52 Year Old Bourbon?

The Pot Still

The Pot Still

Distilling is an art as well as a science.  The art comes in so many ways – from picking the ingredients to how the barrel looks before the run (the just distilled liquor) goes into it.  The science?  Every distiller is a scientist – they know the measurements that cause the run to result in a spirit that will be welcome into existence when it is is invited out of the barrel years after it was put down for it’s nap.

As you walk down the isles of your favorite liquor store and meander into the whiskey isle, most of that whiskey that you see there is between 3 and 10 years in the barrel.  The good stuff starts after 10 years, such as the Pappy Van Winkle 10yr 107proof and

Pappy 10yr

Pappy 10yr

the ever-dependable 12yr Elijah Craig.  When bourbon turns into a young-adult at the ready age of 15, that’s when things get interesting – all the way to it’s late 20’s when the oak has in most cases taken over.  That is the quick age of bourbon.  It’s a short life, more than a dependable dog, but not as long as a cranky parrot – but it’s a good life.  A worthy life.

But that’s the time in the barrel.  After that nap, the head distiller whisks the whiskey away and dilutes it to the perfect percentage – usually between eighty-some to 107proof, such as is that aforementioned Pappy 10yr.  With this as the last act touched by man, the whiskey is then poured into bottles, the bottles have their labels attached to them, those labeled bottles then go into boxes, where the boxes get shipped to a store somewhere and then to your home, awaiting you to fulfill that whiskey’s destiny.

Sometimes though…the bottle is forgotten.  It gets pushed to the back of a liquor cabinet.  Maybe then to the back of a closet or left in a basement for years.  Eventually though, someone finds those bottles – probably to their surprise.  How many years since that bottle lay there?  10?  20?  40?  More than 50?  More than 50 years quietly again asleep in the bottle…

1957's I.W. Harper Bourbon

1957's I.W. Harper Bourbon

That bottle’s contents sat lost for 52 years.  In those 52 years, the ’57 Chevy came and went.  The 60’s baby-boomers turned into hippies.  In the 70’s, it slept as Black Sabbath shocked the world and as the American automobile seemed to never stop getting bigger.  Through the 80’s, that bottle of I.W. Harper thankfully missed Reagan and didn’t even notice the first stock offering of a little company called Microsoft.  It was still slumbering when ‘Teen Spirit’ came out, and didn’t know to be worried about the millenium change.

All this time, the bourbon sat in the bottle, slowly evaporating one molecule at a time – only to be awoken in late in the year 2008 to find that things sure had changed a lot, and the world was happy to see it.

Here’s the problem…52 years is a LONG time.  A very long time.  ESPECIALLY when the bottle has a cork top.  Cork is bio-degradable, so there are soooo oo many things thatcan go wrong in 52 years to cause that cork to dry out, or get too wet…  Maybe the box that contained the bottle was laid on it’s side?  That’d not be good – a cork can only take so much.  52 years?  Improbable.  harper_stamp01

I mean, that bottle’s contents were distilled in 1952 and then contained in the bottle since 1957…so much should have gone wrong in that time, and the expectation is that something DID go wrong.

So, this bottle sat in front of me.  The cork was not terrifically solid in its mounting, some bourbon had at one point obviously leaked out…expectations are low.  I mean, picture that bottle on your dining-room table.  Would YOU open it?  This could maybe be an incredibly valuable bottle!  Thousands maybe!  Or, it may taste like cork soup.  Who is to know?  This is when you’d start to rationalize this situation.  ‘Surely it’s dead.  I mean, 52 years?’ Yes, the chances are good that the $100-some that you paid for it was just to have the chance to see what happened…  ‘Hell with it‘, you say, ‘I’m going to open it.‘  And, with one last thought about maybe this is a stupid thing to do – you pull off the cork.

Breaking the tax seal is the first thing that gives you a start.  No going back now…  It smells good.  That’s a great omen…  Did you make the right decision?  Well, you remind yourself that it’s too late to worry, so you grab a glass and pour some in.

The color is dark – far darker than most bourbons, surely a result of the alcohol’s slow escape over the decades, leaving the caramels, the oak tannins, the heart.  Taste it – just taste it.

First though – what’s the story of this bourbon?  Well, it turns out that in the late 1800’s, a Jew from some tiny town in Germany made his way to Paducah, Kentucky after his horse died, where he somehow built an empire.  Bernheim whiskey is named after him, by the way, celebrating Issac Wolf Bernheim, one of whiskeys least probable forebearers.

OK.  52 years.  What does 52 years do to a bourbon in a bottle?  Taste it.  Well, when the stars align, when fate intercedes…  When all is right in the world, a 52 year bourbon is amazing.  It’s just happily amazing.  It’s amazing like great congnac.  It’s amazing like the perfect bite of an apple – like … well, like something just right.  Something amazing.

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12 Responses to “52 Year Old Bourbon?”

  1. Hi there.
    Would you be interested in selling any of those full Old Fitzgerald Decanters?
    I’d like to add them to my family collection as we distilled that whiskey.
    Thanks

  2. Bill Barker Says:

    Julian – I am interested in finding a 50 year old bourbon for a birthday gift – any suggestions????
    I am here in Louisville – thanks – Bill

  3. aaron johsnon Says:

    i have a few bottles of jim beam bourbon one is an unopened 1969 100 months old witch is about roughly what 8 years 4 months i think that makes it close to 50 years old doesnt it? its the baseball 100th anniverary and i have a 100 month old harolds club unopened. i used to play pro baseball and an old man i used to see at our home games would always talk to me and i love to hear stories from the old timers. he brought me these bottles in 2000 to a home game he said he had never met any player who love baseball as much as i did. i dunno what there worth or how good it would taste. i just always love telling the story about them. seals are not broken and i just thought they are the coolest thing ever. any idea what they could be worth? not a single chip at all. any light you could shed would be awsome

    • alcohology Says:

      Hey there, Aaron.

      Well, the good news is that that’s a great story and a great memory to attach to those special bottles. Financially, I doubt that they are worth much. I’ve not seen many of those for sale, but while they are both unique bottles (“Harold’s Club”?), I am not sure if there is any real collector value to them. I’ll ask around, but I think that probably the main worth of those bottles is in the story and memory. The bourbon in them in terms of age is limited to the time in the barrel – the time in the bottle is not relevant EXCEPT that they usually get better since the H20 bleeds off before the alcohol, so as those bottles get older, the proof goes up and thus the taste… They are Beam, which is a respectable bourbon – so the whiskey is probably tasty, but; again – the real value is in the story and the memory.

      Hold on to them and wait until a really special moment to drink them. I sometimes find crazy old bottles and usually I don’t open them but when they are opened for some reason, I’m usually pretty happy with the results.

      Thanks for checking in.

      Andrew

  4. Great story.
    I just had the pleasure of finding two bottles of 1948 (bottled 1950)
    I.W.Harper 100 Proof Bourbon.
    Gave one as a gift, started enjoying one myself.
    “Amazing” is a perfect description.

    WesK.

    • alcohology Says:

      Yes, Wes – if the whiskey is at all cared-for, it’s fantastic. And, I spoke to the owner of Heaven Hill, how made that brand and that bottle has not been produced for ten years. So…it’s been sitting around for a while in Japan. At least, the square bottle with the cut-crystal style. They were shocked to see it.

      Delicious.

  5. So right you are!I found a 50 yr. Old burbon bottle in Haeaii.Its bottle alone was a one of a kind; king Kamahmaha jim beam (ceramic)worth 50.00$.The whiskey was an amber color.thick& delicious.Best liquor i ever tasted! Aloha.Erich

    • alcohology Says:

      Yup – that’s some great whiskey. It started out pretty good and then the years just made it better. Next time you find one – don’t open it. There are plenty of collectors out there that would love to save that bottle intact. Every year there are less and less of those, so they are surely collector’s items.

      Damn tasty though, ‘eh?

  6. I found a 1970 unopened Jim Beam Beam’s Choice Manet Au Cafe Decanter and a 1968 unopened Canadian Club. Totally my luck day!!!

    • Well! That sounds like a few nice treats. I wonder what that Canadian Club tastes like? BUT – FIRST check to see those bottle’s worth…they may be worth something.

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