Case Lost but not a Lost Case

Case Lost but not a Lost Case

How Best of Whiskies acquired a unique parcel of America’s ‘liquid history’

The Charleston Mercury has been around from the early 1800s. Since 2007 my wife Becky, who hails from Charleston, SC, and I have been writing a monthly column about whisky and whiskey for this newspaper, under the moniker The Whisky Couple.

We spend part of the year in Charleston, usually during the winter months. Over time we created quite a following in the ‘holy city’, as it is nicknamed because of its many spires and religious denominations. People frequently hail us on the street when we take our daily walk downtown to compliment us with the column, ask specific questions about whiskey and even approach us to do a private tasting in one of the grand old homes along the Battery.

One year when we had just returned to Europe, I received an interesting email from a certain lady. Since she insisted her name should not appear in our writings, we will call her Mrs B from now on. She wrote:

I have an unopened bottle of Special Old Reserve from The American Medicinal Spirits Company Incorporated. On the label is the following: Fine old bourbon whiskey made in Kentucky before prohibition, stored in the finest oak barrels for over 15 years and bottled in bond under Government supervision especially for the stockholders of the National Distillers Products Corporation. Produced by Harry E. Wilken, Distillery No. 368, 5th District of KY. I live in Charleston and have read, with interest, your articles in the Charleston Mercury. I look forward to perhaps chatting with you.
– Mrs B

Whilst reading her email, the hairs on my arms rose. This sounded too good to be true. Real pre-Prohibition bourbon? For medicinal purposes? Many whiskey lovers know the story about whisky as medicine during Prohibition, but would there still be bottled product from that period? Bottled at 15 years of age, but produced over a century ago. Wow! I consulted my archives and found, thanks to Sam Cecil’s excellent book about the history of bourbon in Kentucky (among other sources), various pieces that helped me solve the puzzle.
After some weeks we duly reported to Mrs B:

Dear Mrs B,

How nice to hear from you. We consulted some books in our library and are now able to tell you a bit more about the pedigree of your bottle.

The origins stem from 1872, but at the time the distillery where your whiskey would later be made, was part of the Newcomb-Buchanan group who built four distilleries in Kentucky: Anderson, Nelson, Buchanan and Graystone. The latter burnt down in July 1890 and was rebuilt as ‘Elk Run’, RD #368. Several new shareholders stepped in and enlarged the distillery. Around 1911 it was one of the largest distilleries in Kentucky. At that time Mr. Harry Wilkin was distillery manager.

Elk Run bottled the following brands: Anderson, Nelson, Buchanan, Slocum, Jefferson, Jackson, US Club, and Elk Run. They also produced for third parties under the name ‘Regan and Imorde’. During Prohibition the buildings were used for concentration houses. Fortunately the plant was not destroyed and after Prohibition, Elk Run came back in production. Part of the buildings were sold to Mr. Amil Klempner, who started a scrap metal yard on the property, which was still run by the Klempner Bros around 2001. In the mid 1980s National Distillers closed the plant and the buildings were converted to other uses.

The whiskey in your possession is most likely not one of the usual brands from Elk Run, but a batch especially bottled for shareholders. This practice has taken place at other distilleries for a long time and continues into the 21st century. Your whiskey however is very special not only because it survived for so long but also since it has been matured for 15 years, prior to bottling. That is pretty rare. Most bourbons are bottled at 4 to 8 years. You may encounter a 21-year-old Pappy van Winkle or an 18-year-old Elijah Craig, but those bottlings are all post-Prohibition.

Early next year we will be back in Charleston for some time and we would be honoured to meet you in person and have a look at your bottle. If it is genuine you possess something very rare and valuable.

With kind regards,

Hans & Becky Offringa, The Whisky Couple

Apparently, we piqued her interest. Within the day we received an answer.

Dear Mr Offringa,

Thanks very much for your response on my email and thank you for the background information concerning the distillery. I had forgotten to mention the date on the paper label that seals the top of the bottle. It reads: Distilled-Autumn 1917 – Bottled Autumn 1932.

I live downtown and would love to show you the packaging and some empty bottles when you have returned. My son lives close by and keeps the un-opened bottle. He may be persuaded to open it and let you have a taste.
Very much looking forward to meet you coming January.

Kindly yours,

Mrs B

Attached to her email were a couple of images showing an empty bottle and its packaging. I studied the label and noticed that, indeed, the contents were bottled during Prohibition, hence the mention of ‘medicinal purposes’ on the label. This was getting really interesting. If her son decided to cooperate, we might have a taste of something very special. I let it sink for some days and then answered Mrs B as follows:

Dear Mrs B,

Interesting pictures. It might be that the American Medicinal Spirits Company was founded especially for this type of bottling. An excellent way to circumvent unwanted interference from the ‘dry’ government at the time. Do you happen to know how this bottle came into your family’s possession?

Kind regards,

Hans

The official invitation and tasting

It did not take long for Mrs B to respond with a very long story, accompanied by an official invitation to come to her house next winter.

On 9 January 2012 we finally met, accompanied by the Charleston Mercury’s publisher and his spouse. After having welcomed us cordially and introducing us to her son, who will be referred to as Mr B Junior, she put a full bottle of the bourbon into my hands and pointed to six glasses. ‘Will you do us the honour, open the bottle and pour us a dram?’

I hesitated and asked: ‘Are you sure about this, really?’ Mother and son nodded insistently, after which I pulled the metal cap to open the ‘pint’ (bottle size, approximately 0.5 litre). Carefully I poured the dark amber liquid into the six glasses and presented them to the people present. Solemnly we raised our glasses, all recognizing the special moment in time and toasted to ‘may there never be a Prohibition again!’

The nose immediately released aromas of cloves and nutmeg, the taste was spicy with a whiff of white pepper and the body was extremely smooth for a whiskey of that age. Silently we swallowed the liquid, contemplating the event. The finish reminded me of bay leaves and liquorice. Then Mrs B commenced to tell the story how the bottle ended up in her family. We sat down and listened. I noted down the following:

In 2006 Mrs B’s husband passed away at a ripe old age. Mr B must have been quite an interesting character and descended from a long line of Bs who had been living in Charleston for 12 generations, while the pedigree of his mother’s side of the family reached back to the Mayflower pilgrims.

Mr B grew up in Tennessee and moved to boarding school in Massachusetts, after which he studied marine biology at the University of Virginia (incidentally my wife Becky also studied marine biology, albeit at the College of Charleston, many decades later).

Mr B’s hobby and passion was car racing and he had a thorough knowledge of German sports cars. The Second World War interrupted his career and he was drafted from Cape Cod. Being an expert in radio communications and a polyglot as well, he was added to the Intelligence Force. He was sent to Europe in 1940, well before the USA officially became involved in the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was part of the forces who liberated Maastricht, in the south of the Netherlands, at the end of 1945. The American Army kept him in Europe for a while, since they needed his particular skills in Potsdam after the war had ended.

In 1946 Mr B returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts and became one of the founders of a local broadcasting station. In 1950 he was invited by the prestigious Lincoln Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to dedicate the rest of his working life to the development of satellite communication. During this time he not only met Mrs B, who originates from Boston, but also a couple from Cape Cod: the husband had worked in the whiskey industry and acquired shares in a distillery. When Prohibition was repealed in December 1933, this man was paid in kind, because there was no money in the company, and ended up with numerous cases of whiskey (a case contains 24 pints, roughly 12 litres per case). For many years the four friends enjoyed one bottle after the other, especially when Mr and Mrs B stayed at their own summer home on Cape Cod. When the gentleman passed away, the Bs remained friends with his widow, who would live until she was 100 years old (!)

She passed away in 1997, not long after she had given the last cases of this exquisite bourbon to the Bs, who continued to enjoy it on special occasions. When Mr B died himself in 2006 and the Cape Cod house was cleaned up, his son, Mr B Junior, stumbled upon an overlooked, unopened case with 24 pints and a handful of loose unopened bottles. He took them to Charleston and stored them in his mother’s house, where again they were forgotten. In September 2011 Mrs B inadvertently found one full bottle at the back of a cupboard. When she decided to clear out the shed in the back of the garden, she discovered, under a layer of dust, the unopened case, still closed with two sturdy metal wires around the cardboard box.

‘Since I always read your articles in The Mercury, the thought crossed my mind that you might know more about the history of this brand and that’s why I sent you that email some time ago’, Mrs B ended her story.

My mouth fell open with surprise: ‘Do you still have that unopened case in your possession?’

‘Certainly, would you like to see it?’ she responded.

And yes, there it stood, in the back room. Since it had become too dark to make a good picture, we decided I’d come back the next day. The images shown in this article were made by me on the 10th of January, 2012.

Mrs B hardly drinks whiskey nowadays and she asked me to represent her with the aim of selling the case, an honour I could not refuse.

Since then various interested parties from different corners of the world - ranging from Australia to Alaska and in-between—made offers that I relayed to Mrs B and Mr B Junior, submitting them with advice whether to sell or not. Being an established family with an age-old pedigree, they were not only in it for the money per se, but also wanted a buyer they would like and who would do something special with the case.

They found that party in Best of Whiskies, whose representative Nils van Rijn finally purchased the case and became good friends with Mr B Junior during the course of the negotiations.

Best of Whiskies asked me to warrant that the purchased product was genuine, which I did in signing a bespoke certificate that declares this is ‘The Real Thing’. The 24 bottles are now for sale separately and the lucky new owners will receive a signed and stamped certificate with their bottle.

The Dutch may have sold New Amsterdam to the Americans who turned it into New York, but these same Dutch, centuries later, managed to acquire some real and rare American liquid history, and will know what to do with it!


Hans Offringa,
Zwolle – May 2020

Pictures: The whisky couple

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