Note: If you have found an old bottle and are looking for resources to evaluate or sell it, you can find a short list here: Whiskey, Rum and Old Spirit Bottle Price Evaluators. For background information on stability and drinkability, read below.
It seems people are finding lots of old bottles of whisky that are still sealed and are wondering whether they are still good and what the value of the bottle would be. For the most part, any bottle of unsealed high proof spirit should be safe as we’ve seen by the sales of very old scotch whiskies. As for the value of these old bottles, it will depend on the type of spirit and the stated age (i.e. how long it was barrel aged) and how old the bottle is. For example, a bottle of Glenavon whisky from 1851 sold for about $29,000. The bottles that will attract the most interest would be anything pre-prohibition, or items that are out of production.
Unlike wine, once whisky, and spirits in general, are bottled they don’t age. Technically there can still be some changes going on, if let says the bottle was exposed to light for a long period of time, but for the most part, once bottled high proof spirits don’t age. The reason wine ages are because of the chemical nature of the wine. The compounds in grapes (tannins and acids) tend to oxidize and soften the wine over time. This is a good characteristic for wine. When spirits are aged, they pick up flavours from the oak barrels and that’s about it.
Almost all compound in distilled spirits are heat stable since they were distilled at high temperatures, compared to ambient storage temperatures, so heat doesn’t affect them as long as they are sealed. Wines, however, can be affected by heat. Also, since spirits are high proof (80 proof or 40% ABV) and ethanol is a very stable molecule, plus the water is extremely stable, there is only a very small amount of compound in aged spirits that could theoretically age. So if any change does happen, it would be insignificant.
Obviously, certain spirits are going to have a higher “collector” value than others. Single malt Scotches would probably be at the top of the list. Because of prohibition, it would be extremely rare to find a pre-1920 bottle, but that would fetch some good coin if you found an interested buyer. Also because of prohibition, there are few, if any, vintage bourbons, but something like Old Taylor Whiskey (a “medicinal” prohibition whiskey) would command a hefty price. Once prohibition was repealed, in the 1930’s the process of aging the bourbon whiskey would have to start from scratch, plus demand for anything whiskey like would outweigh the idea of selling very old spirits at the time.
Canadian whiskies are quite abundant, but because they are blended they tend not to change from one year to the next. This reduces the value significantly since the perception is that something bottles in 1951 would taste the same as a 2005 bottling. That is the goal of blending, a consistent flavour from one generation to the next. So a bottle of 1974 Seagrams VO might not be worth anything, but perhaps a bottle of Crown Royal from the 1940’s or very early 1950’s might have some value. Again, it is not going to fetch you a lot of money but you may get double the going rate for a current bottle of Crown Royal. Extinct Canadian whisky, like Canadian Masterpiece Whisky, may be worth more but the trouble is finding a buyer.
Empty old whiskey bottles can be valuable to collectors also and can be listed on eBay to identify any interest.
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