In this post I want to share one of my favorite brands: Old Sunny Brook. It isn’t particularly hard to find and doesn’t excite many collectors but I’m a big fan of the evolution of this brand and its mascot, The Inspector.
In the photo above we have four bottles that represent very different eras in whiskey history. The half-pint bottle second from the left is from the pre-prohibition era and was actually distilled by The Sunny Brook Distillery Co. When prohibition hit, the vast majority of distillers went out of business and disappeared — but their whiskey did not. It was rounded up and purchased by a select few companies and stored in consolidation warehouses. One of the largest and most common of those companies was The American Medicinal Spirits Company, which hoarded countless barrels from just as many defunct distillers. The pint on the far left is a great example of an AMS bottle and has probably the best fill level of all the bottles in my prohibition pint collection.
The 1/10th pint miniature whiskey bottle is from the early 1940’s and is very common but notable because now the name is Old Sunny Brook Brand and the distiller is National Distillers Products Corporation, which bought AMS in 1929. It is the first to claim it is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey in the set. The final bottle is from the 1970’s and is the first example to drop the “Old” in the name. The Inspector gets a make over on this bottle and looks much younger than its paternal looking predecessors. This bottle is once again distilled by The Old Sunny Brook Distillery Co., run by National Distillers until the brand was discontinued in 1975. For more in depth history of Old Sunny Brook, visit this fantastic article at Those Pre-Pro Whiskey Men.
As a relative newbie to the American whiskey scene, I am truly fascinated by the heritage of the brands, distilleries and those old pre-prohibition whiskey men (and women). I have a penchant for all things Americana and I love collecting artifacts that shaped who we are now as a nation. My original collecting sin was (and still is to a degree) vintage baseball cards for which I have deep admiration. My affection is not just for the cards but also for the game and its history. My favorite cardboard edition is the 1914 Cracker Jack set. The only way to get one of these cards was to purchase a box of the famous confectionery delight, fish around for the prize, and keep it for 100 years. And I don’t care if I never get back.
So, how do 1914 Cracker Jack baseball cards and Four Roses whiskey intersect? Your first thought might be Babe Ruth, but he isn’t the crux of this biscuit. It is a romantic connection I make on my own, which I hope you enjoy. You see, there is something about pre-prohibiton, pre-depression America that holds an innocent allure I find captivating. When I hold a 1914 Cracker Jack card that survived the grimy mitts of a crazed tween looking for their next sugar fix in one hand and an unopened pint of Four Roses Straight Whiskey that survived the crusty knuckles of a bulbous nosed tippler in the other, the g-spot in my mind gets suitably tickled. For those items to survive 100 years and be in my possession is like owning pieces of history. Now, on to the Whiskey Mystery.
Disclaimer: This post was written while snorkeling Four Roses Single Barrel hand picked by my local liquor store. Four Roses Warehouse GW, Barrel No. 37-2B, to be exact.
One oddity of Prohibition was the fact that tens of thousands of barrels of pre-pro hooch was still around from various distillers, both operating and defunct. Those barrels made their way to what were known as consolidation warehouses. The bloodlines of whiskey royalty were thrown into the equivalent of the Great American Melting Pot. Back then, whiskey was like a box of chocolates — you never knew what your were going to get. I’m sure not many people cared and were just happy to get some “Alcoholic Stimulant” that was aged in wood. A prime example of this is my pair of Four Roses Straight Whiskey pints.
Exhibit A: Four Roses Straight Whiskey. One Pint. Distilled by United American Co. Made Spring 1917 Bottled Fall 1934. As lore goes, we started running out of pre-pro whiskey and the government allowed distilling of new stuff for medicinal purposes around 1928. If that is the case, and I’m sure it is based on my research, this bottle is an anomaly. This whiskey sat around in a barrel from 1917 and didn’t get bottled until 1934, which is after Repeal. Yet another contradictory piece of evidence that makes me scratch my noggin. Nothing on this bottle says a thing about it being medicinal and the paper California tax stamp dated July 1, 1935 on the back is a dead giveaway this is a post-pro nugget. See the gallery below for close-ups.
Exhibit B: Four Roses Straight Whiskey. One Pint. Patented by The Frankfort Distillery. Produced by Col. Albert B. Blanton (yes, that Blanton) prior to Sept. 22, 1917, distillery No. 2, 7th district of Kentucky. Bottling date unknown unless I destroy the box and look at the tax stamp. Not. Gonna. Happen. If this were a box of unopened 1914 Cracker Jack with the potential of a Christy Mathewson in it would I open the cardboard coffer? Probably not. I’m weird like that. Anyway, this is medicinal whiskey and the box literally has it written all over it. This bottle seems to have the correct lineage in that The Frankfort Distillery, which was purchased by Paul Jones, produced Four Roses from the end of Prohibition until Seagram’s bought the distillery in 1941.
These bottles raise more questions than my research answers. First, if the Ex. B is the correct lineage but bottled during Prohibition, what is the Four Roses brand on Ex. A doing on a post-pro United American Co. Distillery bottle? If this were the opposite, I would understand, but its not. Secondly, if we were running out of whiskey in the late twenties, where did the Ex. A whiskey come from? Some hidden batch forgotten by time? Lastly, what does Albert Blanton have to do with Four Roses?