Sometimes just casual or ephemeral journalism – most of it is – offers good lessons from a historical angle. I’ve provided countless examples in these pages, mostly to do with whiskey, beer, and food. (For food, “beefsteak” dinners, say, or the fascinating history of “surf and turf”).
A story printed in Williamstown, Victoria in 1898 is a perfect example. It is about an American country lawyer, Henry Sherwood, who was paid for legal services as a young counsellor in whiskey. Not just any whiskey, but prime old Kentucky. This occurred in the mid-1850s, in Steuben County, New York, a western section that houses Corning, Binghampton, and notable resorts of the Finger Lakes.
In short, Sherwood, an abstemious man himself, put the barrel in his basement for five years. At a euchre game in the local courthouse – after hours – Judge Constant Cook, who liked whiskey, dissed the stuff available in Corning. Sherwood fetched two gallons from his barrel for the judge.
The judge was rapturous and promised young Sherwood a “lift”. This materialized in time, when the judge, interested in railway and coal contracts, cut Sherwood in.
There is more to the story, especially how the young lawyer came to take payment in liquid goods. The client, a wandering ne’er do well, got in a fix in New York. Sherwood took the case without fee for the experience, but the tramp promised if he made it home to Kentucky, his father, a prosperous distiller, would ship fine whiskey to the lawyer in payment.
Sherwood deployed enough skill that his client was acquitted. Some time later, when the lawyer had forgotten all about it, the station agent called one day to say a cask of old Kentucky bourbon was in the yard, with Henry’s name on it.
As the main bourbon histories tell us (we like Henry G. Crowgey and Gerald Carson, as supplemented by certain writing since), bourbon was already nationally known in the 1850s. It was not always called bourbon, sometimes just whiskey, or Kentucky whiskey, or in a colourful phrase, the “red cretur”.
Cretur is an old Scots term for whiskey, from creature. Speaking of etymology, I always wondered where the term “lift” came from, for a ride. I thought it had to do with allowing a person to climb into a vehicle.
It seems not. As the 1898 story makes clear, one sense of lift in 1800s America was an assist, a break, a tip. Someone who gets a ride certainly gets an assist from the driver.
Now, how old was that bourbon sent to Henry Sherwood, up north from Kentucky? The story doesn’t say. Crowgey writes bourbon was available in all variety of ages before the Civil War.
I’d think perhaps 4-5 years in this case, so about 10 years old with further aging in Sherwood’s cellar. But it might have been double that.
So particular are names and details in the story that it seems unlikely this tale was made up. Indeed Constant Cook existed, tied to land and railway development in New York, see e.g. this biographical sketch in a railway historical site.
This sketch in an official New York state history confirms that Sherwood was a lawyer in Steuben County, in the right period, and involved in investments of the type Cook was.
How lucrative did that barrel of bourbon prove to be? $1,000,000. That was a lot of money in 1860s America. No doubt it helped fund Sherwood’s political career (see the bio again).
Today, adjusted for inflation, that’s $30,000,000. Today too, prime old bourbon, say 12-20 years, if you can find it, costs a lot, although I doubt that much, adjusting for quantity.
In Sherwood’s basement, to one indifferent to bourbon, aged whiskey had little value. But since someone valued it differently, it proved its financial worth ultimately – in spades.
The market of course can affect the calculus. 15-20 years ago old whiskey was cheap. You had to be there. I was.