“There’s Whiskey in the Jar”– But Don’t Toss That Empty Bottle!

When I saw the $4,650 “sold” price on this clear gallon Jack Daniels Lynchburg, Tenn., gallon size bottle sited in Tom Carrier’s recent article for The Insider, I was amazed! I realized it would have been such an easy item for me to walk right past at an antiques fair or market, because it looks like a simple clear glass gallon jug. But as his article shows, having the Jack Daniels name embossed and being a rare piece with lots of interest made the price shoot up!

Last month, Worthpoint feature writer Tom Carrier wrote a great article entitled “Whiskey Distilled as a Collectible.” The article focuses on some of the amazing auction prices realized for full bottles of whiskey.  Some of the bottles actually sold for thousands of dollars.

I have been a collector of antique American glass bottles for over 40 years, and what struck me as I read his article, is that there have probably been many times when I came across a valuable bottle of whiskey and didn’t even know it. I’m fairly certain there have been times when I was doing a “house cleanout” that I have come to a closet with a few old bottles full of whiskey, dating back just a few decades, and never really considered whether or not they had any value.

I’m always on the hunt for Civil War bottles of all kinds, including whiskey. I dig them, I scuba dive for them, and I buy them at auction, or if I’m lucky at a local yard sale.

I now realize that because I’m so hyper-focused on my collecting specialty, I could have passed over something valuable right under my nose that ironically is so close to what I collect! If it wasn’t over 100 years old, and hand made of beautiful crude glass, it wouldn’t have even caught my eye.  Hopefully, there wasn’t a $10,000 rarity that I tossed in a dumpster years ago.

The type of collecting interest that Tom wrote about had to do with a historical sort of brand loyalty, most notably Jack Daniels, along with the type of status lifestyle-investing that you see in art work, fine wines, and champagne.  Owning a bottle of something that is 80 years old, turns out to be rare, is unopened with its original label, and with historical resonance can generate a competition and a “one-upmanship” that has the potential to drive prices into the stratosphere.

I collect empty glass bottles of all types, including whiskey bottles, mostly from the 1800s. What makes them interesting to me, and what drives their “value” is not better or worse than the above noted, but it is completely different. I’m mostly after the beauty of the glass of early hand finished bottles, as well as their rarity and history. The very top end of what I collect can be worth thousands of dollars as well.

I dug this Stoddard pint flask near my home some years back, and it was a lifetime memory for me. Its value ranges from about $500-$1,000, but of course, it is worth much more to me!

As a digger of antique bottles, the best one I ever dug was a pint size whiskey flask in gorgeous whittled amber glass dating to about 1870 (shown above). It is lettered “Granite Glass Co” on one side, and “Stoddard, N.H.” on the reverse. It was buried about 10 inches under the ground in a small trash pile near an abandoned old cape just up the road from where I live.

It was in perfect condition, a fact that I still find hard to believe to this day! Its greatest value in the hobby is the fact that it came from an early glass works in Stoddard, NH, the place that created some of the most iconic and desirable pieces of American utilitarian glass ever made.

Early American whiskey bottles from the “collectible era” (1840-1900 roughly) come mainly in four forms: cylinders, flasks, barrels, and figurals.

If you discovered a 120 year old amber cylinder glass whiskey bottle, you’d assume it would be worth more than $10! But without any markings, or special colors or features, that’s all they bring. Millions were made, and the interest is low, as it is essentially a decorative piece.

I’ll start with cylinder whiskey bottles, as they are the most common and widely used.  Today, you can find an amber colored whiskey bottle dating all the way back to the 1870s, with no embossed lettering or paper label, and it will only have a value of $5-$20. This can be a disappointing shock if you’ve managed to actually dig a whole undamaged one out of an old trash site; but, it is a simple supply and demand issue – millions were made, and they aren’t collectible really, unless there is some marking to set it apart from other whiskey bottles.

However, if you add embossing, or a colorful paper label, or an uncommon color, a “cylinder’’ whiskey bottle will be valued at a minimum of $20, but it can raise the ceiling up into four figures!  The most valuable antique whiskey cylinder bottles are generally “Western” whiskeys with history that generally intertwined with the Wild West and the San Francisco gold rush in some way.

Collecting cylinder whiskey bottles from the “Cutter” whiskey company is almost a hobby unto itself. Collectors become obsessed with embossing differences and even very minor mold variants, as well as age and color shades. A great rare Cutter whiskey, even in an amber color, can bring up to $2000 for the top examples.

Another subset of “cylinder” whiskey bottles are those embossed “Cutter & Co” in one derivative or another.  These whiskeys have a value with a very high ceiling, which has been driven from the rich history of the company that did business in Boston and Louisville, Ky. 

The Heckler Auction Co. of Connecticut handles some of finest flasks in the hobby. One super rare grouping of flasks called “Jarod Spencer” flasks have a deep history and have rarely been offered for sale. Recently a trio of these rarities, each one unique, brought a whopping $299,520 at auction!

The next “form” of antique American whiskey bottle is the flask, which includes common strap sided and seam sided flasks, but most importantly “historical flasks.”  Historical flasks are the top of the top when it comes to antique bottles and can bring the highest values of any type of bottle, with the best of them bringing tens of thousands of dollars (at least one broke the $100,000 mark!).  Because of their value and popularity, they are the most reproduced of any antique bottle, meaning commemorative replicas were made, and sold as early as the 1920s but more prevalently in the 1970’s. For the most part, the replicas of early flasks are easy to tell from the originals. Most of the originals were blown in glass houses on the east coast and midwest, and many had crude pontil marked bases and earthy, crude, seedy  glass that added greatly to their values.

This is a “color” run of beautiful Greeley’s Whiskey barrel bottles, dating to the 1870s. The prices for these, if perfect, range from about $300.00 for the more common colors, to upwards of $8,000 or more for the rarer green colorations.

The third and fourth forms of American whiskey bottles are barrels and figurals.  Technically, a barrel is a figural, but in the hobby there are people who collect barrel whiskeys, and people who collect figural whiskeys. They usually don’t collect both, which is why I separated them.

The barrel whiskey category is pretty limited, but boy, they are popular with collectors. The most prevalent company that bottled their whiskey in glass barrel bottles, was “Greeley’s Bourbon Whiskey.” Their bottles came in a variety of colors, but the color differences are incredibly subtle and can change the value of the bottle.  Greeley bottles came mostly in shades of amber, yellow, and “puce” (a color almost unique to the bottle collecting hobby–it is a weird, amazing mixture of rust and purple).

So, as auction companies try to put their consigned rare barrel whiskey in its best light, and give it the most accurate but complimentary description possible, they wind up with these wild and sometimes comical color variations.  These include (and I’m not kidding) “strawberry puce,”  “blood amber with olive striations,”  “light topaz, with shadings of orange amber towards the base,”  “brilliant yellow with a  hint of olive,” and on and on.  This isn’t a criticism of the auction companies; they have a difficult job because the colors used in these beautiful old bottles can be impossible to describe, depending on the lighting, and especially depending upon what other bottle color it is being compared to. 

The last of the forms of American whiskey bottles is the “figural” category, which is a much maligned category in some circles in the hobby. This is because for the most part, figural whiskey bottles (other than barrels) were made in the two most unpopular glass colors in the hobby–clear and plain amber.  These types of figurals were made mostly from about 1890 to 1920.  They made figural nip whiskeys in the shapes of cigars, clams, and other oddities, and larger figural whiskeys in the shapes of seated old men, the Madonna, lighthouses, and so on.

The E.G. BOOZE log cabin whiskey bottle is iconic in the world of antiques. It takes some research and careful inspection to tell a replica from a 19th Century original.

But one of the most iconic antique bottles in the hobby, is the classic “E.G. BOOZE” whiskey in the shape of a log cabin, blown originally at the Whitney Glass Works in Pennsylvania in the 1870s. The price for this bottle fluctuates quite a bit, but an original E.G. Booze sells for about $2,000-$4,000– don’t hold me to that price!   It is also one of the most reproduced bottles of all collectible bottles, and unfortunately, the 1920s replica is very hard to tell from the original. In some ways, this brings its price down a bit, because the non-expert collector has a hard time bidding with 100% confidence before investing in it.

The ultra rare, “Tippecanoe” cabin whiskey is considered by some to be the top bottle of any kind in the field of bottle collecting!

And to top off the “figural whiskey” category, you’d have to include the ultimate antique bottle of any category–the Tippecanoe Whiskey cabin figural, produced during the presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison of the then Whig party during the 1840’s.  These are so rare, beautiful, and desirable, that a perfect example may not even exist. Most examples I have seen have small holes broken out of at least one of the bottom thin corners ( a design flaw).  A perfect one of these, if it exists, might actually break  6 figures!  It is an investment bottle for millionaires, or preferably worthy scuba diver hobbyists like myself ! 

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.

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