I am often asked to look at photographs of old bottles and give my opinion on the bottle’s age. It is not easy to do from photographs because there are many things I look for when I date a bottle. If there is a single photograph, then some of the characteristics I am looking for may not be in the image. I thought I would put down in writing what I look for when I date a bottle of whiskey.
The first thing I look at is the glass itself. The oldest bottles, bottles made before the mid-1880s, will be hand blown. This means that there are often air bubbles in the glass and no mold seam. You can often find the point on the bottom of the glass where it was made by the glass blower. It is possible that a hand blown bottle was blown into a mold such as when the bottle is a figural decanter and there is a seam from the mold. There are often embossed designs and brand names on the bottle, but it is not until after Prohibition that the government started requiring other things embossed in the glass.
The government required from 1933 to 1964 that the bottle be embossed with “Federal Law Forbids Sale or Re-use Of This Bottle”. They also required the bottle size to be embossed on the bottle. After Prohibition, some glass bottle companies would emboss the year the bottle was made on the bottom of the bottle, but not all companies did this. Of course the distiller may bottle brands with glass made the year before, so even if there is a date on the bottle, it does not mean the whiskey was bottled that year.
In 1932, the government only allowed standard size bottles of 1/10 pint, ½ pint, 4/5 quart, 1 quart, ½ gallon and 1 gallon size bottles to be used for distilled spirits. Before this time, there were some brands in unusual size bottles. That ended with repeal. In 1978, the government moved to metric sized bottles with sizes of 50ml, 100ml, 375ml, 500ml, 750ml, 1 liter and 1.75 liter bottles. Between 1978 and 1984, the bottles were embossed with both metric and fluid ounces to aid the transition.
Labels are another indicator of age as government regulations changed. Before 1906 there were no regulations as to what the government required on a label. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act started to define “what is whiskey?” It took till 1909 with the Taft Decision to end the legal battle over the definition, and in 1909, “straight”, “Blended” and “imitation” whiskeys were defined and required brands to be labeled in the proper category. In this transition period of debate, you often find whiskeys labeled as “Pure Food” whiskeys, meaning that they met the straight whiskey definition, before the government legalized the definition.
After Prohibition, labels had to give the proof of the whiskey and an age statement if the whiskey was under 4 years old. The front labels are pretty much as they are today. The back and neck labels after prohibition were often used to give the proof and age statements. These labels changed in the mid-1980s as the government required a warning against pregnant women drinking, drinking and driving a car and other health issues. In the late 1980s, the bar code labels are also placed on the bottle, either as part of the back or neck label or as a separate label.
Finally, there are the tax stamps. The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 required a green tax stamp with the distiller’s DSP number, the season and year the whiskey was made and the season and year the whiskey was bottled to be printed on the stamp.
After Prohibition, a red tax stamp was created for non-bonded whiskey. This stamp does not help date the bottle because the numbers on the stamp are government numbers for the stamps being issued. After 1984, the deregulation of the industry ended the tax stamp requirement. For about four years afterwards, the distillers would place a “fake stamp” on the bottle to seal it to prevent tampering, but improvement in tamper proof seals ended the use of those fake stamp seals.
This information should help date your old bottle of whiskey. The information is to be found over the whole bottle, so if you are sending photographs to someone looking for the date, you should photograph the bottle from several angles, including the bottom of the bottle.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller