Rare, pristine whiskey bottles found in Missouri attic

Bryan Fite holds Hellman's Celebrated Old Crow WhiskeyWhen Bryan and Emily Fite bought an 1850s home in St. Joseph, Missouri last year, they knew it needed work. One of the first projects they undertook was installing central heat and air, which they had to rewire the house to accomplish. Bryan pried up some floorboards in the attic to lay the new wires and underneath found mysterious tubes wrapped in paper with writing on it. His first thought was they were old steam heat conduits from when the house was first built that were wrapped in paper insulation. When he unwrapped the paper, instead of century-old pipe he found a century-old bottle of whiskey. Then he found 12 more of them.

There are three different brands — Hellman’s Celebrated Old Crow whiskey, Guckenheimer Pennsylvania rye whiskey, W.H. McBrayer’s Cedar Brook whiskey — all of them bottled in 1917 and distilled four or five years earlier. On January 16, 1919, the eighteenth amendment to the US Constitution was ratified and Prohibition became the law of the land, decimating the whiskey distilling business. None of the makers of the Fites’ whiskeys survived.

The 1917 Hellman’s Old Crow might have been some of the last bottles ever sold. Hellman’s was sued for trademark infringement by W.A. Gaines and Company, a Kentucky liquor company which had produced a very famous brand of “Old Crow” whiskey since 1835. It was named for Doctor James C. Crow, a Scottish medical doctor who moved to Kentucky and in the 1830s used his knowledge of chemistry to invent the sour mash process for creating bourbon. The aged runs became known as “Old Crow” and were massively popular. After Dr. Crow’s death in 1856, W.A. Gaines and Co. continued to sell his original stock for as long as they could. When they ran out, they made a replica, although Crow’s exact formula was lost.

Mark Twain in a 1960 Old Crow ad“Old Crow” was the favorite brand of many notable 19th and 20th century figures like President Andrew Jackson, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, Confederate general John Hunt Morgan, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson. It had a huge reputation, a reputation W.A. Gaines and Company was keen not be sullied by the St. Louis blend the Hellman Distilling Company had been selling as “Celebrated Old Crow” since 1863 when the Civil War choked off liquor shipments from the South. Hellman’s countered that they owned the trademark to the name and the case dragged on in the courts for almost a decade until in 1918 the Supreme Court of these United States ruled decisively in Gaines’ favor.

~ Tangent time! ~

Edson Bradley, a New York financier and the son of a prosperous Connecticut shoe manufacturer, invested in the Kentucky whiskey business in the 1880s. When W.A. Gaines and Co. incorporated in 1887, he was appointed vice president. It was he who registered the first company trademark to “Old Crow” in 1887, and all the subsequent trademark registrations done to try to muscle out the many, many copycats.

Bradley House on DuPont Circle, Washington, D.C.Eventually he became president and was widely known in the press as the richest liquor baron in the country. By 1907 he was Scrooge McDuck rich and since this was the Gilded Age, he bought a city block on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. and built a French Gothic mansion complete with entire rooms ripped out of actual Gothic mansions in France. It had a chapel that could seat 150 and a complete multi-story 500-seat theater. It was known as Aladdin’s Palace and was the largest, richest home in D.C.

When Prohibition hit, the Gaines Company struggled along for a few more years until it was dissolved in 1922. Bradley was 70 years old by then, so in February of 1923 he decided to retire to Newport, Rhode Island, along with all the other Gilded Age barons. In the epitome of Gilded Age baron style, he brought his palace with him. Over the next two years, the DuPont Circle house was dismantled stone by stone and shipped to Newport.

Seaview Terrace todayHe bought a property along the Cliff Walk which already had an 1885 Elizabethan Revival mansion on it called Sea View. No problem. Architect Howard Greenley just integrated it into the new house. Sea View became Seaview Terrace, with the old mansion now acting as the east wing of the composite mansion. Greenley gave it an integrated look with turrets inspired by the Loire Valley chateau of Chambord. Two years and two million dollars later, Seaview Terrace was completed.

Edson Bradley died 10 years later. In 1930, Bradley deeded Seaview Terrace to his daughter Julie, but she lost it to the City of Newport during World War II when she couldn’t keep up with the taxes. After that it passed through various hands, was used by two different schools, and most famously, between 1966 and 1971 the exterior was used as the outdoor set for Collinwood Mansion in the vampire soap Dark Shadows.

The estate was purchased in 1974 by Martin and Millicent Carey who restored it, but a building like this is constantly in need of more restoration. It is now known as Carey Mansion. Martin and Millicent’s daughter Denise Ann Carey lives there now, and luckily she’s an architect.

~ End Tangent ~

After the Repeal of Prohibition on December 5th, 1933, the Gaines plant in Frankfort, Kentucky and the rights to the Old Crow label were bought by the American Medicinal Spirits Company, who in turn sold them to National Distillers Products Company in 1947. National was bought by Jim Beam in 1985 who still produce an Old Crow label, although not out of the Frankfort plant which they closed.

Bryan Fite thinks the 13 bottles might have been a stash hidden by the first owner of their home. According to a history of the house they received when they bought it, the first owner lost the house after he was put in a sanitarium for alcoholism. Perhaps he was planning a party for his return from rehab, a party he never got to have.

The Fites do not plan to sell the whiskey. They’re history buffs and they love that they’ve found liquid gold under the floorboards of their attic. They might break the label on a bottle or two in 2017 to celebrate the centennial of their purchase, but otherwise, the whiskey is staying in the house where it was first stashed almost a hundred years ago.

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19 thoughts on “Rare, pristine whiskey bottles found in Missouri attic

  1. First question: Is it still drinkable? The virtues of old age are often exaggerated.

    So Scrooge’s mansion “had a chapel that could seat 150”. What a waste – I’d much prefer a Roman bath of similar proportions.

    1. None of the bottles have been opened or syringe tested, so there’s no telling if the contents are still potable.

      I too have dreamed of having a Roman bath, hypocaust system and all, since I was a kid staring in awe at Nero’s bathtub in the Vatican. Still, I have to defend the Bradley chapel. It was kind of awesome in an absurdly grandiose way. It even had a stained glass window of the Flagellation of Christ from the 1500s that was originally destined for the Duomo of Milan. It’s all very Charles Foster Kane.

  2. What an awesome find. I feel sad that dude never got back to his stash, but hey, his memory lives on! I hope that they will allow for testing on these items so we could possibly get reproductions of those products.

    Old Crow, I bet I could find an empty bottle of that in the alley behind my apartment.

  3. What a lovely tangent! Something in it set me off reading up on Mark Twain ( I forget just what
    !) which in turn sent me off looking at Joan of Arc’s trial records (the author apparently has quite the interest in her). :boogie:

    1. OMG I went off on that same tangent just a few months ago! I was looking up something about Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad and that led me to his research on Joan of Arc in France. I’ve been a big Twain fan since I was a teenager, but I never knew about his Joan obsession until then. You might get a kick out of this story that I stumbled on during the course of my tangenting: The Riddle Of Mark Twain’s Passion For Joan Of Arc.

  4. I want to pick up his recently-published autobiography and see if anything he says in there further explains his interest 🙂

  5. Greetings!

    I got here via my online search for info on a pint bottle of Cedar Brook Kentucky Whiskey my buddy, Bob, gave me. The brand was noted on this page and so here I am.

    Last night Bob gave me a pint bottle of Cedar Brook his elderly father purchased decades ago (1950’s?) from an auction by who were less than well-bred individuals. (All hearsay though.) Regardless it had the original cork which crumbled when removed.

    I have photos of the pint bottle and labels I can share.

    Since I am 67 and longevity is not a guarantee I opened the bottle of 95 year old whiskey. Delicious. For me, the flavor was describable in a single word… SMOOTH.

    I’m not a connoisseur of whiskey so I visited a site listing words to describe whiskey. Without leaving the realm of reality I chose these few:
    spirity (heck- it’s 100 proof!)

    All in all the pint will be savored and poured for family at special occasions until gone.

    Hope this answers those questioning whether an old bottle can retain flavor.

    I’ll drink to that!


  6. I too discovered a well hidden bottle of the Hellmans Celebrated Old Crow made spring of 1913. This is so far the only other reference I ca find to a still existing simular bottle. Mine is a 1 quart bottle 100 proof with origional tax stamp. Salute Jeff

  7. Anyone looking to add this ultra rare example of a prepro Kentucky sour mash to their collection.

  8. Daniel, you should visit the Drink’s Planet website, once you have become a member of the site you can post photos of your McBrayer’s Whiskey Salute, Jeff

  9. At 102 years of being bottled up it was a great pleasure to report to anyone who might be interested to release this spirit from bondage. Ah what a pleasure indeed. The Hellmans was superior to any other bourbon I personally have tasted. Every Irish Scotch American or Canadian whiskey new old single batch barrel malt ect.. Bryan and Emily Fite you are in for the treat of a lifetime in a couple of years from now. As far as I have been able to determine by my tireless searching you have the last remaining bottles of Hellmans Old Crow that have been made public by their finders. True there may yet be a bottle undiscovered though I say the odds of this are getting astronomical as time moves on. The one bottle I was blessed with discovering had been in my possession for nearly 20 years before I choose to share its discovery shortly after its 100th year. I hope that the bottles you discovered are still as fine as mine was. Please revisit this blog with your thoughts in 2 years when you have cracked your first bottle Salute Jeff

  10. Could you please send me the photos of your bottle, especially the label? I want to compare it to a bottle with only a partial paper label that appears to have BROOK in the top line.

  11. Amazing as it was a 75 years old bottle of Ballantine blended scotch whiskey was a comparable fine discovery and equally as fine tasting as was the Hellmans. Ok not quite equal but darn close. It seems that old age has little effect on a fine example of spirits. Critical is that the contents do not come in contact with the cork. Unlike fine wine. Salute.

  12. I have a bottle of what Mc brayers hand made sour mash whiskey 1911 and 1918 dates on bottle, unopened,one quart bottle, is there any value to it? Thank you

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