Collecting rare American bourbon

Tasting shindigs and the spirit of Prohibition make collecting this “great democratiser” an authentic American experience for a whiskey lover and his co-curator, says Alice Lascelles

Collector Claude Robillard (standing) and dealer Edgar Harden at Robillard’s Yorkville home
Collector Claude Robillard (standing) and dealer Edgar Harden at Robillard’s Yorkville home | Image: John Hryniuk

It may be a fashionable bar call today, but when Claude Robillard first started ordering bourbon in New York in the late 1990s, he found himself out of step with the times. “Back then you almost got a funny look when you ordered American whiskey – what everyone drank then was Scotch.” The Toronto-born head of investor relations for an asset management firm had recently relocated to the Big Apple and was determined to have “an authentic American experience, so I stuck with bourbon – and pretty quickly found I liked it.”

The bourbon that really ignited Robillard’s interest was Elijah Craig 18-year-old, a whiskey that “wasn’t fancy at the time, maybe $50 to $75, but it was lovely, subtle, balanced,” recalls Robillard. “After tasting that, I started to drill down into the distillery that made it and the master distiller himself, and before long I’d gone down the rabbit hole.” That whiskey – which now goes for around eight times as much – sowed the seed for a collection that today encompasses around 130 varieties (“not counting reinforcements”).

From left: 17yo Vintage Bourbon, about £200. 23yo Black Maple Hill, about £3,000. 18yo Elijah Craig, about £120-£400. 15yo Noah’s Mill, about £160. Limited edition Parker Beam Promise of Hope, about £300
From left: 17yo Vintage Bourbon, about £200. 23yo Black Maple Hill, about £3,000. 18yo Elijah Craig, about £120-£400. 15yo Noah’s Mill, about £160. Limited edition Parker Beam Promise of Hope, about £300 | Image: John Hryniuk

Not that Robillard is overly preoccupied with the monetary worth of what he collects: “I find price is a reflection of scarcity, not necessarily quality. It’s often said that bourbon is about what you like, not what you’re supposed to like – that’s why I call it the great democratiser.”

For the past five years, Robillard’s co-curator has been the founder of the London-based Old Spirits Company, Edgar Harden, a laconic Canadian who sources old and rare spirits for clients ranging from The Ritz and Dukes hotel to media tycoons and captains of industry. “As soon as we met, we got along like smoke,” says Robillard. “It feels like we’ve known one another for a long time,” agrees Harden. “You could say we’re a no-age-statement bourbon.”

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Before founding the Old Spirits Company, Harden had worked as a specialist in 18th-century French furniture and decorative arts for the Getty Museum, the Louvre, Christie’s and the V&A, before moving into dealing fine wine and, subsequently, spirits too.

“The first thing I found for Claude was a 1960s Jim Beam 8-year-old Railway Carriage Decanter [about £350], which fitted together to make a 15-car train with an engine, caboose, boxcar, everything,” says Harden (it also served as the inspiration for a series Jeff Koons created in the 1980s). “It contained very old Beam juice from a time when they were making it much better, which is why I buy every Beam decanter I can get hold of.”

1960s Jim Beam 8yo Railway Carriage Decanter, about £350
1960s Jim Beam 8yo Railway Carriage Decanter, about £350

Other favourites in Robillard’s Beam-heavy collection include a Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece finished in port casks (about £600) and a limited edition Parker Beam Promise of Hope bourbon (about £300) created to raise funds for research into ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a degenerative neurological disease that affected the brand’s sixth-generation master distiller, Parker Beam. “That one’s particularly dear to me,” says Robillard, “as we made a donation to the cause and as a result I got to know Parker – we become pals, which was wonderful.”

One of the most valuable bourbons in Robillard’s collection is a 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle (about £1,500), from a series of Van Winkles Robillard bought “for around $100 17 years ago”, and not long ago the pair sampled a rare John Cochran & Co “Spring Hill” Spring 1916 Kentucky whiskey (about £1,750) together, “which was some of the best bourbon I’ve had the privilege of trying”.

From left: 20yo Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, about £1,500. Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece, finished in port casks, about £600. 12yo Mount Vernon Prohibition-era rye whiskey, about £1,500
From left: 20yo Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, about £1,500. Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece, finished in port casks, about £600. 12yo Mount Vernon Prohibition-era rye whiskey, about £1,500

Robillard’s plan is to invest in more whiskeys distilled during or pre-Prohibition. “Until I met Edgar, it didn’t even occur to me that I could get hold of such a thing,” says the Canadian, who recently splashed out on a 12-year-old Prohibition-era rye whiskey (about £1,500) produced under the Mount Vernon label, which was founded by George Washington.

According to Harden, the Prohibition spirit is alive and well in the secondary US whiskey market: “It’s still largely conducted in private, which is what makes it fun and interesting, whereas Scotch is much more blue chip.” Harden acquires most of his stock by buying up private collections. “But the big boys like Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams are all starting to take notice. There are a lot of people playing the game, but less and less material and higher and higher prices. Every week there seems to be a new record price for something.”

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Rising prices haven’t deterred his client from drinking the stuff, though. “Consuming your collection is about 50 times more fun than looking at it, and enjoying it with friends is about 100 times more fun than drinking it alone,” insists Robillard, who opens up his collection once a year or so for a whiskey shindig that sees friends fly in from all over the US and Canada. “We serve a traditional Southern dinner with a six-piece bluegrass band, and get a couple of experts in to discuss the history of bourbon too. Then we all chip in for a different charity each year chosen by my daughters.”

Constant travel for work means Robillard has also built an extensive address book of whiskey bars, which are “now like a home away from home”: current favourites include Rob Roy in Seattle and Barrel in Washington, DC, “which serve their great bourbon selection with little appetisers that pair exquisitely”. And when he’s in New York, his go-to is Park Avenue Liquor Shop on Madison Avenue: “Peter [the expert there] always has good recommendations and a nose for value.”

His favourite whiskey stop, though, remains Harden’s “Aladdin’s cave” in Shoreditch. “When you go to see Edgar’s collection, you budget for half an hour and end up staying three hours because you start hearing the history not just of the bottles, but also how he acquired them and the backstory to the collections. You’re taking in living history.”

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