Friday, January 29, 2016

Hoarders. Prohibition Whiskey Edition

Front of box with bottle
showing through cutout.
Throughout Prohibition (1920-1933), legal whiskey was available to everyone. All you needed was a prescription from your doctor. Some doctors refused to write them, but many believed (as many do to this day) that drinking whiskey was beneficial to health. Bakers could also buy liquor legally, since they couldn't very well be expected to make a rum cake without any rum.

Prohibition proponents didn't like these exceptions but accepted them in the spirit of compromise. Remember compromise?

There were limitations, of course. Doctors could write no more than one prescription per patient per month. This is very stingy. Few of my drinking friends could make one pint of whiskey, albeit at 100° proof, last for a month.

Yet some people made them last for almost 100 years.
An actual prescription
It went something like this. With the prescription from your doctor (a serial-numbered, government-issued form printed on banknote paper), you went to your neighborhood pharmacy, where they sold you one pint of the whiskey of your choice. Many of the same brand names you knew before 1920 were still available. The typical Prohibition pint is a flask-type pint bottle in a box, usually cardboard, sometimes metal.

Another reason for the medicinal whiskey compromise was that it gave distillers something to do with all of the whiskey they made before 1920 but couldn't legally sell any other way.

Back of box
Especially in the early days of Prohibition, the medicinal whiskey exception was also a hole through which clever bootleggers such as George Remus literally drove trucks. Remus bribed federal officials to get medicinal whiskey withdrawal permits for the pharmaceutical wholesalers he controlled, which he presented to the distilleries he also owned, allowing him to remove barrels by the hundreds. It was all legal on paper. Once the whiskey was in his possession he didn't bother with prescriptions, pharmacies, and special packaging. He sold it however he could.

That aside, millions of Americans legally bought whiskey from retail pharmacies such as Walgreens, by prescription, so much so that by 1929 the government had to allow several distilleries to make whiskey again, as the whiskey made before 1920 was nearly gone.

As dear as whiskey was, however, many people who went to the trouble of obtaining prescriptions and buying the whiskey never touched it. They never even took the bottle out of the box. They put it in a drawer or a closet and forgot about it.

Why? One assumes they just thought it was something good to have in case they or someone they knew needed it. Bottles turn up all the time. It is rarely a cache of them. It is usually one bottle that someone tucked away for an emergency that never came. Perhaps by the time whiskey became legal again, in 1933, many of them were already forgotten. We'll never know.

How much are they worth today? It is impossible to say. To accurately assess the value of anything you need a reliable record of recent sales of that same or similar objects. Secondary market whiskey sales aren’t reported, a pre-condition for accurate assessment, because all such sales are illegal.

Anyone who claims to be able to accurately assess Prohibition pints or any other collectible whiskey is either a liar or a fool.

Because they are so common, Prohibition pints are probably worth less than you think. When they sell at the annual (legal) auction to benefit the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, Kentucky, it is usually in the low hundreds, but most of the bidders there are mindful that they're making a donation to the museum, which may bid things up beyond their true value. It's impossible to say for sure.

1 comment:

Erik Fish said...

Too bad for all the suddenly newly minted rabbis and clergy back then that scripture only provided sufficient cover for a religious exemption for sacramental wine. A bit more foresight in the Torah and at the Last Supper ......