NEWBERRY - The corked brown bottle had mystified Rex Woolbright for decades.
Rumor had it the Old Ingledew whiskey, which belonged to his uncle, Logan Drake, predated the Civil War and had decorated the shelves of powerful elites. It was mostly a thing of family lore - until Woolbright rediscovered the bottle in his attic a few years ago.
Now, the Newberry business owner is on a mission to uncover the full story behind the heirloom. With the help of experts, he's retraced 180 years of the whiskey's history.
Woolbright's uncle hadn't exaggerated about its origins. The bottle dates back to about 1860, but research shows the product inside could be more than six decades older - marking it as the world's oldest known whiskey.
It changed hands at least six times before finding Woolbright. Along the way, it kept company with famed banker and financier J.P. Morgan and a former South Carolina politician. It nearly crossed paths with two U.S. presidents.
"If J.P. Morgan bought it, it had to be good," Woolbright said.
Not surprisingly, the bottle has found fame among historians and collectors. It sold for $137,500 in an online auction by Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers on June 30, dwarfing the auction house's estimate it would sell for $20,000 to $40,000.
Woolbright began his deep dive into the whiskey's history around 2016. Last year, he connected with Joe Hyman, rare spirits consultant for Skinner.
According to Hyman, the Old Ingledew whiskey was bottled around 1860 by Evans and Ragland, a merchant and grocer based in LaGrange, Georgia.
Samples of the whiskey analyzed by the University of Georgia and the University of Glasgow in Scotland estimate it was produced between 1762 and 1803, amid the formative years of the United States. Still, little is known about where the whiskey was brewed or how it got to Georgia in the first place, Hyman said.
"The whiskey bottle is not the oldest, but the whiskey inside may be," he said.
Woolbright's family acquired the bourbon whiskey around 1950. His great uncle, Francis Drake, was gifted the bottle by his friend and neighbor, James Byrnes. Byrnes was a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, congressman and governor of South Carolina.
He told Drake the whiskey had been a present from Jack Morgan, John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan's son.
According to Byrnes, the whiskey was one of three sibling bottles from the older Morgan's collection. It's thought those ended up in the hands of two other famed politicians: One was gifted to Franklin D. Roosevelt - a distant relative of the Morgans - and the other to Harry Truman.
Hyman said records indicate J.P. Morgan purchased the three bottles in 1902 as part of a collection of wines and spirits owned by the Ridgelys, a prominent family from Hampton, Maryland.
Woolbright and Hyman are still following paper trails of old records and newspaper clippings to find out more about where the whiskey came from. Both said there are still plenty of threads to pull.
"It's almost like stepping stones," Woolbright said.
Hyman said the bottle itself will soon be handed off to its new owner.
"The bottle is in our vault, and the buyer is making arrangements to come and get it," he said.
It's not known who bought the whiskey, nor where it's headed next. Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers does not disclose its buyers and sellers.
Woolbright said his phone is still ringing off the hook from media outlets across the country asking about the bottle. But he's happy to share his story and even hopes to write a book about it someday.
"It's just unbelievable, isn't it?"
Perhaps someday he'll be able to uncork its mystery.
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