This arrived in the inbox Sunday, from a reader in Texas. "I recently found a bottle of Joe Finch in Beaumont, Texas."
He was looking for more information about it, specifically where it was made. Unfortunately, that question is unanswerable, for reasons that will become clear shortly.
Never heard of Joseph Finch Bourbon? Not surprising. It's so rare, no one is even looking for it.
But it's a good lesson in how anything that has ever been out there in the marketplace is liable to turn up somewhere. That's why there are enthusiasts, known as 'dusty hunters,' who comb the bottom shelves of old stores in forgotten neighborhoods, looking for rare, old bottles of bourbon.
The reason this makes sense, where you wouldn't go looking for rare, old bottles of milk, is because whiskey doesn't change in the bottle, so if a store has poor inventory control systems, a bottle can remain on the shelf for decades. Hence 'dusty.'
Last year at about this time, as The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste was being written, a bottle of A. H. Hirsch Reserve was spotted at a store in Kentucky, and scored for its orginal price of about $45.
Here's the Joseph Finch story.
Joseph Finch and Henry Clay were two limited edition bourbons released in 1997 by United Distillers, a predecessor company to today's Diageo. They were to be the initial offerings in a series called the Rare Bourbons Collection. Fewer than 2,400 bottles of each brand were produced. The packaging was fancy and the price was high.
Then the company changed direction, sold all but two of its American whiskey brands, along with most of their old stocks, and no more Rare Bourbons were released. Both Finch and Clay are almost impossible to obtain today.
Almost, but apparently not quite.
The idea of the Rare Bourbons Collection came about because United Distillers was formed through the acquisition of literally dozens of different companies over more than 70 years. Inevitably, with each new acquisition the company obtained stocks of aging whiskey. Usually, the acquired whiskey was merged with the company’s existing stocks and used in whatever brands the company was still selling. Often, it was used to create blends or other products that did not require strict identification of the whiskey’s origin.
In the late 1990s, as the bourbon category was beginning to show signs of life after three decades in the doldrums, United executives began to wonder if there wasn’t a better way to market the 'odds and ends' of their vast holdings from distilleries no longer in operation.
The result was the Rare Bourbons Collection.
The idea was that a given stock of exceptional, highly aged whiskey would be named, bottled, and sold until it was exhausted, then that line would be discontinued. When all of the various rare bourbon stocks were gone, the whole project would end.
That was the idea, anyway. But it never got that far.
Not that it ultimately mattered, but one big flaw in their thinking was that while they decided to use names significant to the history of American whiskey, they chose not to identify where the various whiskeys were actually made. So it was that the product called Joseph Finch was not, in fact, made at the Joseph Finch Distillery in Pennsylvania, which produced the popular Golden Wedding brand before Prohibition. It was distilled and aged somewhere in Kentucky, but that's all we know.
Nor did the Henry Clay Bourbon have any connection to that Kentucky statesman.
The Henry Clay Bourbon was 16 years old and 90.6° proof (45.3% ABV). The Joseph Finch Bourbon was 15 years old and 86.8° proof (43.4% ABV). Both were priced at $80 a bottle, which is stiff even now and was unheard of in 1997.
Joseph S. Finch was a real guy. He established his Pennsylvania distillery in 1856. His ancestors had been distillers back into colonial times. In 1924, Lewis Rosenstiel acquired the Finch distillery and merged it with his Schenley Products Company, named after another Pennsylvania distillery. Many other acquisitions followed, leading to the company we now know as Diageo.
What killed the Rare Bourbons Collection? United merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo but the new company was overloaded with debt, so it began to sell assets, including all of its American whiskeys except George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey and I. W. Harper bourbon, which it only sells outside the United States. The Rare Bourbons Collection had been part of a whiskey-centric strategy that was abandoned when the company found itself owning Smirnoff Vodka.
While we don't know where Finch and Clay were distilled and aged, we do know where they were bottled: at Diageo's Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which was no longer distilling by then but was active with maturation, bottling, and the offices of some sales and marketing staff.