View Full Version : Some help on AMS Special Reserve 1933
A while back my brother and I purchased a few bottles of AMS / Special Old Reserve (BIB 1917/1933) distilled by Harry Wilken @ DSP 368. According to the bottle, this bourbon was specifically selected for the AMS shareholders. There is a similar bottle (not mine) on ebay right now
I am curious to know a bit more about this and was wondering if anyone can help me better understand this bottling. Based on my own research, I've come up with quite a bit of conflicting information.
For example, someone posted on this website about having a bottle of Sunny Brook from #368 -- but according to Sam Cecil's book -- Sunny Brook was #5/297.
In same book, RD #368 is referenced as Elk Run, and Harry Wilkin (sic) is identified as manager and distiller (though in the next section Harry Wilken, "former distiller for Elk Run #368" had moved over to Mellwood by 1896). Cecil makes no mention of any affiliation to AMS (though he does note that
the company sold out to KD&W -- which I assume is the Kentucky Distillers Association).
So, can anyone put a bit more meat onto my bone of knowledge? FWIW, we did open a bottle and it wasn't bad. A bit woody, but definitely drinkable.
The thing to remember about prohibition is that when the distilleries closed in 1920, there was no distillation again until 1928. All barrels of whiskey were placed into "consolidation warehouses" chosen by the government for their ability to keep the whiskey safe from theft. There were just a few companies allowed at this time to sell the whiskey for "medicinal purpose" and those companies were:
Brown-Forman (the only company still operating today as it was then)
Stitzel Distillery (W.L.Weller and sons was able to piggy-back on Stitzel's license)
And the two big ones
American Medicinal Spirits who became part of National Distillers in the mid 20's.
Brands sold by these companies started out with their own whiskey, but by the late 20's whiskey was running short, thus in 1928 the government allowed some production to replenish dwindling stocks. Even so, many companies had to buy their whiskey from stocks of whiskey owned by people without a license to sell to keep the brand alive. That is what you have - a bottle of whiskey whose whiskey was bought from the stores of old whiskey and bottled as that brand because they did not have any of the original whiskey left after 13 years of non-production of the brand.
The Wilken family was sort of Pennsylvania's version of the Beam Family in the 1930's. There were several members of the family that were distillers, just like their father's and grandfather's. Just after prohibition Schenley had a chance to purchase the Kessler name with the claim that he had sold more whiskey than any other person in the United States. Instead they opted to create the brand "Wilken Family" with the claim that why should they care about the person who sold the most whiskey when they had distillers in their Pennsylvania distillery that had made more whiskey than any other person in the United States. I think that if a distiller with a Beam master distiller had been large as Schenley at the time, they could have easily disputed the claim, but it soon became a moot point as the Wilkens retired and nobody in the family kept with the distilling business and the brand died to hardly nothing in the 1950's.
I'll supplement Mike's terrific answer with a couple of additional pieces of information.
Distillers moved around a lot and in some cases were employed by several distilleries simultaneously, so don't be surprised if you see a distiller's name associated with several different plants.
AMS was owned by the Wathen family, members of which had operated several distilleries. They are connected by marriage to the Medleys.
Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Company (KD&W) was the Kentucky branch of the old Whiskey Trust that had bought up many distilleries throughout the U.S. beginning in the 19th century. During Prohibition, Seton Porter reorganized it as the National Distillers Products Company. He gradually bought into AMS, acquiring it completely in 1929. AMS was probably the largest single component of National, in terms both of whiskey stocks and brand names. Dick Wathen took a job with National and was the last of the Wathens to work in the liquor business.
Chuck, do you know this stuff off the top of your head or do you have to refer to notes?
BTW, I've been wondering this for a while!
It seems that the "new" owners filled the post-prohibition whiskies (especially some old favorite brands from pre-prohibition) with remaining stocks from other distilleries that they owned. Many of these whiskies were distilled before the start of prohibition.
By the way I do have some rye whiskey distilled at Gwynnbrook Distillery in the spring of 1921. Can this be correct? Were some distilleries allowed to produce at that time?
The law was pretty clear - no distilling after 1920 I forget the exact date but it was like January 12th or 20th. Most distilleries were required to dismantle their distillery as well. That does not necessarily mean your bottle is wrong - it simply means the whiskey went into the barrel in 1921, not necessarily distilled on that date.
Prohibition meant all whiskey hed to be put into consolidation warehouses. That does not mean all barrels were straight whiskey. The Bottled-in-Bond act was a moot point during prohibition. All whiskey got that tax stamp whether they met the requirements for Bonded whiskey or not. Remember, a large portion of America's whiskey was sold in the barrel before prohibition. This includes the blended whiskey and particularly Maryland rye which had many of its brands as blends and not straight whiskey. I suspect your bottle was blended and put into the barrel in 1921, probably by one of the companies that had the medicinal license to sell. It would still get the tax stamp during prohibition because the stamp was more of a paperwork trail of the whiskey for the government, than a bonded whiskey gaurantee.
This is a bottle of Mt Vernon Straight Rye Whiskey, The label reads...bottled in bond under the supervision of the U.S. Gov't.
Distilled by Gwynnbrook Company
American Medicinal Spirits Company
The tax stamp clearly states..bottled-fall 1933.....made-spring 1921
Chuck, do you know this stuff off the top of your head or do you have to refer to notes?
BTW, I've been wondering this for a while!
Some of both. I remember the outlines of things but rarely remember exact dates and such. Sometimes a question will make me wonder and I'll research it real quick. One convenient thing is that my "research" frequently just means referencing my book or some article I have written, so I pretty much know exactly where to look.
I agree with Mike, so that's a puzzler. A mis-print seems unlikely, though possible, considering that it was printed when it was bottled, obviously, and someone may just have been sloppy with the tumblers.
Or, as Mike suggested and to paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what your definition (or, rather, the government's definition) of "made" is. I doubt it sat in a tank from the time it was distilled until 1921, but someone could have "made" a blend in 1921 which, of course, would then have been rebarreled. It's certainly reasonable to assume that "made" meant "barreled" or, in this case perhaps, rebarreled.
Prohibition meant all whiskey had to be put into consolidation warehouses.
It should be noted that this did not happen immediately. In fact, the original Prohibition laws made no real provisions for what was to be done with all the whiskey that had been legally made. When you see old films of barrels being dumped and bottles being shattered those are, first, all staged photo ops and, second, all booze that was illegally produced or illegally obtained.
So, what to do with whiskey, in barrels in warehouses, that had been legally made? The government couldn't seize it. The laws made no provision for doing that and didn't make any provision for buying it from the legal owners. It was private property. You weren't allowed to do anything with it although, interestingly enough, you could sell it, even though the person you sold it to couldn't legally do anything with it either, couldn't even take delivery because you couldn't transport it.
Anyway, a lot of these warehouses were out in the country and not all that secure to begin with, considering how they're constructed, and the owners didn't have much incentive to provide security, so pilferage was rife, a big problem. People were very ingenious, with tunnels, pipes, hoses, pumps and such.
So it was a couple years into the "noble experiment" before the consolidation warehouse idea was conceived and one of the stated purposes was to ensure that the whiskey would be kept safe so it would be available "for medicinal purposes." One requirement was that the consolidation warehouses had to be in urban areas where it would be easier to provide security.
Talk about a world on its head. They didn't believe in the recreational use of alcohol but did believe in its medicinal use.
You are correct - it did take about a year to get the legislation passed to create the "Consolidation Warehouses". Dave's date could simply be the year the whiskey went into the consolidation warehouse from where the whiskey was stored before. If so it was peobably a non bonded blend. It should be also noted that the DSP No. for whiskey is the distillery where the whiskey goes into the barrel, not necessarily where it was made. When I was at U.D. Brown-Forman made some I W Harper while the Bernheim distillery was being built. It was shipped in bulk to Bernheim and put into the barrel at Bernheim with DSP 1 on the barrel. Something along those lines could be the cause of Daves tax stamp - the whiskey was made somewhere else and when the barrels finally arrived at a bonded warehouse, they were entered into the books for 1921.
It should be remembered that before prohibition over half of the whiskey on the market was a blend of some kind. These blends were sold in both barrels and bottles and some blenders created a consistant taste for their bottled product by aging their blends after blending for six months to a year in barrels. If you had a blender who sold 20,000 barrels a year but decided in 1919 with prohibition coming and people stocking up for the dry times ahead, he will produce 30,000 barrels. He did a fair estimate of his business but still only sold 28,000 barrels and has 2,000 barrels on hand when prohibition came into effect. He holds these barrels in his warehouse because they are his property even if he can't sell them to the public. After a year the government makes him place his 2,000 barrels into a bonded, consolidation warehouse and it is given a date of 1921 and the DSP Number for the distillery of the warehouse. Later he sells this whiskey to someone who owns a license for one of their products, or writes a contract with one of these companies to bottle and sell it for him giving them a price for each bottle sold - usually about 5 cents a bottle plus bottling cost.
I recall reading flat-out that whiskey was distilled to replenish supplies numerous times before Volstead ended including before 1928. However I can't find the reference! I checked last night my 1933 Fortune article; it doesn't say it (but refers to the 1928 manufacture, actually it says, or suggests rather, it was 1929). I checked Sam Cecil's book; it's not there either. It must be in Carson's Social History of Bourbon, but I couldn't quickly find my copy last night. Can anyone who has it close to hand check what it states on the subject? I do note that in my Fortune article, there is a color picture (I have the actual magazine) of a bunch of bottles, one is an Old Overholt and it shows the stamp clearly stating "made 1921". I doubt this was, that early, a blend. I am not saying you are wrong Mike, and as you know I have great respect for your knowledge in this area, but you are the first to encourage scholarship and inquiry and it would be useful to find that reference I read (and I know I read it) to assess its value. Frankly, it would have surprised me they started distilling again so soon after Volstead but I am pretty sure I read that this happened.
I would not worry about offending me - you know I always enjoy our discussions even when we disagree about a subject.
I am sure that 1928 is the first legal distillation to replenish stocks. I have seen earlier dates in printed material as well, but their source was usually a marketing department of a distillery. The 1928 date comes from some primary sources, Including Julian Van Winkle's papers at U D. As far as the Old Overholt bottle, I would not place any bets against it being a blend in the bottle. The Fortune Magazine article, if it is the one I am familiar with, was written in 1933 or 34. Old Overholt was one of the Flagship brands for AMS/National Distillers during prohibition. I am sure the original Old Overholt gave out before the 13 years rab out and the whiskey in the bottles was what ever they could find to replace the original that met a quality standard of Old Overholt. By 1933, some of the blends that had neutral spirits in them and placed in used barrels, probably had a better taste than some of the straights that had aged 13 to 15 years. The straight whiskeys were designed to be bottled before they were 8 years old. Not all of them would improve at 10, 12 or 15 years of age.
The Mt Vernon Rye, as I mentioned before, is labeled "Straight Rye Whiskey".
I don't believe a "Blend" would be in the barrel as suggested.
This topic arose in a thread a few years ago and Gary mentioned that four times during Prohibition whiskey was allowed to be produced. From various readings it seems no additional bourbon was produced until 1929. But maybe straight rye whiskey was allowed to be distilled under permit in the early 1920's....just a thought!
When was your whiskey bottled? I am not sure that the government was particularly picky about definitions by the end of prohibition. I know that while at United Distillers, we tasted some Mammoth Cave Bourbon that was bottled towards the end of prohibition. I believe Chuck Cowdery mentions this whiskey in his excellent book so he will remember the tasting as well. Our quality control lab did analyse the whiskey to what was in it and they were of the opinion that it contained neutral spirits, yet it was labeled Straight Bourbon Whiskey on the label.
Since it was the Federal Government enforcing prohibition, there should not have been any difference in the law as far as states are concerned. If Kentucky could not distill, then neither could Pennsylvania or Maryland. I will be interested in seeing what Gary finds in the references he is looking for. Gary is a very good researcher and has some excellent sources. He may have found something I am unfamiliar with and I will enjoy seeing it. He prove me wrong in the production dates. If so it will be good to add to the knowledge base.
Everything Mike has said is consistent with my information. I am fairly certain there was no legal distilling done in 1921.
There are many sources that tell how medicinal supplies were dwindling and public support for repeal was growing by the end of the 20s so the companies that had medicinal whiskey licenses were authorized to fire up their stills. Unfortunately, very few had stills that were still in working order. One of the few that did was Stitzel (this was the old Stitzel plant, not Stitzel-Weller), so they were the first to legally distill during Prohibition, and that was in December of 1929.
I think the way some of this misunderstanding has occurred is that much has been made of the medicinal whiskey licenses and, since they were issued to distilleries, many people just assumed those plants continued to distill right through Prohibition. They didn't. The medicinal whiskey licenses allowed them to sell the whiskey stocks they had, which at the beginning of Prohibition were considerable.
The movement of liquor to consolidation warehouses is probably the best explanation for the 1921 date, and it isn't necessarily that the whiskey must have been a blend. One can easily imagine how the date when the whiskey was entered into the consolidation warehouse became its "made on" date.
I'll check further, as Dave says (good memory Dave) I indicated, because I read earlier, that legal distilling occurred 4 times during Volstead. My remaining sources are not extensive: the books I haven't checked yet are Gerald Carson's book and Waymack and Harris. Fortune in '33 by the way (and this clearly is the same article Mike referred to) said that to distill under license to replenish stocks, a distillery had to own stocks and the distilling license allowed so much to be made in relation to that. If you didn't own any more stocks you couldn't make any more, is how I read Fortune. George Stagg was one of the distilleries that distilled legally as I recall during Prohibition because it owned stocks. Anyway, if anyone has the books before them now, they might save me the trouble. :) Any footnotes to the quotations might be helpful, too.
The Mt Vernon was bottled in the fall of 1933. Interestingly the back label refers to rebottling by AMS.
A little research has turned up this tidbit....both Gwynnbrook( whiskey which usually fills bottles under Hunter Rye brand ) and Mt Vernon really distilled straight whiskey or at least real rye as defined by the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Well. I found my Carson. No dice. Waymack and Harris. Ditto. I went back to Cecil because I thought I had read it there. Nope. But in leafing through Cecil, I found under the entry for Taylor/Stagg/O.F.C./Ancienet Age this statement: "In 1929 O.F.C. Distillery was reactivated as one of four Kentucky plants to replenish medicinal stock". Could I have misrecalled this reference as one stating that permits were granted four times to distill new stocks during Prohibition? Maybe. Although I can almost swear I read what I thought I read, somewhere. (And the Cecil quote is not 100% clear). Because e.g., I seem to recall that the Overholt plant was one of the plants allowed to distill under permit. But I might be combining and confusing different pieces of information. The 1929 date also coincides with the date in the Fortune story from 1933 and Fortune did not mention earlier distilling under permit, so presumably Cecil meant that 4 Kentucky plants were permitted to distill in the one year, 1929. So, so far I can't disprove what Mike is saying. And clearly in '21-'22 a lot of whiskey was being moved into concentrated warehouses for bottling so the idea of its being "made" then, entering the system as Mike said, is certainly arguable. Mike, I suspect you are right, but if I ever find the reference I thought I read, I'll update this note!
I really wish I could be at the Festival this year, cause I'd like to share a sip of this whiskey with you all. My brother and I picked up quite a few bottles of this on eBay at what is now looking to be a steal (if the $200 sell price of the one on eBay is any indication).
We did open a bottle and I have to say that it is much better than I expected. It was definitely a rye recipie and you could taste the wood, but not overwhelming. While it isn't the best whiskey I've ever had, it was quite nice being as old as it was (in oak and bottle).
The bottle, box and case (have that as well) was stamped that it was made for the stockholders of AMS. Given that there really isn't much of a brand "Special Old Reserve" -- it makes sense. And from what I've read about the poor quality of whiskey released after prohibition, this definitely didn't fit that bill either.
There is actually quite a lot of this stll around. Last year I was offered two cases of it (48 bottles) by the estate iof a pharmasist in Florida for approx $50 per bottle. I agree, its a decent whiskey considering its age in wood and time in the bottle. My curent open bottle is Fall 1917-Fall 1932.
There was a bottle of that Mt. Vernon rye at the gazebo in year one. I thought it had some nice qualities, but was a little unbalanced, though not quite to the point where I would call it overaged.
I believe I am right as well, but if you find your reference, it will be interesting in seeing what it does say. I have seen reference to distilling in the early 1920's, but they were usually something written by the marketing department of a distillery.
It should be kept in mind that these distilleries may have had a straight whiskey, but they often made a blend as well or at least supplied whiskey for someone elses blend. That whiskey would end up in their warehouse and when prohibition came into effect, that whiskey was just more inventory. By 1933 even a blended whiskey aged for 12 or 13 years would taste very much like a straight whiskey (wood dominate flavors) and could be bottled to meet a flavor profile of a traditionaly straight brand. I am not saying that this was a good thing for the consumer and would not like to see similar things happen now, but prohibition was an unusual time for the distilleries and they did many things that would not be allowed now.
I would like to read one day a really detailed history of Prohibition from the vantage point of distilleries. Apparently, the former ATF has extensive records which cover this period, including e.g., filings by distilleries, reports and other such information. Cecil referred to these records in his book but said despite repeated requests he was not afforded access.
prohibition was an unusual time for the distilleries and they did many things that would not be allowed now.
That makes me think of local stories about the upper floors of all the large homes on Whiskey Row during Prohibition. Whiskey Row is a block of Third Street where several distillery families (Samuels and Booker Noe's families) lived. I've heard the upper floors of several of those houses were filled with barrels of Bourbon right before (and during) prohibition...:lol:
Don't know how true it is, but makes for a good story...
. . . despite repeated requests he was not afforded access.
Because of the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in the intervening years a researcher today might be more successful. I wouldn't be surprised if we have a gadfly or two among us who knows how to invoke that law.
You may be right Dave, also, the policy of the current administrators may have changed since the time Sam Cecil authored his book, I don't know.
By the way some online research has disclosed that the July 29, 1929 issue of Time magazine contains an article of almost 300 words on the granting of permits to some distilleries to make "bourbon and rye". The story picturesquely (per the summary) says the distilleries soon will be "steaming" to make the new liquor and without any fear of sanctions since the distilling will be legal to replenish medicinal stocks. Subscribers to Time have access to its online digital archive (available through the the main Time web site). I am not sure I want to subscribe just for this purpose (as I read the small print, you have to take a 6 month subscription to Time which I think can be stopped after, but they debit or bill you first per the terms of the access). However, it occurs to me some members of the board may subscribe to Time. If so they might be minded to pull that article and share its purport with us. That article almost certainly will state whether permits were granted on earlier occasions for a similar purpose.
The Greenbrier question made me think of this thread, in that, with the exception of the anamoly that started this discussion, what do we always see with Prohibition-era bottlings? Whiskey that was distilled before 1920 and bottled thereafter. Likewise with the bottles from immediately after repeal. Has anyone ever seen, for example, a bottle that was supposedly "made" in 1926, for example, and bottled in 1936? That's certainly not the typical pattern. So if some replenishment distilling was done prior to 1929, where is that whiskey?
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