Bourbon Hunting – Bottle evaluation guidelines

In case you haven’t noticed, bourbon has become big business over the past several years with some bottles being valued at astronomical amounts. It seems every few days I am asked to evaluate and approximate the value of a bottle of whiskey. They are either bottles from a private collection, something a “friend” found, or a bottle someone is considering purchasing. I truly enjoy the variety of bottles people find and the history behind each of them. Whether it is a modern release or a dusty from 30, 40, 50, or even over 100 years ago, to be able to see some of these bottles that have survived time through world wars, major events, prohibition, and more always gets me excited. 

Before I give anyone my opinion on the valuation of any bottle, I always must remind them that mine is just one opinion, and opinions do vary. Additionally, the value of anything is always determined ultimately by two factors: first, the perceived value of the buyer, and second, the perceived value of the seller. The value to either party can always be skewed by their personal connection to the object. Just because something has been in the family for a generation or more, or has sentimental value, doesn’t make it any more valuable. Equally, a buyer might be willing to spend a little more if it has some extrinsic meaning to them. It should also be considered that neither impact the value of any future items of a similar nature. 

When I am determining a valuation of a modern release of whiskey or an older dusty, whether for myself or someone else, there are always several guidelines and rules I follow. As you continue along your bourbon hunting journey, perhaps these will help you too.

Guidelines– These are some of the general factors that should be considered when evaluating whiskey bottles. As with any guideline, there’s always some wiggle room and flexibility that must be considered.

Lineage– When talking to the owner of a bottle, I always want to hear its history and how it came into their possession. Sometimes this will give clues into the perceived value to the seller. How long has it been in their possession? Was it handed down from a family member? Did they purchase it and just looking to resell? If your internal B.S. meter starts going off, it’s okay to listen to it. 

Age– When reviewing the general condition of a bottle, the overall age of the bottle is the initial starting point. Unfortunately, not all bottles are stamped with their bottling year. This often creates some challenges when trying to determine the date the whiskey was bottled and released. Bottles released after the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 included a federal or state tax stamp. These either included the year the whiskey was bottled, or the design of the tax stamp can provide details of the approximate age of the whiskey. These stamps were deregulated by the government in 1984 so after 1984 bottles would not include a tax stamp. Some distilleries would still include a bottling year on the label, or they would include a machine printed code either on the glass or bottle capsule which can be used to provide information about the bottling date. These vary by distillery and bottling facility. Finally, most glass bottles include a two-digit year code on the bottom of the bottle when the glass was molded. This doesn’t always guaranty the whiskey was bottled that year, but it is a good assumption it was within that year or a year after. Often, I will look at all these factors to make sure they are consistent with one another. Any discrepancies should be considered and weighed carefully. For example, a bottle with a tax stamp from 1967 and glass with a “68” molded in the bottom is possible but highly unlikely. 

Condition– Age also factors into the overall condition of all aspects of the bottle and distillate. I always expect newer releases to be in very good or excellent overall condition. There should be no damage to labels or capsules at the top of each bottle. If wax was originally used by the distillery, it should be in good condition and not cracked. The printing on the label or other packaging should be crisp and precise for anything released post 1990. The older the bottle, the more fading, and other conditional factors not only should be considered, they should also be expected. For newer releases, damage to anything on the bottle shouldn’t impact the value of the distillate contained in the bottle, however if you are purchasing as a collector’s item, this will impact the value of the bottle.

Color– The color of the distillate should be consistent with any age statement associated with the bottle. The longer distillate is aged in a new oak barrel, the darker the distillate will become when bottled. This is somewhat true for Scotch and Irish whisky as well, but bourbon and rye whiskey will be darker the longer they age due to the new barrels. If a secondary barrel is used, this can also produce a darker, richer color. For more modern releases, it is easy to compare the color with other known bottles from the same distillery or comparable ages.

Clarity– All whiskey should have a beautiful deep amber or honey color; however, it must still be clear. Fogginess is an immediate signal of oxidation and will impact the quality of the whiskey. Foreign objects or particles can also be a clue of a potential issue. Older whiskeys bottled either pre-prohibition or before 1960 tend to have a higher chance of having particles either suspended within or at the bottom of the bottle. Pre-prohibition bottles, especially, pre-1897, will almost certainly have particles due to the difference in filtering and bottling technology. 

Fill level– Alcohol evaporates and any opportunity for air to pass in and out of a bottle will increase evaporation and reduce the fill level of the bottle. Wax helps seal bottles and some whiskeys were released with wax capsules from the distillery. Modern releases should always have a consistent fill level and little evaporation should occur. Over time however, these will have some evaporation as well, but for the immediate future they should be consistent. It’s easy to compare with other bottles released from the same distillery to verify their fill level consistency. Older whiskeys should have some evaporation to be expected. In fact, anything bottled before 1980, some degree of evaporation should be evident, and this will increase with age. I recently saw a whiskey that was bottled over 127 years ago and had very little to no evaporation, this immediately made me cautious. 

Label– The label and packaging should be consistent with the bottle. If looking to consume the whiskey, the quality of the label usually has less importance than if the bottle is a collector’s item. Regardless, the label should show no signs of been previously peeled and re-applied to the bottle. Also, when reviewing older labels, prior to 1990, printing technology, machine press and laser printing, were not near the quality of today, and printing quality should reflect accordingly. On older labels, print bleeding around text and lines should be expected. Crisp printing and crisp fonts on older labels or packaging can be a cause for concern. These can be easily verified by the naked eye or low magnification reading glasses.

Capsule– The top of most bottles includes the capsule which covers either the cork or screw cap. The capsule should be consistent with the original release and show no signs of tampering. I recently had someone offer me a bottle from 1967, it had a newer, shrink wrap clear tear away plastic capsule added over the original capsule and tax stamp. It made it nearly impossible to evaluate the tax stamp or capsule. The seller insisted it was original however these were not used until the late 1980’s. Instead of arguing, this raised too many flags and it was best to walk away.

Wax– The use of wax to seal bottles has been a common practice by distilleries for decades. The use of wax may add perceived value as well as help seal the bottle to prevent evaporation. The condition and color of the wax can determine if the bottle is original or if the fill level should be higher than normally expected due to the seal of the wax. Any cracks should raise some concern and older bottles with some cracks should be expected with age. Sometimes consumers will dip their bottles in wax to also help avoid evaporation. In fact, some distilleries have recommended this practice with collectible bottles. For myself, any use of wax not performed by the distillery is a red flag and cause for concern. 

Tax Stamp– The use of tax stamps on American whiskey were used from 1897 to 1984. These were placed over the capsule or top of the bottle to show that tax was paid on the alcohol and to prevent tampering. Key point – prevent tampering. If the tax stamp is removed, has been removed and reapplied with tape or some other means, or again, looks too good for the age of the bottle, or isn’t relative to the year the bottle was released, all of these are signals for concern. 

Parafilm– Parafilm tape is often used as an effective method to seal bottles to prevent leaking and reduce evaporation. This is never performed by a distillery. When reviewing a bottle, it is ok to ask the owner to remove any parafilm to inspect the capsule, wax, or tax stamp. If the seller is resistant, it can be understandable as this can often cause damage but as the buyer, consider this and all other factors before making a purchase.

Proof– Determining the proof of a bottle is often challenging and overlooked by many. Unless the bottle is open, the use of a hydrometer to test the ABV is impossible, and let’s be honest, most sellers are not going to agree to it before being paid. There is also the shake test. It’s simple and not as scientific but for higher proof whiskeys it can help prevent being taken by a counterfeit bottle that has been refilled with something of lower quality. Assuming the bottle has an ABV of 100 proof or higher, hold the bottle on its side and shake. Alcohol with higher proof should create larger bubbles that dissipate within a second or two. Below 100 proof, bubbles will be smaller and take longer to dissipate.  

Decanter– Decanters were a common marketing tactic by distilleries from the late 1950’s to 1980’s. Although some used clear glass, most were colored or opaque ceramic. This creates a lot of problems when trying to evaluate the color and clarity of the whiskey. Also, fill level and proof are best guesses at most. With decanters, it is especially important to review the tax stamp to make sure it has never been tampers. Also, while carefully holding the lid, turn the decanter upside down and on its side, any signs of leaking is an immediate red flag. If there is an obvious leak, oxidation and evaporation have most definitely occurred. If there is a leak, try to capture some in a glass to visualize the clarity, odor, and potentially taste the whiskey. 

Quantity– This is an interesting point to consider. The quantity has a couple factors when considering value. First, how many does the seller have for sale? If the seller has more than one, ask more questions and determine how they acquired them. With older bottles, the odds of having multiples are greatly reduced, unless they have an original case or packaging, owned a bar or liquor store, or worked in the industry. Second, how many bottles of this kind do you already own? If you’re adding a second because you want one to drink, that makes sense. However, if you already own several, ask yourself, do you really need another? Now I can never have enough Old Crow Chessman or Four Roses 50th Anniversary bottles, as they will never be produced again, but sometimes enough is enough. 

Rules– Although guidelines can be flexible, rules are not. Follow them and you’ll be just fine.

Rule 1 – If it seems too good to be true, it probably is! If everything about the deal sounds just too amazing, the price is too low, or everything just sounds too good to be true, you should pass. It’s ok to walk away and save your money for another day.

Rule 2 – If any of the guidelines make that voice in the back of your head ask questions, listen to them, they are probably right. Again, it’s ok to walk away and not make an offer or purchase the bottle.

Rule 3 – If you cannot afford it, don’t buy it! If you notice, I didn’t include price as a guideline. Ultimately, only the buyer can determine if the price is fair, reasonable, and they are willing to purchase. Sometimes, there are things you will just want and maybe you’ll pay too much for it, that’s ok. Ultimately, if you can afford to make the purchase, it’s your decision. Just don’t miss your mortgage payment, meals or presents for your children, or forget paying for any of the other more important things in life. Just remember, its just whiskey. 

Until next month, Ciao and CHEERS!

This article was originally published in The Bourbon Zeppelin, the Bourbon magazine of the ABV Network. For more from The Bourbon Zeppelin click here.