic move to [build] stock, but from this the mania’s extended.”

There are varying theories as to what led up to it. One popular belief is that, after World War Two, American distilleries cranked up production. The government had impounded alcohol for the war effort and some feared that with the Korean War approaching, it could happen again. But it didn’t, which resulted in a glut of whiskey and tumbling prices that led to the assumption that American spirits were low-quality. Those bottles sat on shelves collecting dust for decades, giving rise to the term ‘dusties.’ (Avid collectors go ‘dusty hunting’ in off-the-beaten-track liquor stores.)

Feldman points out the broader cultural context of the 1960s and 70s that likely played a role, too: anti-war demonstrations, the sexual revolution and young people who disdained their parents’ preferences and habits helped push American whiskey aside and usher in more modern, progressive trends. In the 1990s, a great deal of leftover Scotch was available from the changes to that sector throughout the prior 20 years. But, as the new millennium arrived, long-overlooked American whiskeys were widely available and attention was being paid. The Van Winkle releases of whiskey from Stitzel Weller rode that early wave and established the quality of old stock. Other names soon elicited pursuits of their own: A.H. Hirsch, Michter’s and more besides.

Collecting took a turn in January 2018, when the Kentucky legislature passed the Vintage Spirits Law which allowed licensed retailers to purchase vintage spirits from an unlicensed seller, then sell it in-store. A month later, Justins’ House of Bourbon opened its doors. Justin Sloan and Justin Thompson had worked together at The Bourbon Review, a Kentucky-based magazine that Thompson and his brother Seth created for enthusiasts. Retail was the next logical outlet for their passion. They weren’t sure how it would pan out in the already-crowded Kentucky marketplace. Suffice it to say, it turned out very, very well. Especially with the ability to buy and sell bottles from and to collectors. They do about 150 barrel picks each year. They are also the retail sponsor of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, local music festivals, and more.

“The market is growing every day and new people are getting in,” Sloan says. “People ask ‘is it worth it?’ A lot of people remember the first time they had Pappy. That sharing experience is what you’re paying for. What’s the worth of sitting down with your dad and having Pappy 23?”

During the pandemic, bourbon collecting never lost momentum. Sloan says that people who weren’t spending money on other luxuries were spending it on vintage bourbons. Prices, he says, jumped 20 to 30 per cent. Now he’s convinced the American whiskey market is not a bubble.
Inside Justins" House of Bourbon

Larry Rice, who owns several bars in Louisville, including the Silver Dollar, agrees. The pandemic energised the digital marketplace, he says. His beliefs about how the craze took off are informed by his decades of bar experience. For a long time, American whiskey was a shot and little else. Then awareness of food and drink in general took off.

“Fine dining and wine got people thinking about flavours. That applies to all spirits,” Rice says. “I think people want to appreciate things they do daily. Part of it’s about seeing other people’s experience and excitement on social media, but bartenders have always had influence. Bartenders in the US started telling people not all whiskey is something to shoot and regret.”

Then there are the purists – academics on a quest for a broader purpose. They seek whiskies with familiar names that were made on different equipment or in a different style than they are today. Old Crow, for instance, is common well spirit. Before it was bought by National Distillers after repeal and the whiskey glut diminished its standing, it was a delicious treasure – reverberating with rich coffee and rum-soaked vanilla bean, according to those who’ve tasted it. James Crow was said to have invented the sour mash process at the old Oscar Pepper Distillery. He allegedly kept his mash bill secret and the last barrel was supposedly drunk at the turn of the 20th century. The current Old Crow is not what Mr Crow formulated. This intrigue fuels many.

“I want to know the historical stories. I’m always looking for whiskeys that aren’t epicurean or delicious but have historical stories attached to them,” says Feldman. “There’s probably a bottle of the original Old Crow. That’s my fantasy – to find the lost recipe that inspired Old Crow.”

But with all that, collecting – whether a passing hobby, an artform or a financial pursuit – has its sceptics. “It doesn’t have anything to do with whisky. It’s just a thing, just an object. It could be a painting, a sculpture, Eric Clapton’s guitar, anything collectible,” says Chuck Cowdery, a journalist specialising in whiskey and author of Bourbon Straight, plus a popular blog.

“There’s a community that’ll make anything a ‘unicorn’ if they think it’s rare enough. The people who like whisky and like to taste things that are really good – they’re a different community. There may be some people in both communities, but it’s like a bunch of insurance salesmen trying to sell insurance to each other. If you’re not an insurance salesman, it’s like jumping into pool of piranhas. That’s what collecting seems to be.”