Rare Bourbon + Rye | The Thoroughbred Collection of American Whiskeys
Online Auction: 15–30 April 2021 • 10:00 AM EDT • New York

Rare Bourbon + Rye | The Thoroughbred Collection of American Whiskeys 15–30 April 2021 • 10:00 AM EDT • New York

W e are delighted to host Sotheby’s first ever Single-Owner auction of American Whiskeys. The Thoroughbred Collection was accrued over many years by a dedicated and knowledgable US private collector (who will remain nameless) and spans both Bourbon and Ryes from Kentucky to Pennsylvania. The collection contains over 250 lots of rare American Whiskey with vintages stretching back over 100 years. Headlines from this collection include 30 bottles from the Van Winkle stable, 10 bottles of Hirsch Reserve and 8 bottles of LeNell’s Red Hook Rye including barrel releases 1 to 4, as well as a Pre-Prohibition Bourbon distilled in 1912.

Sale Highlights

Kentucky Derby Winners By Vintage

The Thoroughbred Collection is a celebration of American Whiskeys, particularly those from Kentucky. The sale will fortuitously take place on the 30th of April, the day before The Kentucky Derby 2021. The Kentucky Derby has long held a strong association with American Whiskey. The Mint Julep is a Bourbon cocktail that was first referenced in the late 18th Century, but has been synonymous with The Derby since 1938 when it was first promoted by Churchill Downs. Going back even further, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was opened by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Farnsley and Stitzel on Derby Day in 1935.

Below we have laid out a timeline of vintages contained in this collection and the respective Derby winner that year.

Van Winkle

Few names are more significant in the world of American whiskey than that of Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle. Synonymous with enthusiasts, whiskeys bottled under the Van Winkle brand have gone on to become amongst the most highly rated and sought-after, gathering an almost cult-like following. Many of those were distilled at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery, opened on Derby Day in 1935, which went on to create some of the finest and most sought-after bourbons ever produced before its closure in the early 1990s, with production moving to the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort. The sale includes a number of whiskeys distilled at Stitzel-Weller, including a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle's 23 Year Old Family Reserve, bottled in 2003 and sealed with a gold wax capsule.

The Old Rip Van Winkle brand was originally created before Prohibition, but it wasn’t until 1972 that it was reintroduced following the repeal. The brand encompasses many of the most highly rated, collectible bourbon and rye whiskeys ever bottled, including the Old Rip Van Winkle 18 Year Old Blue Smoke, bottled exlusively for Blue Smoke Restaurant in New York, of which we are offering three bottles, and the Van Winkle 14 Year Old Family Reserve 1970, sealed with a red wax capsule.


Also included in the sale are no fewer than 12 bottlings from the A.H. Hirsch brand, distilled at the Michter’s/Pennco Distillery near Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania. One of the most sought-after American whiskies by enthusiasts and collectors, many different age statements were bottled under the Hirsch brand, with many of them being destined for the Japanese market. There’s a broad range of bottles from the 1974 vintage, including the incredibly rare A.H. Hirsch Reserve 18 Year Old and A.H. Hirsch Reserve 17 Year Old, both sealed with gold wax capsules as well as the A.H. Hirsch Reserve 16 Year, in the squat bottle with a gold wax capsule.

LeNell’s Red Hook Rye

When it comes to collecting American Whiskey, few names are as legendary as that of Tonya LeNell Smothers (who now goes by the name LeNell Camacho Santa Ana), and few bottles are as significant as LeNell’s Red Hook Rye. Tonya, hailing from Alabama, first set up her liquor store, LeNell’s, in Red Hook, Brooklyn right here in New York City. LeNell’s selection was extensive and eclectic, and it quickly gained the reputation as the go-to store for interesting whiskeys among the local community.

However, it wasn’t until Tonya visited Willet Distillery in Kentucky in 2006 that LeNell’s found itself on the Whiskey map. Tonya selected four barrels of 1984 vintage Rye that were lying in Willet’s Warehouse G in Bardstown and bottled each without chill filtration at cask strength at 23 and 24 years old. These barrels were filled with spirit of a relatively low-rye mash bill (circa 51% rye), meaning that the resulting expression is notably sweet in comparison to other Rye Whiskeys.

In total, across all four of LeNell’s single barrel releases, only 852 bottles exist, making it not only one of the most valuable American Whiskeys ever produced, but also one of the rarest. It is remarkable that not only are all four barrel releases present in this collection, but there are 8 bottles of LeNell’s Red Hook Rye in total, which speaks volumes of the quality of The Thoroughbred Collection.

Willett Distillery

The Willett Distillery provides highlights not only from whiskey bottled under the Willett Brand, but also notable other brands such as Red Hook Rye and Rare Perfection. Located in Bardstown, Kentucky, the distillery began life in 1936, just after the repeal of prohibition, and has a rather chequered history. Initially a success, particularly with the incorporation of popular brands such as Old Bardstown and Johnny Drum, the distillery fell victim to the bourbon decline of the late 1960s and 1970s, and as a result, Willett moved into the production of ethanol for a period of time. Eventually production ceased in the early 1980s, whilst Martha Willett, granddaughter of the founder Lambert Willett, and her husband purchased the distillery in 1984. They formed Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KDB), responsible not only for the bottling of old Willett stock, but also the sourcing and bottling of many other brands. Distilling at Willett was only restarted in 2011, so much of the whiskey bottled under the Willett brand over the years was actually sourced elsewhere.

Producing both bourbon and rye whiskeys, Willett is perhaps most famous for its Family Estate Single Barrel series, of which we are offering 14 lots. Perhaps most fascinating are the Willett Family Reserve 23 Year Old Single Barrel Rye #11 "The Iron Fist" 1984, and Willett Family Reserve 23 Year Old Single Barrel Rye #11 "The Velvet Glove" 1984, some of the earliest rye whiskeys bottled by KDB for Washington whiskey bar Bourbon DC. Bottled at cask strength, these sister casks are some of the rarest Willett bottlings of all time and have only been seen at auction a handful of times.

Other highlights include two bottles of Willett Family Reserve 22 Year Old Single Barrel Rye #618 1984, the very first single barrel of rye released under the Willett label. Known within the bourbon enthusiast circles as ‘Doug’s Green Ink’ bottle, named after the handwritten back label proudly displaying the name of Doug Phillips, the private collector for whom this whiskey was bottled, it is said each of the 263 bottles had their barrel details written in green ink accidentally.

Distilleries in Kentucky
  • Willett Distillery Created with Sketch.
  • Stitzel-Weller Distillery Created with Sketch.
  • Medley Distillery Created with Sketch.
  • Buffalo Trace Distillery Created with Sketch.
  • Early Times Distillery Created with Sketch.
  • Old Taylor Distillery Created with Sketch.
  • Four Roses Distillery Created with Sketch.

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