Rex Woolbright was sorting through his late uncle Logan Drake’s estate in Newberry when he came across an old-looking, still-corked bottle of whiskey.
“It was a bottle, and that was it,” recalled Woolbright.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
That bottle of whiskey is estimated to have been produced between 1763-1803, making it the oldest known surviving whiskey in the world, according to Skinner Inc., the American auction house that just sold the bottle for a whopping $137,500.
The final bid blew past Skinner’s original estimate that it would sell for between $20,000 and $40,000.
As it turned out, Woolbright’s uncle’s bottle of whiskey has a long and rich history that traces back to the likes of J.P. Morgan, the 19th century banking magnate, and has wowed the man who discovered it.
JUST HOW OLD IS THE WORLD’S OLDEST WHISKEY?
Realizing that he may have more on his hands than just an old bottle of booze, Woolbright reached out to professionals.
“It was like a mystery novel,” Woolbright said. He had to “follow all of the clues” in order to find out where the bottle was from.
One of those professionals was Joe Hyman, a fine spirits specialist at the Skinner auction house.
Coming across old and rare spirits is common in Hyman’s line of work, he said. But “this one,” he said, “was unique.”
Hyman used a hypodermic needle to extract 2 milliliters of whiskey from the bottle, which was then sent for carbon-14 dating at the University of Georgia and the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
(In Woolbright’s retelling, he said he naively suggested uncorking the bottle, which prompted a wave of shock and earnest protest from the specialists.)
The carbon dating showed strong evidence that the whiskey was produced between 1763-1803, which would make it the oldest known surviving bottle of whiskey in existence.
WHERE DID THE WORLD’S OLDEST WHISKEY COME FROM?
Raised lettering imprinted on the bottle reads: “Evans & Ragland Old Ingledew Whiskey, LaGrange, Georgia.” That was Woolbright’s first clue about the bottle’s history. The second was a gift note to the Drakes — Woolbright’s uncle’s family — that came packaged with the bottle, which called it a “conversation piece.”
The first obvious place to look for more information about the bottle was LaGrange, Georgia. Research showed that while the whiskey was likely bottled in Georgia during the 1860s, the whiskey itself was likely older and distilled elsewhere. That’s because, according to Hyman, there is no evidence of corn distillers in Georgia during that time period.
Hyman speculated that the whiskey could have been distilled in Baltimore and then transported to Georgia, given that there were strong trade connections between the two locations at the time. However this is only speculation, and experts are unable to determine where exactly the whiskey came from.
Additional research showed the bottle Woolbright found was one of three identical bottles purchased by J.P. Morgan during his time in Georgia. The legendary banker owned property in the state and visited frequently. Morgan’s liquor collection, including these bottles, was passed to his son, J.P. “Jack” Morgan Jr., following the elder Morgan’s death in 1913, according to Garden & Gun.
Jack Morgan gave these bottles away in the early 1940s, according to Garden & Gun: One was gifted to Franklin D. Roosevelt, one to Harry S. Truman and one to James Byrnes, a former governor of South Carolina, congressman and a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Woolbright told Garden & Gun the Byrneses were neighbors with the Drakes, Woolbright’s uncle’s family. So it made sense to him that the bottle of whiskey would end up in their possession.
The bottle remained in the family’s possession until Logan Drake’s passing in 2008, when it was then found by Rex Woolbright. Woolbright had set his uncle’s possessions asisde for years before more recently discovering the bottle.
WHERE WILL THE WORLD’S OLDEST WHISKEY GO NEXT?
The world’s oldest surviving bottle of whiskey was sold at an online auction that closed June 30 for a price of $137,500, according to Skinner, the auction house that handled the research, testing and selling of the bottle. The bottle’s buyer has not been identified publicly.
Included with the bottle will be a handcrafted case made by Woolbright’s friend and neighbor in Newberry, Ron Jones.
“The color for the inside of the box is purple for royalty,” Jones said. He chose the color to convey the importance and richness of the whiskey’s history, he said.
Woolbright didn’t ask him to make the case. Rather, it was something Jones wanted to do for his friend, he said. Jones described Woolbright as “genuine” and “probably the most authentic person (he has) met.”
“When I showed (Woolbright) the box, he just had the biggest smile on his face, and he said ‘Ron, that’s beautiful,’” Jones recounted.
As for Woolbright, he is happy the whiskey and its new case will be put on display.
“It’s finally at its home,” he said.