Antiques Peek – Bourbon: The Gentleman’s Choice

19th Century Cut Glass Bourbon Decanter

by Jessica Kosinski

 

R.B. Cutter Bourbon Bottle, 1800s
R.B. Cutter Bourbon Bottle, 1800s

It is impossible to talk about the gentlemen of the 19th and early 20th century without conjuring up images of people gathered together enjoying the alcoholic beverages of the day. One of those most enjoyed beverages was whiskey. In the 1800s, a new name for a certain type of American-made whiskey was coined – “bourbon.” Today, bourbon is still one of the most popular types of whiskey. It is routinely produced in distilleries all over the United States. Let’s take a peek at its history, as well as the bourbon-related collectibles from that era you can still find today.

A Revolution Leads to an Evolution

The Revolutionary War took place from 1775 to 1783. During that time, the conflict with the British severely limited access to sugar. As some of you may know, sugar is the main ingredient in rum. Rum had previously been a popular beverage, but it was time to find a more accessible replacement. That is when grain-distilled beverages began to take over.

Powerful Influences Cause a Whiskey Drinking Boom

19th Century Cut Glass Bourbon Decanter
19th Century Cut Glass Bourbon Decanter

Bourbon may have never become popular without people in positions of power – “Influencers” of their time. One of those people was George Washington. He actually became one of the top rye whiskey distillers of his day. Although bourbon is distilled from corn, President Washington’s rye whiskey business helped to popularize grain whiskey, in general.

Another famous figure involved in the whiskey-drinking boom was Thomas Jefferson, but not for the reasons you might think. Mr. Jefferson hated whiskey, but he had concerns that those against the whiskey tax of the day would start illegal whiskey distilleries. Therefore, he worked hard to get the tax eliminated, inadvertently leading to more whiskey production.

The Births of Bourbon and Modern Bourbon

There is some debate over how the word “bourbon” was applied to a specific type of corn-distilled whiskey. The earliest evidence of the term being used in print occurred in a Kentucky newspaper in 1821. There is a county called Bourbon County in Kentucky. However, when the term was popularized in the 1850s, it was largely associated with Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was not until later that many people suggested the whiskey might truly be named after the Kentucky county.

Vintage Old Crow Bourbon Bottle
Vintage Old Crow Bourbon Bottle

Regardless of the origins of the name, historians agree that one man popularized a new distilling process in the 1830s that led to the unique taste of the bourbon we all know and love today. In fact, he was given the “Father of Modern Bourbon” title. His name was Dr. James Crow. Dr. James Crow was a Scottish chemist. He was in no way associated with slavery or the “Jim Crow Laws” named after a fictional slave. Dr. Crow popularized the “sour mash” method of whiskey production. Some sources claim he even invented the process, though that is difficult to confirm.

Old Crow Bourbon Whiskey became the top whiskey in America. Its fans included Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain.

Collecting Antique Bourbon

Collecting antique bourbon bottles (also called “dusty” bourbon) is a hugely popular enterprise today. Some of the most popular brands to collect include Old Crow, Kentucky Blue Ribbon, Belmont Straight, and Old Rip Van Winkle. Just be careful when making a purchase. The most important thing to know is it is illegal to sell antique bourbon without a license, so always purchase it from a licensed auction house or another licensed source. Also, many modern bottles are designed to look antique in an effort to fool collectors. To recognize a truly antique bottle of bourbon, it is important to keep these key facts in mind:

– Until the 1880s, most bourbon was kept in barrels, not bottles.
– By law, distillers could not bottle their own bourbon in Kentucky until the 1890s.
– Early lithographers made labels for most 1800s bourbon bottles. Machine-printed labels were rare. Knowing changing practices relating to bottling bourbon can also help you check for age and authenticity. For example, James E. Pepper started using a strip stamp with his name on it to seal bourbon bottles he produced in the 1890s. By 1897, the strip stamp method was required under the Bottled-in-Bond Act.

The general appearance of the bottle is also a clue to its age. Look for air bubbles in the glass and other imperfections indicative of older design processes. Lines that are too clean typically indicate modern production. Also, most bourbon that was bottled at the time was sealed with a cork. When purchasing a supposedly antique bottle that is still intact, check the cork for signs of age. Also, look for signs that some liquid has evaporated from the bottle. Evaporation occurs over time because corks are porous.

Bourbon-Related Collectibles

Walla Walla Saloon Bourbon Flask
Walla Walla Saloon Bourbon Flask

One of the top bourbon-related 19th century collectibles is the flask or decanter. Flasks and decanters were made from multiple materials at the time, including metal and glass. Flasks were quite popular in the 1800s, and they were often personalized for individuals or businesses, like saloons. That was because the initial sellers sold their bourbon and other spirits in barrels, creating the need for something small to transfer servings into for consumption. In 2017, a glass whiskey flask made for the Walla Walla Saloon in Washington sold for almost $5,000. Note that glass flasks or decanters are often the most popular among collectors who want to purchase bourbon containers that are still full and sealed. That is because it is impossible to tell how much liquid is in a flask or the condition it is in when one cannot see inside the flask.

Antique Whiskey Glass
Antique Whiskey Glass

Of course, drinking glasses were also popular for bourbon consumption at the time. Most of them were short glass tumblers with varying styles. Many of them were hand-blown and often had elaborate patterns, such as the horn of plenty pattern. Although they were often clear glass, some were entirely colored glass. Others featured a mixture of clear and colored glass, but those were less common in most areas. Finding authentic antique whiskey tumblers today can be somewhat of a challenge, and the movie industry is greatly to blame. Many movies have featured reproductions of known whiskey tumbler styles from that period. Thus, copies have become popular and you need to be careful when seeking out originals.