The World’s Oldest Whiskey
What is the oldest bottle of whiskey in existence? According to a recent listing by the folks at Guinness, it’s a bottle of Baker’s Rye, an 1847 Monongahela Rye owned by Los Angeles Whiskey Society founder Adam Herz. Yes, you read correctly; this whiskey was distilled during the Polk administration. The fact that this bottle exists is pretty mind blowing, and its mere existence makes it a central piece of American whiskey history. You can read Adam’s extensive history of this bottle on the LA Whiskey Society website.
The Baker’s bottle is from an entirely different era than even the historic whiskeys we know today. Most of the histories of whiskey that I’ve read trace brands back to the late nineteenth century when industrial distilleries began to spring up, making larger quantities of whiskey and, eventually, bottling their own whiskey.
The world of pre-Civil War whiskey was much different and much less is known about it. It was a world of farmer/distillers who grew grain and then distilled some of it to sell or barter. Virtually all whiskey was sold through third party merchants (NDPs in today’s lingo) who sold barrels to hotels, saloons or even private individuals. There was almost no regulation – no rules about what had to be in bourbon or rye or what made it “straight.” Congress wouldn’t being regulating whiskey (by passing the Bottled in Bond act) for another half century.
How do we know it’s real?
Adam Herz is one of the nation’s foremost experts on dating early American whiskey. He has assessed major collections and is a diligent researcher of bottle marks and other obscure factors that indicate the precise age of a whiskey. To authenticate the world’s oldest bottle of whiskey, though, he went beyond even his usual rigorous examination. He describes the entire process and provides extensive background and detail in his article; it involved, among other things, an in depth study of the bottle, label, seal and cork, and he conferred with bottle experts, all of whom confirmed that this bottle was legitimate.
Herz wanted to be doubly sure so he arranged to have a sample of the whiskey radiocarbon analyzed by a lab that specializes in dating spirits at the University of Glasgow. I was lucky enough to be part of small group that opened and extracted the minute sample for the carbon dating. We sent it in with two control samples and when the test came back, it confirmed that the Baker’s whiskey was made from grain grown between 1795 and 1890.
What is this whiskey though?
To summarize Adam’s voluminous research, the Baker’s rye is likely a Pennsylvania rye that was distilled in 1847 and bottled in 1859 at 12 years old. It was bottled by W.T. Walters & Co., a Baltimore liquor dealer. Baker’s was the name of one of the most prominent farm/distillers in Pennsylvania at that time, and there is a strong possibility that it came from that distillery.
The lab tests revealed that the whiskey is likely composed of rye and corn, with maybe barley as well. Interestingly, Monongahela rye from the late nineteenth century was usually composed only of unmalted and malted rye, or unmalted rye and a small amount of malted barley. Is it possible that earlier Monongahela rye was more similar to today’s Kentucky ryes, with corn added to the mashbill? The lab results indicate that this appears to be the case for this bottle – which is a significant addition to our collective whiskey knowledge about nineteenth century rye.
What was the market for this whiskey?
The Baker’s bottle was released long before bottled whiskey was at all common. Bottles were still hand blown in those days. Whiskey was sold in barrels where saloons sold it to people by the glass or filled jugs they brought from home.
The fact that this was sold by the bottle means it was a very high-end whiskey. The name Baker’s confirms that, since it was known as one of the best whiskeys of the time. What does high end mean? Well, one reference I found stated that the price for whiskey in the 1840s was approximately 38 cents per gallon. For a bottle like this -- which appears similar to the 4/5 quart bottles that later became standard -- that would work out to about 7 1/2 cents. Assuming this was an upscale whiskey though, maybe it would have gone for a dime? Although on secondary, I’m sure it was at least a quarter.
What does this mean for whiskey?
For whiskey geeks (or whiskey history geeks), this is a huge find. Having a bottle from the pre-Civil War era is a window into an age of whiskey history that we only have documentation from, and not much else. Historians have reviewed the advertisements, bills of sale and other records, but now we have a legitimate bottle of whiskey from 160 years ago. Were the things they were drinking then similar to what we drink now? This bottle could help answer some of those questions.
What does it taste like?
This bottle may be my one exception to the rule that whiskey should be for drinking. Given the historical importance of this bottle, there’s a strong argument for leaving the spirit inside for future reference and analysis. Of course, if a small amount of it had somehow managed to find its way into my glass while we were pulling samples for the lab... who knows what would have happened? But whether it eventually is consumed or not, the bottle is a fascinating relic for anyone interested in whiskey history.