July 5, 2012 -- To save money on the installation of central air-conditioning in his St. Joseph, Mo., home, Bryan Fite began replacing the wires in his attic, prying up the floor boards on the rafters. Along with possible savings, he found a treasure beneath the floorboards: 13 bottles of century-old whiskey.
Fite, 40, grew up in St. Joseph, and after working in Kansas City for several years, he returned to settle in his hometown in September 2011. The house he and his wife Emily Fite chose was built in the 1850s and needed work, Fite said.
The cost of installing central A/C and heat was prohibitive, he said, so he got to work in his attic. What first appeared to Fite as a set of strangely shaped insulated pipes turned out to be the secret whiskey stash of one of the house's former owners — or so goes Fite's main theory of how the liquor ended up there.
When they purchased the house, the Fites received a paper abstract detailing the history of its ownership. One of the owners, Fite said, had to give up the house when he was consigned to a sanitarium "for alcohol reasons." Fite hypothesizes that this alcoholic hid the bottles in the attic for some future occasion.
"Unfortunately, he never got the chance," Fite said.
Very Aged Whiskey Found Under Attic Floorboards
All the whiskey in Fite's attic was bottled in 1917 and distilled between 1912 and 1913. Fite, a self-proclaimed history buff, said the four bottles of Hellman's Celebrated Old Crow whiskey he found may have been among the last of their kind. In 1918, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Edson Bradley, the maker of the still-popular Old Crow whiskey bottled by the makers of Jim Beam, allowing him exclusive rights to the "Old Crow" label.
In addition to the Old Crow bottles, Fite's attic was keeping cool a few bottles of Guckenheimer, the erstwhile Pennsylvania rye whiskey, and W. H. McBrayer's Cedar Brook whiskey.
In 2017, when the bottles turn 100, Fite and his friends will pop them open, he said. But for now, they are simply antiques.
"Part of the allure for me is having them in their original state," said Fite, who identified bourbon as his drink of choice. "I have high expectations of what they'll taste like, and I'm afraid if I open them I'll be disappointed."
The quality of Fite's findings depend largely on the liquid level of the whiskey in the bottles, said Lew Bryson, managing editor of WhiskyAdvocate.com. If enough whiskey has evaporated, oxygen will enter the bottle and begin rusting the whiskey, and its "off flavors" will be concentrated in what remains, according to Bryson.
"Unfortunately, the good stuff leaves first," he said.
But unlike wine, in which yeast continues fermenting in the bottle, whiskey's alcohol content is too high to support any organisms. As long as the cap or cork is secure enough not to let in much oxygen, the age of the bottle will not affect the quality or taste of its contents.
Bryson said Fite could likely sell the bottles for several hundred dollars apiece. Pre-prohibition whiskeys are of historical interest, he said, adding that as a Pennsylvania rye enthusiast, he would be interested in buying one of Fite's Guckenheimers.
The value of antique whiskey is influenced by factors such as rarity and the reputation of the brand, he said, but it is not easy to predict, he said. An extremely rare single-malt whiskey from the 1930s recently sold for $100,000.
"You don't know until you try to sell it," he said.