Earlier this week I had a chance to try some old bottles of whiskey that had been obtained from an estate sale. How old they are is uncertain but one may have been pre-Prohibition and another was almost surely bottled during Prohibition.
I won’t drag this out. They were all terrible, but that doesn’t mean valuable knowledge was not obtained. I’m grateful to my friend who gave me this opportunity.
The first lesson is to be wary of such offerings. I have no reason to believe anything happened to them – whiskey in the bottle is hard to hurt – they probably were just as bad when they were made.
Of the three oldest, two purported to be bourbon, and one was a Maryland rye. One of the bourbons had a very credible Old Crow label that said it was made in Canada. I have seen examples in the past of Prohibition-era Old Crow and Old Grand-Dad that said ‘Made in Canada,’ but this was my first chance to drink one.
It was awful, like someone had made a half-hearted attempt to doctor rubbing alcohol. No resemblance to whiskey whatsoever, not even Canadian whisky. Vile. Disgusting.
The other bourbon had a gaudy label and a funny name – Oak-Something, like ‘Oak-Ville” – with a cartoony image of a barrel. Truly awful whiskey but at least it tasted like whiskey. It was bad in a way I’d never experienced before, very brackish. It may have contained a flavoring or coloring that turned, i.e., it may not have been all-whiskey, but it tasted like it was at least some whiskey.
The Maryland Rye was the most tolerable of the three. Again, it may have been doctored – Maryland producers were notorious for that in the bad old days – but there was an underlying whiskey flavor beneath the awfulness that might have been good. It tasted of wintergreen, which is often the best part of a well-preserved old whiskey.
My friend had some other bottles that were not quite so old, from the 70s and 80s. One was an Old Taylor Bourbon in an unfamiliar bottle, similar to the one Buffalo Trace introduced for the Weller line a few years ago. The back label said Frankfort and Louisville, meaning the National Distillers Forks of Elkhorn Distillery and the Payne Street Bottling Plant, respectively. Payne Street closed in 1979, so this bottle had to precede that date.
The whiskey wasn’t great but you could drink it without gagging and it helped get some of the taste of the other three out of my mouth.
So the moral is, if you have a chance to buy some old whiskey, be careful not to pay too much. And if you have a chance to taste some old whiskey, go ahead but don’t expect too much.