The ad was presented in the same terse manner as most ads are on the vintage whiskey buying group of which I—and about 8,000 others—am a member: “Auction for 1 bottle. Mr Wellers Pure limestone water 4/5 quart Straight from Kentucky.”
The comments on the post came quickly, the most incisive one simply asking: “Water?” But then a funny thing happened: Bids started coming in. First $60. Then $80. By the end of the auction, the bottle of 1967 vintage water had sold for $120.
“I don’t ever really plan on drinking them, [they’re] just for show,” explains Larry Baldwin, a Kentucky man who might have the biggest vintage water collection in the country. “They’re definitely more rare to find than dusty bourbon bottles of the same age.”
Of course, that Mr. Weller’s Pure Limestone Water may very well have been pulled straight from a Kentucky tap, but it’s no ordinary water. The fact that the label says “Weller” tells even the most green bourbon enthusiast that this product has the stench of Pappy Van Winkle wafting from it. Indeed, it was bottled by Van Winkle’s famed and long defunct Stitzel-Weller Distillery. (Baldwin speculates these bottles were gimmicks even back then; the fact he has acquired a 1960s Old Fitzgerald gallon of water—in a cradle swing stand, no less—makes me think he might be right.)
Julian Van Winkle, Sr. was a salesman par excellence in the post-Prohibition days of bourbon, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he had the chutzpah to try and sell water, too. (Commercially-widespread bottled water doesn’t really start appearing until the late 1970s and early 1980s.) It’s perhaps even less of a surprise that this “Weller Water”—as it was rebranded in the 1980s—has become highly desirable on bourbon’s online secondary market.
Some might see this development as nothing more than a cool curio—no different from a vintage Jim Beam advertisement or an empty McCormick Elvis decanter from the era. But rarely do those sell online with the rapidity that Weller Water or Old Fitzgerald Prime Limestone Water has started to sell.
It’s hard not to see this as an indictment of current bourbon culture. Whether it’s Weller Water (which currently fetches around $150), or, say, a bottle of 2015 Pappy, what’s being purchased is seen only as an asset—something to display on your shelf, post on Instagram and rarely ever open. Once its value becomes greater than what was initially paid, it sells to another schnook and the cycle repeats.
While industry professionals are aware of such items, vintage water hasn’t quite broken into the actual bar world. Kris Peterson, the spirits archivist at Mordecai in Chicago, was gifted a bottle of Mr. Weller’s Pure Limestone Water last summer. He thought it might be a fun little surprise to offer it at his bar as a free bonus alongside “hefty price tag” pours of vintage Stitzel-Weller bourbon. He couldn’t imagine charging for it—the acquisition costs would be a waste of his budget and the customer markup would be too ridiculous.
“$150 can get me some very fun bottles to play with that I imagine will elevate the drinking experience more than this,” he explains. “If you figure it breaks down to $6 per ounce, a bourbon and water highball—which would require four ounces of water—would end up costing around $75 to make. That’s going to be an expensive drink with a third of my cost getting eaten up by the water.”
To be fair, much of the online bourbon community recognizes the absurdity of “vintage water”; every time it’s offered for sale it’s mocked by a good portion of the whiskey group. After his bottle of Mr. Wellers Pure Limestone Water sold so quickly, for example, the aforementioned seller joked: “If anyone can get me into the old water exchange group that would be awesome!”
But, like Dutch Golden Age tulips or late-1990s Beanie Babies, vintage water only holds value so long as people believe it to. So, it’s entirely possible that the current vintage water buyers have capitalized on a trend well before it’s hit its peak, and they’ll be the ones laughing at our lack of foresight when it starts going for $500 per bottle next year. But the tides could just as easily turn the opposite way.
As for Peterson, he’s not planning to buy more, though he remains adamant that $120 bottles of water might not be the worst deal in the world: “I suppose after we fuck up all the freshwater on the planet that will seem like a bargain!”