Rare Whiskeys Go Under the Hammer

Some of the world's rarest Bourbons hit the auction block on September 23.
© Four Roses | Some of the world's rarest Bourbons hit the auction block on September 23.
Want some Pappy Van Winkle from before he got famous? Check out this auction.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Tuesday, 21-Sep-2021

If you are into rare whiskey, check out the Speed Art Museum online auction on Thursday. There are only 37 lots but several are– we hate to admit this – whiskeys you can't even find on Wine Searcher.

Is there Pappy? Yes there's Pappy: there's a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 Year that was donated to the Louisville museum by Julian Van Winkle, so you don't have to worry about provenance.

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There's also a much rarer bottle of Van Winkle Family Reserve 15-year-old that was created before Pappy Van Winkle existed. It has the signature red dripping wax of Maker's Mark, and Bourbon expert Fred Minnick, who helped curate the auction collection, said Van Winkle got a cease and desist order about that wax.

"This would have been bottled in 1990," Minnick told Wine-Searcher. "A handful of these were released. Any time I'm building a collection this is one of the bottles I target. It's harder and harder and harder to find them. There was a bottle that just went north of $20,000 on Whiskey Auctioneer. This is a bottle that people should have their eye on, because I don't know how many of these will continue to pop up. The value is only going up. But if I win this bottle, I'm cracking it open and drinking it. It's awesome Bourbon."

Minnick said the whiskey was made when Julian Van Winkle was just starting out.

"Back then he couldn't give the whiskey away," Minnick said. "He would trade these bottles for magazine ads and payments for things. He literally gave these bottles away back in the day. To me that's the headliner of the auction."

Also available is a whiskey that is not sold to the public: Brown-Forman BF150 Special Edition Bourbon, which was only given to members of the Brown family, who are still large shareholders in the company.

"This is highly rare, not available in retail," Minnick said. "The only reason this comes up in auction is Brown-Forman's connection to the Speed Art auction."

Rare breeds

Then there are some odd rarities. There's a stylish decanter bottling of Carleton Tower, which was Hiram Walker's premium Canadian whiskey brand from the 1940s through the 1970s.

"I have had this before, and it was one of the best Canadian whiskies I have ever had. It's a bottle that I'm personally going to be bidding on," Minnick said. "I like old Canadian whiskies. Old Canadian whiskies have this black fruit, raisiny character I haven't really tasted in other whiskies. I love raisins and it's not a note you see a lot in my tasting notes. Those older Canadian whiskies remind me of old brandy. And Canadian whiskey is allowed to have brandy blended in. That might be part of their process. They can have up to 9.09% of other products blended in."

There's a 21-year old bottling of a brand called Collector's Edition. Minnick said the Bourbon was made by the Dowling family, who moved their distillery to Mexico during Prohibition and were never really forgiven for it by Kentucky locals, even when they began distilling locally again.

"Their fortunes were in decline," Minnick said. "This was one of their last-ditch efforts to reverse their decline. There are a lot of old-school people who don't like this whiskey. But this is one of the few 21-year-old Bourbons from that time frame. People just did not drink 21-year-old Bourbon in the 1970s. They thought it was over-oaked. This is much closer to the taste profile of today. Eight-year-old bourbon was thought to be the creme de la creme in the 1970s. The distillers did not release many Bourbons over eight years old."

There's a bottle of Park & Tilford "blend of straight whiskeys", a type of whiskey not seen much anymore. ("Blended whiskey" in North America can include grain neutral spirits, whereas "blend of straight whiskeys" cannot, and typically has whiskeys from multiple states.)

"These blends of straight whiskeys back in the day, I've tasted a few of them, they keep really, really well," Minnick said. "They have a very vibrant flavor profile with graham cracker/nougat notes. I've never tasted this brand. This would have been selling for $4.50. Most of the blends of straights were $2.80 or $3.25. This would have been a premium for that category."

It will probably cost you more than $4.50 to take that bottle home from the Sept. 23 auction, but if you want to give it a shot, you must register ahead of time at artofbourbon.org. An auction representative said about collecting your winnings: "The Speed will ship items to the winning bidder. State laws regarding this are changing, and have changed considerably, but museum officials work with donors, distilleries and different vendors to ensure it all runs smoothly."

It's a live auction beginning at 7pm EST on September 23, so set your alarms. BTW, if you're like me you're probably thinking "Speed Art Museum" has something to do with the Kentucky Derby, NASCAR, or pre-John Wick Keanu Reeves, but in fact its creator was a woman named Hattie Bishop Speed, wife of the president of the Louisville Railway Company. Since there are only 37 items, expect this auction to progress, um, speedily. 

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