Drinks

The World’s Oldest Known Whiskey Goes Up for Auction

The age of the liquid inside the bottle is rivaled only by the provenance of its ownership

photo: Ted B. Williams

The whiskey, up for auction this month, may date to the late 1700s.

Among collectors, finding a valuable “dusty”—that is, an old bottle of whiskey stashed away somewhere collecting dust—is an idea often entertained yet rarely realized. When Rex Woolbright found a still-corked bottle while sorting through his late uncle Logan Drake’s estate in Newberry, South Carolina, he didn’t immediately realize just how significant his discovery was.

The bottle was inside a gift box with a faded Christmas card pasted to the top. The gifter included a note, which read: “If the Drakes would have all the happiness we wish for them they would be the happiest family in the world,” and indicated that the enclosed item was a “conversation piece.” The raised lettering on the brown-glass bottle inside the box read: Evans & Ragland Old Ingledew Whiskey, LaGrange, Georgia. 

“I said ‘Lord have mercy, what is this?’” Woolbright recalls. “And then we read the article that came from the LaGrange Daily News back in 1978.”

photo: Ted B. Williams
Rex Woolbright.

The clipping, based on information provided by his uncle and published in commemoration of that city’s 150th anniversary, added several intriguing details to a type-written note taped to the bottle, which stated that the whiskey was “probably made prior to 1865” and had once belonged to Mr. John Pierpont Morgan. 

According to the article and supported by subsequent research, it was one of three identical bottles from the collection of financier J. P. Morgan, who had likely purchased them during one of his frequent trips to Georgia, where he owned property. After his death in 1913, Morgan’s extensive liquor collection passed to his son, J.P. “Jack” Morgan Jr., who in the early 1940s gifted one of the bottles to James Byrnes, former governor of South Carolina, congressman, and a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Jack Morgan gave another to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a distant cousin to the Morgan family, and the third to Harry S. Truman. 

That the bottle would wind up among his uncle’s possessions made sense to Woolbright. His grandparents, who owned a popular local restaurant, lived next door to Byrnes in the 1950s and were friends of the family. “They called him Jimmy,” Woolbright says.

It was Byrnes who attached the typed note and gifted the “conversation piece” to Woolbright’s grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Francis Drake, who later passed it onto their oldest son, Logan. Woolbright says it probably survived because his grandparents and uncle were Scotch drinkers. “If it was my dad, he likely would have put it over ice and that would have been it.”

It’s a good thing the cork remained firmly in place. When Woolbright connected with Joe Hyman, a spirits expert with Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers, they discovered that the liquid inside was as rarefied as the provenance of the bottle’s ownership.

Using a hypodermic needle, Hyman extracted a two-milliliter sample of the whiskey and sent it to the University of Georgia for carbon-14 dating. The data, which was also evaluated by the University of Glasgow, showed a high probability that the corn-based whiskey was produced between 1763 and 1803—making it the oldest known surviving whiskey in existence.

photo: courtesy of Rare Spirits
The bottle was once owned by financier J.P. Morgan.

No information could be found about a distillery or brand called Old Ingledew, but research confirmed that Evans & Ragland were grocers who operated a store on the town square in LaGrange during at least the 1860s and 1870s, which is consistent with the manufacturing timeframe of the bottle. It’s likely that the grocers acquired an old stock of whiskey—possibly themselves unaware of its age—and bottled it under their own label, as was common at the time. 

“Just the background on where it came from seems like an impossible story in and of itself,” Hyman says. “What would you think if somebody came to you and said, ‘I’ve got this bottle one of the most powerful politicians of the twentieth century gave to my grandfather back in the 1950s, and he boasted that Jack Morgan had gifted it to him out of his father’s collection, and other bottles had been given to FDR and Truman? Oh, and it’s from before the Civil War.”

photo: courtesy of Rare Spirits
James Byrnes wrote this note when he gave the bottle to Francis Drake in the 1950s.

Byrnes, Roosevelt, and Truman were all prominent in coordinating America’s response during World War II, and Hyman believes it’s plausible that Jack Morgan made the gifts during that era.  “Take the story as a whole and then factor in the test results, and I think it’s more believable than not,” he says. “It’s like the red violin of whiskey bottles—it’s been everywhere with everybody.”

That storied history is what the whiskey’s next owner will be banking on when the bottle goes up for sale at Skinner’s online Rare Spirits auction June 22–30, where it’s estimated to sell for between $20,000 to $40,000. Other items on the block include a pint of Sam Thompson Old Mongehela Rye bottled in 1924, three quart bottles of O.F.C. Bourbon Whiskey from 1909, and a bottle of Yannissee Malt Whiskey circa the 1890s.

Woolbright is hopeful that his uncle’s bottle will find its way back to LaGrange, Georgia, possibly on permanent display in a local museum. “It’s like a book—you find out all this information and then you finally come to the end,” he says. It would be a fitting conclusion because “it all started right there.”