Interview: Selling Rare American Whiskeys At Whisky Auctioneer

Nearly a decade ago, online based Whisky Auctioneer was created to make the market more accessible for buyers and sellers of any background and geography.

Their monthly global auctions feature one of the most comprehensive selections of old, rare and collectible whiskies and spirits available online.

And Whisky Auctioneer’s Head Curator Joe Wilson is passionate about connecting those bottles with those who share in the passion, whether that’s consuming, collecting or investing.

Soon, Whisky Auctioneer will see a rare collection of more than 700 bottles of American whiskey and bourbons go up for sale, with a particular focus on private barrel stocks. It gets under way on May 13th.

The Whiskey Wash recently spoke with Joe Wilson about this special auction.

Whisky Auctioneer

Rare American whiskey is increasingly a sight at Whisky Auctioneer auctions (image via Whisky Auctioneer)

The Whiskey Wash: How rare or exclusive is this whiskey auction versus other curated lots worldwide in the marketplace?

Joe Wilson: “This auction has been curated from two private collections and includes incredibly rare whiskeys that are nearly impossible for modern collectors to get their hands on. Featuring over 60 exclusively selected barrel picks, the auction celebrates the emergence of private barrel selections, a formative stamp on the growth in collectible American whiskey.

“Highlights include private barrel selects never offered at an online auction before, such as the Pappy Van Winkle 1984 Family Reserve 23 Year Old Single Barrel selected by the Kentucky Barrel Society. Incredibly rare, this is an exclusive single barrel bottling that was distilled at Stitzel-Weller in 1984.

“Headlining the auction is also one of the world’s most vaunted private label bourbons: Van Winkle 1975 Special Reserve 19 Year Old for Corti Brothers. Other headline lots include a Willett Family Estate 1984 Single Barrel 24 Year Old Bourbon selected by Bonili in Japan, a rare collection of Stitzel-Weller bourbons privately labeled for Berghoff, a famous German restaurant in Chicago, and several private selections of the ‘Very Old Fitzgerald’ with distillation dates back to 1954.

“Also featuring modern private barrel selects from Four Roses, Smooth Ambler and Buffalo Trace, collectors will be spoiled for choice.”

TWW: Have Van Winkle bottles always been the elite American whiskey/bourbon at auction?

Joe: “It does seem hard to imagine a time when Van Winkle wasn’t the biggest name on the auction scene. It’s firmly cemented today as an elite brand of American whiskey because the product is not only exceptional, but is backed by an incredible legacy. It is only in the last decade or so that the bottles have emerged from cult status into the mainstream consciousness, and much of this is due to the influence of the internet.

“For a long time, the one big story that best-captured people’s attention in American whiskey was Prohibition, and the rare medically-prescribed brands from the period were the dominant collector’s item. The blossoming renaissance for the bourbon category at the turn of the 21st century was in part facilitated by the rise of the web at the time, which facilitated new and easy exchange of information about modern products with equally interesting backstories, creating an aura around brands like Van Winkle, Very Olde St Nick and the A.H. Hirsch Reserve.

“The emergence of online auctions like ours then supplemented this exchange of information with a safe accessible way to exchange the bottles themselves. This made it easy for American buyers to acquire sought-after bottles originally sold in Europe and Japan, but having a global audience, our auction piqued interest in these products in new markets entirely. With people across the world increasingly engaged in the complex history of American whiskey, it was inevitable that certain brands like Van Winkle were the cream that would rise to the top, providing as they do, rare and privileged access into the myth and lore that accompany them.

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“In short, Van Winkle has not always been the elite brand but it likely will be for a long time. Those that came before are by no means less sought-after. The key here is that there is more to these bottles than just the whiskey itself. People will always place as much value in the figurative substance behind a label as they do the literal.”

TWW: What has been your journey in the whisky world, leading to being Head Curator at Whisky Auctioneer?

Joe: “My journey into whisky began around 10 years ago when I was working in a bar in Glasgow to help pay for my master’s degree. It tended to be quiet on midweek evenings so I took to passing the time by reading up on the stories and history behind the various brands on the gantry… usually sneaking a sample of them too. The bar will remain nameless! My degree was in Museum Studies and after graduating I worked on various projects at institutions in Scotland and Italy, where the roles primarily focused on devising exhibition practices that helped museum audiences better understand the meaning and significance of what they were looking at.

“When the opportunity to work with Whisky Auctioneer arose, it was a perfect way for me to blend these two passions and I believed my skills from the museum world provided a perfect platform to build a more engaging and informative auction experience. Whisky is an industry with an unrivaled diversity and richness of heritage and every bottle, no matter its value, is a part of that. The nature of a whisky auction means they operate almost like revolving doors of history, and my intention with each one is to provide not only an opportunity to engage by acquiring the bottles but to offer people the chance to inform and educate themselves about them as well.”

TWW: What are five American whiskey/bourbon bottles to try while you still can?

Joe: “While the resurgence of the bourbon industry and its growing global appeal is great to see, it has inevitably made fierce competition for many of its most exciting bottles. There are however a number of producers and brands whose labels provide not only memorable drinking experiences, but crucially, can still be found on the shelves of your local shop.

  • Pikesville 110 Proof Rye: This historic rye brand is lovingly produced at Heaven Hill today and is versatile both as a sipping whiskey or for your classic whiskey cocktails. A worthy award winner over the years, this is thankfully still as easy to find as it is to drink.
  • E.H. Taylor Small Batch: Their eye-catching limited editions may be impossible to find, but the standard E.H. Taylor portfolio is equally worthy of trying. Produced at Buffalo Trace, the brand is a triumphant return to form for the legendary Old Taylor brand that     was largely neglected by previous ownership in the later 20th century.
  • Willett Family Estate Small Batch Rye: A brand with a huge cult following, Willett Family Estate is rightly revered after years of exceptional single barrel releases from the well-stocked warehouses of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. With the Willett stills back in operation since 2012, bottles are now thankfully easier to acquire through the     addition of small-batch releases like this, which have finally connected the esteemed label to the historic distillery it was named after.
  • Maker’s Mark 46: One recommended by Julian Van Winkle as the best wheated     bourbon to try if you couldn’t get your hands on his, this remains a favorite of mine too, particularly given the increasing blink-and-you’ll-miss-it status of Buffalo Trace’s Weller brand these days.
  • Tom’s Foolery: These single barrel and small batch releases are harder to track down but worth it when you do. Tom’s Foolery is a small craft distillery in Ohio and of particular interest is their use of     the old pot still from the original Michter’s distillery in     Pennsylvania. The legacy of the still and its former home are inextricably linked to the legendary A.H. Hirsch Reserve bourbon, and may be the best connection many drinkers can aspire to make to a whiskey known as “the best bourbon you’ll never try.”
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TWW: Tell us more about private barrel selects and why they are so collectible in the market right now.

Joe: “A private barrel selection is an exclusive single barrel, or sometimes small batch, bottling selected by a third party. They will be provided with several cask samples to choose from and will give feedback to the distiller on what they believe is the best interpretation and flavor profile of the particular brand. Once selected, this will be produced for them with an exclusive label or small sticker, and they will receive the full allocation of bottles.

“The modern market for private barrel selects is incredibly popular and as that has grown, we have also seen an increased interest in historic selections, particularly from brands such as Pappy Van Winkle and Willett Family Estate. Today, we’re reaching a point where private barrel programs are becoming more limited, however, these bottlings hail from a period where people had free reign in warehouses to diligently select what they believe to be the perfect expression. Highly regarded for their exceptional liquid and rarity, these are becoming more sought-after as people not only want to engage with the modern programs but study its incredible history within the industry.

“In essence, they are a celebration of the American drinkers’ right to make their own choices about whiskey. A hundred years ago, you weren’t legally allowed to buy whiskey, but today not only do you have more options than you’ve ever had before, you have the option to engage in not only the purchase but even production of the whiskey – a private barrel selection can be the brand you want, the way you want it.”

TWW: Can you describe the evolution of the private barrel pick?

Joe: “When America progressed out of the Prohibition period at the end of the 1920s, the market was quickly cornered by four very large corporations that either had the financial muscle to start from scratch, or had gambled on repeal by consolidating the majority of the remaining industry in the years preceding. They boasted large portfolios of brands and a huge market share, leaving smaller distillers such as the Stitzel-Weller or later, Maker’s Mark to think out of the box in order to get a foothold in the market. One of the solutions for them was to provide private bottlings for third parties such as retailers, bars or corporate gifts.

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“Advancing into the 1970s and 1980s, you begin to see greater connoisseurship in the approach of those selecting these types of whiskies. One of the most notable examples of this would be Darrell Corti of the Corti Brothers store in Sacramento. He was not only particular about the whiskey but its presentation and his direct involvement in selecting the casks for his private labels has proven to be a pioneering moment. Today his Van Winkle selections are legendary among collectors.

“Looking at the 21st century where the bourbon market has really exploded, we have a much more engaged audience. That small group of private parties from the 1980s has set the tone for people to be increasingly involved in the production process and created a new audience of engaged connoisseurs who know more about the product than they ever had. The introduction of private barrel programs from distillers has opened this up to a diverse audience and given the customer the opportunity to escape the role of passive consumer and transform themselves into active co-producers in the creation of these products.”

TWW: How has the recent tariff settlements between the US and the UK affected the whisky auction scene?

Joe: “The UK Government confirmed on March 22nd the removal of the 25% tariffs on US whiskey imports which will take effect on June 1st. This is welcome news for our sellers based in the U.S. who will no longer have a 25% charge applied to U.S. bourbon and whiskey sent to our auctions. We expect the impact of this announcement to also be significant for our global American whiskey buyers, who will likely benefit from a wider selection of collectible whiskeys from the U.S. on our platform.”

TWW: What American whiskey/bourbon brands have consistently brought the most value (or sharpest increase in value) at auction? What are some of the hammer prices for American whiskey/bourbon now versus 5, 10, 20 years ago?

Joe: “Van Winkle bottlings continue to dominate the highest hammer prices achieved at auction, with the most expensive American whiskey sold on Whisky Auctioneer a 20 year old Van Winkle Special Reserve privately selected for Corti Brothers.

“In the last few years, we have also seen a rise in interest and hammer price values for single barrel bottlings such as those from Willett Family Estate, limited-editions such as Michter’s Celebration Sour Mash and premium releases including Buffalo Trace’s O.F.C collection.

“When analyzing the results from our auctions, it has been particularly fascinating to explore the increasing presence and popularity of the Buffalo Trace distillery. Over the 2016 – 2020 period, the number of lots featured from Buffalo Trace has increased by over 2000%.

“In terms of value, popular brands such as Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Collection have witnessed an incredible upward trajectory. In the last five years (2017–2021), the Average Lot Value has increased from £93.33 to £394.12 ($513.85). This includes a 75% increase alone in average hammer prices from 2020-2021.

“One of the most sought-after and collectible annual releases from the distillery is The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. In the last five years (2017-2021), the Average Lot Value has increased from £333.28 to £719.38 ($937.93), a 115% increase in the average hammer price of individual bottles.”

Drinks

Gary Carter

Gary Carter has been at the helm of metro newspapers, magazines, and television news programs as well as a radio host and marketing manager. He is a writer/editor/photographer/designer by trade, with more than 30 years experience in the publishing and marketing field. Gary enjoys working to build something great, whether...