When Joseph Hyman, a rare spirits specialist for Skinner Auctioneers, first examined the brown glass bottle his employer was about to sell, he already suspected it was one of the oldest bottles. American-made whiskey he’s ever seen.
For one, it was embossed with the name “Evans & Ragland”, a grocer and whiskey bottler who operated in LaGrange, Georgia for about a decade after the Civil War. And a typed note pasted on the back suggested that the whiskey had been distilled before 1865, as there were no known distilleries in post-war Georgia that could have sold it to Evans & Ragland in a bottle. Mr. Hyman thought it could have been made in the 1850s and then stored until the fighting was over.
To authenticate it, Mr Hyman used a syringe to extract a small sample and worked with laboratories at the University of Georgia and the University of Glasgow to analyze it. The results shocked him: Radiocarbon dating indicated, with 81% accuracy, that the whiskey was distilled between 1763 and 1803, making it by far the oldest American whiskey in existence.
“It was a cool story before,” Mr. Hyman said. “But once the tests came back, it became a monster of a story. It still blows my mind.
Skinner plans to sell the bottle at the end of June and expects a hammer price of up to $ 40,000 – evidence of growing interest in rare American whiskey, especially whiskey made before Prohibition. But even though Mr. Hyman is right – and some skeptics have disputed his conclusions – the provenance of the bottle poses more questions than it answers some of the deepest aspects of American whiskey history.
Even without its record age, the whiskey is an intriguing piece of Americana. The grandfather of the current owner, who remains anonymous, received it as a gift from Governor James F. Byrnes of South Carolina, a former United States Supreme Court justice and close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mr. Byrnes received it from Jack Morgan, the son of financier JP Morgan, who also donated bottles of the same whiskey to Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Although Jack Morgan was not much of a drinker, his father was and owned a renowned wine and spirits collection that included whiskeys that were already old when he bought them in the late 19th century.
This particular bottle was one of a large set of bottles, mostly Maryland rye, which he bought from a wealthy Baltimore landowner around 1900. But how it came to be from LaGrange, a small town in the southwest of ‘Atlanta, Baltimore, nobody knows.
The most intriguing question, Mr Hyman said, is how the whiskey got to Evans & Ragland in the first place. Although by the mid-19th century there were several large commercial distilleries along the East Coast and the Ohio Valley, most whiskey, especially in Georgia, was made by small farmers, who l ‘used to barter or sold it to retailers like Evans & Ragland.
“Everyone was distilling whatever kind of product they had left, because if they didn’t, they would rot,” he said. “It was a way to extend the growing season into winter.”
But how to explain the delay of more than 50 years between distillation and bottling? The whiskey could not have stayed in a barrel all this time, Mr Hyman said; it would have evaporated through the wood.
Instead, he assumes it was aged briefly in a wooden barrel and then stored in a glass or ceramic container called a demijohn, a common practice at the time. Perhaps forgotten, it could have been in a warehouse or barn for decades before anyone found out.
These are educated guesses, Hyman admitted, adding that all kinds of questions remain unanswered and possibly unanswered.
For example, the bottle indicates that the whiskey was from the “Old Ingledew” distillery, a name that appears almost nowhere else in the historical records, not even in the Troup County records at LaGrange. Did “Old Ingledew” even exist? Or was it a name evoked by Evans & Ragland to give a little prestige to a local farmer’s hooch?
We don’t even know exactly what the liquid is. It’s not bourbon, as some reports have called it. A separate chemical analysis showed the main ingredient to be corn, which makes it similar to bourbon – although no one would have used this term, which appeared in the early 1800s in Kentucky.
Back then, drinkers surely would have called it whiskey, a catch-all term for grain-based spirits, but today there are federal rules on what qualifies and what not. like whiskey or bourbon, like it’s aged, and in what kind of barrel.
Due to the lack of answers, some whiskey historians question whether Mr. Hyman draws too firm a conclusion from too weak a stack of evidence.
“I’m skeptical that this really comes from the 18th century, ”said Michael R. Veach, author of“ Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage ”. “He wouldn’t have aged. It would’ve been put right into a jug, because it was like money, and if you put it in a barrel, some of it would have been soaked in the wood and lost.
Adam Herz, the founder of the LA Whisk (e) y Society who confirmed the age of several mid-19th century whiskey bottles, questioned whether the analysis was rigorous enough, saying it should have been conducted with control samples and peer review (but he also admits his own potential bias: he holds the record for identifying the bottle of American whiskey, a rye made in 1847, previously believed to be the oldest).
Mr Hyman supports the analysis, noting that the University of Glasgow lab is widely regarded as the best in the world for dating old whiskey.
Of course, for many potential buyers, there is a question just as important as where the whiskey comes from: how does it taste?
Mr Hyman said he managed to keep aside a few drops of his sample, which he rubbed on his hand, smelled, and then brought to his lips.
“It tasted,” he said, “like bourbon.”