H ow do you define the rarest whiskey of all time? Is it a bottle that’s entirely unique? A whiskey from a closed distillery? Something that has never been sold before? This is something that we regularly have to consider at Sotheby’s when assessing collections and valuing bottles.
But I’ve never had to ask myself this before: How do you value something that never technically existed?
A selection of rare American whiskeys – included as the first lot in London’s Finest Scotch & The Rarest American Whiskey auction on 14 April – is exactly that. The collection consists of five bottles, from closed distilleries, that were designed in 1997 as prototypes for United Distillers’s groundbreaking collectible American Whiskey range. The catch is that these bottles, whilst very real, were never commercially produced or released. In fact, it’s believed this set, designed as the framework for UD’s first ever collectible American Whiskey project, is the only one remaining. It has never been offered for sale – until now.
When a picture of these bottles arrived in my inbox, I had no idea what they were. Of course, I knew the distilleries (Buffalo Springs, George T. Stagg, Taylor-Williams, Stitzel-Weller, Old Quaker), but I didn’t recognise the labels, let alone the details of the releases. A few hours of research revealed that there was, in fact, no information about these bottles online – absolutely no trace. Worried, I carried on my research and began to piece together this veritable historical jigsaw.
From what the whiskeys’ owner told me, I understood that these bottles were produced by The Classic Kentucky Bourbon Company, a subsidiary of United Distillers, which itself merged into what is now Diageo. The whisky/whiskey industry is a small one, and it wasn’t long before I tracked down some contacts who worked at UD back in the nineties. I sent them the image via text.
“Oh my God!!” came the first reply. “They are rare American whiskey prototypes from back in the day at United Distillers. Where are they?”
Not a bad start.
“There’s a story!! We should chat, waves of nostalgia.”
My interest was piqued.
The messages continued: “It is a tiny window on the never-to-be-realized UD Bourbon Strategy. It is one of those historic ‘what ifs’. Imagine collectible American whiskey in 1997. They represent an amazing ‘what might have been’ if Diageo had not come along.”
I picked up the phone to try and clear up the story and to fill in some gaps. “Dave Broom will remember”, I was told, and the hunt for information continued.
“Hi Dave. Jonny Fowle from Sotheby’s here. Hope you’re well!” I sent a brief explanatory text and a photo, then waited without too much hope for my phone to ping. Within an hour, Broom sent back an image of some brief notes accompanied by a message reading, “Tasting notes from Spirits & Cocktails (1997). I tried these in Kentucky.”
A man of few words, but straight to the point.
At this stage, I had established the genesis of the bottles – proof that they existed and that the whiskeys had even been tasted before, with notes immortalized in print. This was possibly the only existing documentation of the bottles outside of the United Distillers archives, much of which sadly wasn’t preserved after the corporate merger.
The company, formed in 1987, was a significant whisky portfolio owner on both sides of the Atlantic, operating the six “Classic Malts” distilleries in Scotland and both Bernheim and Sitzel-Weller distilleries in Kentucky. As Scotch whisky gained traction in the collector market, American whiskey began to fall behind even vodka on the high end. So United Distillers set up The Classic Kentucky Bourbon Company, launching a new project to create an annual release of five very different barrel-proof, high-age statement American whiskeys. They got as far as bottling two prototypes of each selected whiskey, which were tasted not just within UD, but also by respected industry critics at the time.
While researching pre- and post-Prohibition whiskeys in the company’s archives and interviewing several of the distillers, Broom was shown the first prototype set – which explains his notes. “It was a brilliant way to show the then little-known and little-appreciated backstory of American whiskey”, he told me. “Lots of stills, forgotten styles and diversity provided a tantalising glimpse of what could be revived.”
“It was a brilliant way to show the then little-known and little-appreciated backstory of American whiskey. Lots of stills, forgotten styles and diversity provided a tantalising glimpse of what could be revived.”
But Broom awaited a release that never came. Just when The Rare American Whiskey Selection project received approval to launch about 6,000 bottles of each expression, UD merged with another company, International Distillers & Vinters (as United Distillers & Vintners), forming the spirits division of what is now Diageo. The project was shelved, never to be revived.
The two sets of liquid were split up and one was sent to the Stitzel-Weller distillery for safekeeping, while the other set remained at the company headquarters in the United Kingdom for the European market (hence the 70cl bottle size). Ironically, it’s believed that the set at Stitzel-Weller was destroyed in an office fire, making the set in this auction the only one that remains in existence.
This series of five whiskeys would have been a landmark in the history of premium American whiskey. The project would have preceded the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection by a number of years, and surely would have dramatically influenced the footprint of US whiskeys in collector circles. These bottles represent not only ultra-rare liquid from now-closed distilleries, but a crucial element of the story of rare American whiskey’s history that has until now gone untold.