The early glob top whiskies have been highly sought after ever since it was noticed that they were different in many ways to the majority of whiskey bottles found by diggers and collectors. With several books as guides, many new collectors started to focus exclusively on these older style whiskies and the dollar value of the older bottles began rise dramatically. Early on it may have been possible to "cherry pick" a couple of very nice older globs from a novice collector or digger that had a put together a sizable collection of assorted bottles. As more and more collectors and dealers combed the western states, the chance of finding a "pilgrim", or picking up a nice bottle from the uninformed became more remote. By the early 1970's, bottle shows and dealer listings became the way to acquire the bottles you were looking for. The annual Reno Bottle Show became one of the top attractions for collectors of glob top whiskey bottles. Located close to the famous mining towns of Virginia City and Gold Hill, many of the very rare old whiskey bottles were bought, sold or traded at this venue. Las Vegas was another great show for acquiring the good old whiskies. All of the California bottle shows had good whiskey bottles. These shows were usually not quite as large as Reno or Vegas, but diggers in northern California found large number of the known examples of these old whiskey bottles. Astute collectors and dealers loved to set up their sales tables close to the entrance into the bottle show, maybe hoping for the opportunity of being the first person to see and purchase a recently dug bottle. These were the early days of being a whiskey collector in the west. By the 1980's it had become more difficult to locate good whiskey bottles at shows. Very few of the really good bottles ever showed up on the sales tables. Some were behind the table, if you knew who was selling what. But all through the 1980's and early 1990's the supply of these bottles seem to diminish and the prices continued to rise.
Of course there has always been another way of acquiring these old whiskies. Go out and dig them up!! In John Thomas' book, Whiskey Bottles Of The Old West, he indicates how hard it is for the average collector/digger to find these older style whiskey bottles. In a collection of several hundred bottles, he indicates that maybe one or two of the older style whiskies may be found. A collector/digger would be fortunate to find more than two or three of these older whiskies in a lifetime of digging. This statement is a bit dramatic. As time has gone on, it has been proven that trying to find the best bottles is a lot like catching fish or hunting mule deer. You have to be in the right place to find the trophy, but it also takes a lot of skill, patience and much hard work!
There are people that love the challenge of finding the best or the most, so with research and hard work, dedicated diggers searched out the best locations for finding these early whiskies. Since most of these bottles were made and distributed from 1868-1885, towns that were populated during that time period were likely sites. It was soon discovered that some locations had better odds of having good bottles than others. Old mining towns had an excellent chance of having the type of bottles we were looking for. Farming communities not so much. Many of the early mining towns in Eastern California, Nevada and Utah were deserted or had become ghost towns. These old towns were dug hard in the 1960's and 1970's. When it became known that a certain town had yielded a top bottle, that town was worked hard by the dedicated group of ghosttowners. Unfortunately, the bottle dumps, trash layers, and privies in these towns were not a renewable resource. Unlike the best fishing streams, once a privy was probed out and dug, it was over. The bottles weren't coming back! Before too long the more obvious holes were all dug, soon most of the holes had been located. By the mid 1980's ghost town digging had nearly disappeared. In the early 1980's, the Federal Government also had decided to be much more active in enforcing the Antiquities Act of 1906. In the 1960's and 1970's ghost town bottle digging was a family pastime. A camping trip for bottle collectors and bottle clubs. After 1982 it was against the law!
Private property permission digs became the best approach to digging bottles from the 1980's on. Sometimes major portions of the older sections of cities were razed for new construction. Many good bottles came from these projects. You had to be on the scene quickly or another digger would beat you to a hole. Diggers were armed with probes of various lengths and styles to get through the fill and rubble that may be covering the original ground level. Pounder probes to beat a probe hole in the ultra packed ground or asphalt. Concrete and asphalt were broken up so the potential privy could be probed. These "technical digs" were a crap shoot. Sometimes the cost of replacing the concrete/asphalt was much more than what was found, but there was always that chance of the big find! This type of digging is hard work. It took time to learn the techniques of finding and digging holes in this environment. Mostly it took super dedication and conditioning to work this hard looking for bottles. Of course the reward for a big find had multiplied greatly. A very nice rare whiskey bottle in 1969 might be worth 300.00, in 1996 it might be worth 10,000.00, or more.
Armed with Sanborn maps, diggers kept a close watch on favored areas of older cities and towns. Getting permission from private property owners or home owners in the older parts of town became an art form. Most of the diggers of the 1980's to present are avid collectors. They are not working this hard looking for bottles to sell at the next bottle show. Most of these present day diggers/collectors are trying to find that particular bottle or bottles to add to their collections that are just not available any other way. If they are lucky enough, maybe they will find several examples of the same bottle in a privy. The duplicates could be sold or traded for something else of interest. Isn't this a great hobby!! I wish it were that easy!
Keeping the focus on glob whiskey bottles again, 1996-2000 seemed to be the "great coming of age" time for western whiskey bottle collectors. I guess glob top whiskies could jokingly be called an "investment" during this period. Dealers and collectors were buying bottles and selling them quickly at huge profits. Interest was at an all time high in these bottles. Like we've seen in stocks, rare coins, real estate, etc., a bubble formed. Prices on some fairly common bottles had reached levels that just couldn't be supported. Quite a number of the more rare bottles topped the 10,000.00 mark. Some longtime collectors stepped back from the escalating prices and liquidated their collections. Four or five major collections hit the western bottle scene at the same time. Where there had been real shortage of available bottles for collectors to consider, all of a sudden there were several examples of almost every popular bottle for sale. The obvious happened, more supply than demand, and prices came down to a more realistic level. Another interesting thing that happens during these bubbles or rapidly increasing prices is that grading standards drop off. Collectors seem to be happy with anything, and pay increasingly high prices for bottles that have problems. These examples suffer the most when trying to sell them into a soft market.
As collectors became frustrated with the market, some what of a malaise had settled over the glob top whiskey scene.
Of course not all glob top whiskies suffered in the weaker market. Draw your own conclusions.. bottles that were extremely rare/popular did not decline at all, they went up. With the very top 6 to 8 bottles, with the very few that changed hands since this period, they've brought increasing high prices. Some escalating by 25-50% from the previous sale of the same example which had occurred during the 1996-2000 boom. Most of the more common glob tops have steadily increased in price throughout the entire period. J.F. Cutter fifths(t-46) and J.H.Cutter(t-43) were both selling in the $75-$100 range in 1998. Try to find a nice one now of either for under $250. Jesse Moore (t-91) a $50 bottle in 1998 now around $175, or how about Teakettle(t-136). Probably could have picked up a real nice one in 1998 for $800-$900, an upper tier example is going to cost you north of $2000 these days. These are fairly common bottles, there must some collectors, new collectors, out there.
The bottles that suffered the most were some of the damaged or repaired examples that acquired during the boom. Also many of the mid range bottles, ie: McKennas, Phoenix, etc. were cut down noticeably in price. The McKennas is a great example. Very popular bottle, there are many nice examples around in some great colors. In 1997-98, you could buy one at a show for $900 no problem. By the height of the boom 2000-2001, I saw several examples sell in the $2500 to $3500 range! Now they are back to $1800 to $2000 for a real nice one, closer to $1300 for an average one.
So what is the moral to the story? The popularity of groups of bottles seem to rise and fall, and rise and fall, over the years I have seen this happen with western sodas, whiskies, bitters, medicines, pot lids, on and on. The secret is knowledge and persistence. Know what is rare, know what colors are really unusual in certain bottles. If you are buying bottles, perfect examples will always bring a premium price. Seriously damaged or repaired examples may be needed to fill a spot, but be careful on what you pay. Hey, these early glob whiskey fifths and flasks are crudely made, meant to be thrown away, dug out of the ground with metal tools, and we expect them to be pristine perfect! Not likely. Very minor damage or very minor ground stain does not have a real harmful effect on value. Glass making problems, "inmaking issues" are given a fairly wide latitude, if not extremely distracting or problematic. What will happen over time is the same that happens in all collectibles, the very top examples will be the best investment. Perfect, undamaged specimens that have not been overly cleaned will begin to sell at a large premium to comparable examples that have issues or "excuses".
So where are we now? The western whiskey market has strengthened noticeably the past couple of years. In my estimation there are a fairly sizable group of collectors that strive to collect these older western glob top whiskey bottles. That is the motivation behind this blog. I have firmly believed that most collectors love to find out more information about their bottles, and with more information out there to read and comment on, more people will become interested in the bottles and become collectors as well. Feel free to post a comment about anything related to western whiskey bottles, bottle digging, western history, glass making, what ever you think may be relevant to readers of this blog. Keep in touch.....