By Joe Wilson, Head Curator and Spirits Specialist at Whisky Auctioneer.
Part of the world-renowned Schulhof Collection, there is a Carl Andre sculpture titled The Way West displayed in the quieter wing of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Constructed solely from two uncarved blocks of American cedar wood, the piece is perhaps the most challenging for the museum’s often casual visitor and exists at the very limit of tolerance for many in overheard discussions about its artistic or indeed, financial value. In rare instances, it is not even understood to be part of the display.
A similar sense of bafflement about the booming collector’s market for American whiskey is often manifest among those who experienced the industry’s nadir in the 1970s and 1980s. This is perhaps no better evidenced than by the proprietor of Corti Brothers in San Francisco, who is amazed by the five-figure market value of his Van Winkle bourbon selections from the period, bottles he once struggled to sell. Darrell Corti persevered due to his belief in the quality of his product, yet the current trading price seems incredible nevertheless, as must be those of regular bottles of the likes of Wild Turkey and Old Forester, now long since stripped from their dust-laden shelves despite having unbalanced the books of smaller retailers for decades.
When auctioned these bottles now find homes across the globe; however, the renaissance for the American whiskey category was born at home. For all its minimalism, Carl Andre’s compass-like The Way West evokes the introspective romanticism of 19th century USA, which about-turned from its historic European roots to face the western frontier and the scenic grandeur of its natural landscape in search of its own national identity, a movement typified by the protection of its cedar-peppered National Parks.
Something similar happened with whiskey at the turn of the 21st century as, slowly, American collectors of fine spirits, who had previously preferred Scotch and Cognac, increasingly began to appreciate the spirit from the water and grains of American rivers and soil.
In part, the prevailing attitudes had been tied to perception. The wealthy of the late 20th century imported their liquor from France and Scotland, while the youth had turned to fun white spirits, leaving bourbon viewed as the reserve of those of a different generation. Thankfully this was not the outlook in Japan, a market that through the 1980s and 1990s had increasingly demanded premium and well-aged American whiskey and was well-supplied by distillers in the US, grateful for the relief on their overstocked and swollen warehouses.
As interest in bourbon was gradually piqued at home, whispers circulated of the treasure trove of exiled whiskey across the Pacific, and a new wave of curious aficionados began paying increasing sums to repatriate them.
Crucially these were great products, as was much of the whiskey sold domestically at the time. Adventurous drinkers slowly immersed themselves in the complex lore of American whiskey, forming impassioned communities that invariably created a new demographic of collectors. The timing was ideal, coinciding with the blossoming demand of the 21st century consumer for authentic and homegrown produce, resulting in a plethora of new craft distillers popping up all over the country. This diversification in choice then allowed the bigger companies to reorganise their portfolios with prestige brands and products intended for the top shelves of both bars and the cabinets of collectors.
The symbolism of the American looking west is not just one of a search for identity and belonging, but one of progress represented by the opportunities of the frontier, or by the time Carl Andre created The Way West in 1975, a reprise of the introverted ideals of the past in protest of the unpopular foreign policy of the time. American whiskey is hallmarked by both of these ideas as well.
Today the industry is growing faster than ever. It is creative, forward-thinking and diverse, and its popularity is rooted in its place as quintessential and authentic Americana. Bourbon is not only its own great story, but spill it and the drops will trace the entire history of the US as a nation.
Yet still there are those who will look equally witheringly at a bottle of whiskey as they may at two seemingly abject blocks of wood. As with anything that is collected, time must be taken to understand and appreciate meaning. This is no simple equivalence of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” however. Whiskey does not need to wait patiently for someone with a lanyard or a degree to tell you what it means, and this is the beauty of it, you just have to try it and see for yourself.
Whisky Auctioneer will host its third landmark auction of rare and collectible American whiskeys from 13th – 23rd May 2022. Auction highlights include one of Darrell Corti’s esteemed Van Winkle selections: the Van Winkle 1975 Special Reserve 19 Year Old for Corti Brothers.