Is This the Rarest American Whiskey Ever Put Up for Auction?

Sotheby's has a new sale highlighting bottles you've definitely never tried

Five bottles from The Rare American Whiskey Selection, up for bids at Sotheby's
Five bottles from The Rare American Whiskey Selection, up for bids at Sotheby's.

If you’re a fan of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, there’s a set of rare whiskeys that certainly inspired those annual (and exceeding difficult-to-get) bottle releases. But the only way you’re gonna try these coveted bottles? Through an auction at Sotheby’s.

The auction, aptly titled The Rare American Whiskey Selection 1976-1982, centers around a set of five prototype whiskey bottles created in the mid-1990s that are now being touted as “the rarest American whiskey to ever be offered at auction.” Hyperbole aside, they’re certainly unique offerings that you probably wouldn’t be able to try anywhere else.

These bottles were originally produced as the prototypes for the world’s first collectible ultra-premium U.S. whiskey series to exclusively feature closed distilleries in America. All the whiskeys in this annual “Rare American Whiskey Selection” program were to be barrel-proof and feature a high age statement.

The Five New Bottles in the 2022 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Ranked
This year’s release marks a very welcome return of George T. Stagg

“This set represents not only the rarest bottles of premium American Whiskey ever to have existed, but a piece of storytelling that has never been shared,” says Jonny Fowle, Head of Sotheby’s Whiskey & Spirits. “This chapter has been missing from the history books and I’m delighted that we can bring it to life.”

Included in the set:

  • Old Quaker Indiana Corn Whiskey 21 Year Old Limited Edition Barrel Proof 65.0 abv 1976
  • Stitzel-Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Limited Edition 17 Year Old Barrel Proof 53.5 abv 1980
  • Taylor-Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Limited Edition 17 Year Old Barrel Proof 56.0 abv 1980
  • George T Stagg Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Limited Edition 16 Year Old Barrel Proof 57.0 abv 1981
  • Buffalo Springs Kentucky Rye Mash Whiskey Limited Edition 15 Year Old Barrel Proof 62.5 abv 1982

So why did this project never go through? It’s a bit complicated, but it involves a change of ownership. According to Sotheby’s, “The project was the initiative of The Classic Kentucky Bourbon Company, a subsidiary of United Distillers (UD) in 1997. At the time, UD owned the Bernheim Distillery and Stitzel-Weller. On the point of The Rare American Whiskey Selection project receiving approval for launch, UD merged with another company, International Distillers & Vinters to create United Distillers & Vintners, forming the spirits division of Diageo. At this point the project was shelved, never to be revived.”

But fortunately for whiskey fans, prototypes were made: two examples of each of the selected whiskeys, with prototype labels, but filled with the actual liquid to show the finished product as it would be sold — and some tasting notes exist. But one set was destroyed in a fire, leaving just a single set up for bidding.

The most interesting bottle? It might have to be that Stagg release, which whiskey writer Dave Broom described (in 1997) this way: “Pungent and powerful. Lemon balm/lime zest leaning to aftershave. Clean, bitter chocolate spiciness that hits the mouth and then explodes and expands. Stunning, but not for the faint-hearted.”

The live auction begins April 14, with the lot estimated to fetch between 10,000 and 100,000 GBP (or between $12,360 and $123,600).


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.