Guests at the Art of Bourbon auction
The annual Art of Bourbon auction raised more than $318,000. | Courtesy

It’s hard to know exactly what unicorn bottles of bourbon and whiskey fetch these days, but with the help of public auctions, we can easily see what the value is to some collectors and aficionados. The recent Art of Bourbon auction in Louisville, Ky., for instance, raised a record-breaking $318,650 for a nonprofit organization, including a Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old bottle that went for $35,000.

This annual auction raises funds for the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, which was established in 1927 by philanthropist Hattie Bishop Speed. The money from the auction will support the Speed’s exhibitions, outreach and education initiatives.

The Art of Bourbon auction, which took place on Sept. 26, was hosted by author and renowned bourbon critic Fred Minnick and Marc Abrams, a well-known bourbon expert and bourbon donor based in Louisville. More than 200 people showed up to see these prized bottles get top dollar, which is just another indication of a booming industry.

George T Stagg bottle
This early George T Stagg bottle was distilled prior to 1917 and bottled in 1928. | Courtesy

“This auction fires on all cylinders,” said bidder Tom O’Grady, who serves on the museum’s Board of Trustees, in a news release. “Proceeds support an important institution in our community, and I get my hands on ridiculously rare bourbons.”

O’Grady regularly donates historically significant and record-breaking bottles to this annual auction, and he was the winning bidder of the 20-year-old A.H. Hirsch bottle. (More on that below.)

While the auction featured more than 30 bottles and bourbon experiences, there were three coveted bottles everyone was clamoring for. According to the news release, these were the auction highlights:

  • Not just a Pappy 23 Year Old. The Pappy. A prized unicorn among all spirits, not just bourbon, fetched $35,000 and brought the event to a halt in an intense bidding war. This is from the first batch of Pappy 23 Year Old ever produced. This 1998 bottle is the first year that Julian Van Winkle III went to market with the 23 Year Old, with its tell-tale green-tinted glass and brandishing a gold wax top that’s no longer made, this one is the auction’s unicorn. It was bottled in 1998 and made its formal debut that year.

  • Sports gambler, author and philanthropist Billy Walters bet big and came away with one of the evening’s unicorns: the ultra-rare George T Stagg prohibition bottle. For $21,000, Walters took home this pristine bottle of brown water with a backstory. This 16-year-old expression, distilled prior to 1917 and bottled in 1928, was produced at the George T. Stagg Company, which was under the new leadership of Colonel Albert Blanton. To protect it from being reused once consumed, Four Roses Distillery developed the first patented tamper-proof container. That patent is still visible on the top of the box. Because they were running low on their own whisky to sell, Four Roses marketed the bottle.

  • A 20-year-old A.H. Hirsch that literally disappeared from the liquor shelves more than a quarter of a century ago brought in $15,500. The winning bid came from bourbon collector Tom O’Grady, a founder of Clear Cut Brands. This Hirsch represents a piece of history frozen in time. Distilled in 1974 and produced at the old Michter’s Distillery, it’s widely considered one of the best bourbons ever produced.

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