By Fred Minnick

Up for Auction

How a bottle of Henry McKenna went for a song
As I walked into the Kentucky Bourbon Festival auction room, I sized up the competition. There was Bill Thomas, owner of the iconic Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington DC. Last year, Bill hosted me for a Whiskey Women book signing. His personal collection puts mine to shame. There was Mike Miller, owner of Chicago's Delilah's, the punkest bourbon bar in the world with a selection that will humble even the savviest collectors. As we whiskey lovers conversed, somebody mentioned a Henry McKenna sold for $35,000 at the former distillery's auction. Mike commented: "Well, it's a good thing I wasn't there. I'd have pulled the check book out for $40,000." This certainly signalled Mike was ready to buy, as were the other collectors in the room. Up for sale were historical classics, such as the Old Miller Prentice distilled in 1935 and bottled in 1941 and the Golden Wedding Whiskey distilled in 1917 and bottled in 1933, as well as contemporary icons that included the recent Pappy Van Winkle releases and Four Roses limited editions. I suspected most bidders were here for Pappy Van Winkle, the elusive bourbon that drives us all insane for its lack of availability. There was only one bottle I wanted, and it was unfortunately leading off the auction. Standing 11 inches tall with a plastic screw cap and an intact tax stamp, Henry McKenna 6 Years Old was bottled in 1977. The distiller was Ed Foote, a 2014 inductee to the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame. Ed and I have become personal friends, and this is the only bottle of Henry McKenna I've seen he made, making it even more special. The fact is, the distillery is dead. Extinct. Its remains auctioned off like a livestock sale. The stills have been stripped and moved to other distillers. Heaven Hill owns the label, and I'm a big fan of the current 10 Years Old Single Barrel expression. But this bottle represented the last of the Seagram's McKennas.

When the rather slow-talking auctioneer started the bidding, I let the players play. $75, $125, $150…. "Anybody give me $175?" yelped the auctioneer. I raised my right arm, proudly displaying my auction No. 19. "New money!" he yelled. Four rows back, somebody matched me bid for bid. Was it Mike? Or was it the straight-billed hat fella in the NBA jersey? Surely, it wasn't the latter; I could probably smell his dirty armpits. Whoever it was, I had a bidding war. What was my limit? How badly did I want this whiskey? And will my wife kill me if I go way over? I considered all points in short time, raising my hand every time I was outbid. As the bid went over $300, I had a serious decision to make. Was I willing to sleep on the couch for a week? The answer was yes, and I set my absolute highest price at $600. Unlike the other older products on display, like the extremely light-coloured 16 Years Old Golden Wedding, Henry McKenna was in great shape. I could have the actual distiller sign the bottle, easily making it one of the rarest Henry McKennas on the planet. I bidded it up to $325, ready for the mysterious competition to match me and willing to go much further. The auctioneer did his mumbling, trying to get new bidders, trying to get my competition to outbid, trying to rip my soul from my chest, but nobody was interested in going $25 more. "$325, going ooooonce. $3-2-5 Goiinnngg……. Did you see that bottle? It's a beauty…. Who wants in?" The auctioneer was taking forever, making me sweat for the only bottle I wanted. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, he belted the magic word: "Sold!" I won at a fair price. I held the bottle, caressed its deep etched glass lettering and analysed the shimmering russet bourbon inside. The bottle was perfect. Furthermore, my check raised money for the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey. As I walked to the parking lot, a group of festivalgoers stopped me. A man scratched his long beard. "What did you get there?" I pulled the bottle from the sack, unravelled its protective plastic layer and showed him the beauty. Henry McKenna looked even better in the cloud- filtered sunlight.