Old Whiskey, Old Money

[A version of this appeared earlier but am re-posting as it is substantially revised].

A news story published in distant Williamstown, Victoria in 1898 concerned an American country lawyer, Henry Sherwood. A young counsellor just getting started, Sherwood took a fee in whiskey. Not just any whiskey, but prime Kentucky bourbon.

The story reaches back to the 1850s in Corning, Steuben County, New York. North of the county line, more or less in parallel, are the storied Finger Lakes with a portion of Keuka Lake peeking into Steuben.

Many readers will know of Steuben Glass, formerly a prime production of Corning. The factory closed about ten years ago but the Corning Glass Museum continues the tradition via its exhibitions and educational mission.

Below Corning is shown in 1852, rendered by an unknown artist (source: Wikipedia Commons).


Having received a barrel of Kentucky whiskey for this efforts Sherwood, an abstemious man himself, rolled it into in his basement, where it stayed for five years. At a euchre game in the local courthouse – after hours – with Judge Constant Cook, the subject of whiskey came up.

Hearing the justice slag the whiskey made in Corning, Sherwood fetched two gallons from his barrel for the judge. It was a courtesy easy for Sherwood to do, but it never hurts of course to curry favour with the man sitting in judgment against your clients!

The judge evidently was highly pleased with the gift and promised young Sherwood a “lift”, a help or advantage in other words. In time this materialized when Judge Constant included Sherwood in lucrative coal and railway contracts.

But how did Sherwood come to receive such an unusual emolument? His client was a wandering youth, a ne’er do well who got in a fix in Sherwood’s quarter of New York. Sherwood took the case without fee just for the experience, but the lad 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 about the case, the Corning station agent notified him a cask of old Kentucky bourbon lay in the rail yard for him. He needed just to take delivery.

As numerous bourbon histories tell us and my own research confirms, bourbon was already nationally known in the 1850s. It was not always called bourbon, sometimes just whiskey, or Kentucky whiskey. It was distilled by different apparatus, and aged for varying periods, but it was the darkened, corn-based bourbon we know today.

In a colourful phrase especially before the Civil War the term “red cretur” was used to describe it. The phrase is an importation, as partly the whiskey tradition itself, from Scotland. Cretur is a Scots (and maybe Ulster) dialectical term for “creature” and has long been applied to whiskey. Maybe people who took too much whiskey dubbed it so for its baleful effects.

The press account doesn’t say how old was the whiskey sent to Sherwood. Bourbon was available in a variety of ages before the Civil War. Likely I think Sherwood’s whiskey was one or two years old when he received it. Two years then certainly could mean old, because it took some colour from the barrel, and had some flavour from the wood gums.

At six or seven years aged in his cellar it would be just right if stored, as likely it was, in new charred oak. But if he received it at five years and it was ten when laving a parched judge’s lips, the further years would have done no harm.

And on to about 12-15 years, depending what you think of old whiskey.

So particular are names and details in the article that it seems unlikely the Sherwood whiskey story was made up. Indeed a Constant Cook did exist, tied to land and railway development in New York, see a reference in this biographical sketch from the Fall Brook Railway historical site.

A passage in an official New York State history confirms that a Sherwood practiced law in Steuben County and was involved in similar investments to Cook, in the right period. It all has the smack of real people and events. There is no reason to discount the whiskey part of it.

Given how his land investments worked out Sherwood’s barrel proved finally of $1,000,000 value at the time. That was a lot of money then, today adjusted for inflation it is about $30,000,000.

Today too, prime old bourbon, say 12-20 years old – if you can find it – goes for good money, although not the millions, not yet anyway. In Sherwood’s basement, to one indifferent to liquor prime or otherwise, Kentucky whiskey had little value. But to someone who valued liquor differently it meant much more.

In turn this translated finally to immense riches for an abstemious country lawyer. Of course it is all a question of time and place. I was there – Kentucky too, many times – when the whiskey renaissance took root about 20 years ago.

And then, you could buy old whiskey for a song, practically. I speak here of American whiskey, not Scotch or Irish whiskey but that too went for much less than nowadays.

Of course, old whiskey is not necessarily better than younger, but as ever carries the imprimatur of fashion. So if you want it old today, be prepared to open that wallet, real or electronic.


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