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God bless Herr Bourbon

Heinz Taubenheim's grand passions have made him the toast of the American whiskey world. Susanne and Juergen Deibel meet the genie behind the bourbon bottles
By Juergen Deibel
Buried deep in the valleys of the Hunsrueck in western Germany, is the sleepy little village of Griebelschied. There, on what is known locally as Bourbonstreet, is an old converted garage. Step inside and you will be greeted by an astonishing sight, for here is one of the largest American bourbon collections in the world.Its owner is Heinz Taubenheim who always has a warm welcome ready for visitors to his bar. Any whisk(e)y lover feels immediately at home, surrounded by more than 1,000 bottles, seductively gleaming in the soft lamplight. Surely this has to be the biggest collection in Germany, Europe or even in the world? Heinz Taubenheim demurs, saying only, “It is the biggest collection in Griebelschied, which means more bottles than inhabitants.”The start of his collection dates back to the late 1960s when he became fascinated by America. American soldiers were billeted in the area so he could witness the American way of life at first hand. As his love affair with the culture grew, so it persuaded him to look more closely at its tradition and history. It wasn’t his intention to amass a big collection, but he soon realised that what he was gathering had tremendous potential. The collection then outgrew his house and so he converted his old garage into a picturesque bar to hosts today’s huge array of bottles. Each one has its own story and is photographed, catalogued, numbered, then placed on its shelf and destined never to be opened. Herr Taubenheim really can’t say exactly when he started, but undoubtedly his collection is now one of the largest, if not the largest collection of American whiskey world-wide. Even Italian collectors, who are famous for their extensive range of exhibits, do not figure when pitched against the possessions of this modest German bar owner. Avid collectors admire Herr Taubenheim and many are now his friends, relishing the times when they get together to swap rare bottles. The group stay in touch and Herr Taubenheim proudly shows bottles he received from all over, from Japan to Lithuania. He can’t remember which bottle came first, but does recall one of the first bottles he gave to a friend as a present when he was a young man. It was a bottle of six-year-old Springfield bourbon. “After that it became rare and it took me almost another 20 years to find another one for my collection,” he laughs.Bourbon whiskey bottles make up about 80 per cent of the collection. The rest of it is divided into Tennessee, rye, corn, malt and blended whiskey from America. Some of these bottles are especially bottled and labelled for supermarkets and drug store chains. Among the rare bottles are quaint ones with labels like the The Storm King Whiskey from J.C. Childs or the Colonel James B. Beam bottle from Jim Beam Distillery. Labels we will never see the like of again. Well known names in America’s whiskey heritage are well represented in his collection. Among them Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, Old Rip van Winkle, Bakers, Blanton’s, Blue Grass, Elijah Craig, Early Times, Ezra Brooks, Evan Williams, George Dickel, Glenmore, Golden Wedding, Heaven Hill, I.W. Harper, Medley’s, Old Bardstown, Old Fitzgerald, Old Grand Dad, are just of the few who crop up, a veritable Who’s Who of American whiskey. Names that not only represent brands from today’s distilleries but some from distilleries long gone as well. This may be one of the few places on earth, where you can still find bottles from long lost distilleries which, although almost forgotten now, are nonetheless a part of American history. The most interesting bottles are kept in a special cupboard that resembles an old fireplace. Everyone who asks to look will be shown and there are some real treasures to behold. For example, Herr Taubenheim’s oldest bottle is a 1855 distilled rye whiskey from Golden Wedding, purchased by a Jacob Vanderpoele in 1867 and bottled in 1875. This really is a small miracle of survival because, as far as Herr Taubenheim knows, there are only two bottles in existence. Even the famous Oskar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, Kentucky, does not have it, a fact that has given Herr Taubenheim immense credibility with the museum’s owner.When he travels Herr Taubenheim always carries a small photo album, featuring all the jewels of his collection. With great gusto he how he managed to buy the 1855 rye whiskey bottle. He captured this one after receiving a phone call from a friend in Italy who had heard that a shipment of old American whiskey bottles was due to arrive there the next day. So he took a day off work, drove straight to Italy with some of his bottles in the car as swaps. When he arrived, there was the 1855. Now this rare bottle takes of pride of place in his collection, testimony to the passion of a true collector.Another gem in the Taubenheim top ten is a very old bottle of whiskey, described as medicine during Prohibition, showing two age statements of Spring 1916 and Fall 1933 on the duty tax on top of the bottle. The man’s commitment and his extensive knowledge have brought brought him fame and acclaim from such august bodies as Blanton’s Single Barrel Society and Jack Daniels, where he now owns a symbolic plot of land on a famous hill right behind the distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Booker Noe, grandson of Jim Beam at Jim Beam Distillery, was moved to tears when he saw a picture of Herr Taubenheim’s collection of treasures from Jim Beam Distillery: nowhere else in the world, other than in this collection, can you can see a better compilation of all the brands ever made at Jim Beam Distillery – probably not even at the distillery itself. The story of how he met Booker Noe is typical of how Herr Taubenheim gets to know to most of the key people in the industry. When he turns up at a distillery he never announces himself as a collector of American whisk(e)y, but just shows his photo album and doors open. Some years ago he was sitting in a bar in America, talking to the barman about whiskey in general. The barman quickly realised that there was a man with great knowledge of the subject, so he asked how that came to be so. Herr Taubenheim told him about his large collection of American whiskey back home in Germany and showed the photos. It turned out that the barman knew Booker Noe, rang him up straight away and arranged a meeting. Since that time Herr Taubenheim and Booker Noe have remained friends and his collection now proudly includes a bottle of Booker Noe’s private bottling, personally signed by the man himself. On one of his many trips Herr Taubenheim was invited to the Kentucky Derby, the famous annual horse race. He was introduced as “Mr Bourbon” to the Governor of Kentucky and again photos of the collection were shown. The governor was greatly surprised and impressed, and at the same time was also concerned about what would happen to the collection if it were ever to be sold and so lost from public view. He asked Herr Taubenheim on the spot to allow the Kentucky state to have an option to bid for the collection first just to make sure “that this piece of Kentucky history will be in Kentucky hands”. This again shows the quality of the collection and its importance for American, and especially Kentucky, history. Naturally, Heinz Taubenheim is a well-known face among the distilleries he has visited many times. Distillers demonstrate their affection by supplying him with private bottlings of specially selected whiskey with customised labels, such as Maker’s Mark bottling for ‘Mr Bourbon Heinz Taubenheim’.When he acquired the one thousandth bottle for his collection, Ronny Kutzner, brand ambassador of Jack Daniels Germany, and his colleagues knew they had to stage a special tribute. Finally they came up with the idea of bringing Heinz a very special bottle of Jack Daniels from heaven. It was the 150 years’ anniversary bottling of the Jack Daniels Distillery for the year 2000, which was especially filled and labelled exclusively to celebrate this event and to honour Herr Taubenheim. On 25 September, the bottle was flown in and brought safely to Bourbonstreet via a tandem parachute. One of the jumpers was Edith, Herr Taubenheim’s wife, who shares his passion for collecting. Afterwards Jack Daniels hosted a party for all the collector’s friends featuring a American barbecue, cowboys and girls (including their horses) and Jack Daniels whiskey.

Whiskey collectors from all overhave come to see this famous collection. Herr Taubenheim has been offered a fortune for the collection, and even his single bottles are very valuable. But he has not been tempted. After all what’s a pot of gold compared with a passion that has brought him friends and admiration throughout the world?