The whiskeys include some of the finest specimens known; flasks in never-before seen colors.

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) – An incredible selection of rare, high-end western whiskey bottles and historical flasks will be sold in an Internet and catalog auction that begins Dec. 9 and will conclude Dec. 18 by American Bottle Auctions ( Some of the whiskeys are the most desirable specimens known; some flasks are in never-before-seen colors.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large group of rare and desirable whiskeys and flasks in one auction in my many years of collecting and auctioning vintage bottles,” remarked Jeff Wichmann of American Bottle Auctions. “There are easily thirty bottles in this sale that could sell for tens of thousands of dollars each. Any one of them would be the star lot in another sale.”

Mr. Wichmann said he was contacted by a gentleman handling an estate that included numerous items, to include a hoard of flasks and other rare bottles that had been sitting in boxes, undisturbed, since the deceased’s passing – in 1954. “His wife just boxed everything up and brought the bottles with her wherever she went,” Mr. Wichmann said. “It’s a real treasure trove.”

The boxes contained historical flasks that are so rare some are considered one-of-a-kinds. Many are in colors that have never been seen before. The western whiskeys, meanwhile, are just as scarce. “Among the whiskeys are a half-dozen specimens that are the finest I’ve ever seen or sold,” Wichmann said, “and they come from some of the most important collections out there.”

Historical flasks and western whiskeys have been considered highly collectible bottles since as far back as 1900, when Edward A. Barber wrote about these interesting and beautiful pieces in his 112-page book, titled American Glassware. The main focus of the book was the American glasshouses of the day that produced these creations. The book even had a few photos.

Mr. Barber spent a good amount of time in the book talking about early American flasks, explaining there are two kinds: historical flasks (which commemorate something or someone, like George Washington, who was a favorite among bottle makers); and thematic flasks, which might show an embossed cornucopia (to symbolize achievement) or a proud American eagle.

The glasshouses often embossed the reverse sides of these bottles with the name of their company, or maybe a railroad car, or even another eagle. The Masonic symbol – adopted by the mighty group of architects and builders in the early days of the nation’s emergence in the 19th century – was often seen on flasks. It was as much an advertisement as it was commemorative.

Another book, titled American Bottles and Flasks, by Helen McKearin, laid out the very system of categorizing bottles that is still in use today. Under McKearin’s system, there are 15 different groupings of flasks, from the Washington flasks to the lettered flasks (which simply stated something factual, like the name of the glasshouse that manufactured that particular flask).

A list of the more important early historical flasks must include the George Washington examples (or portrait) flasks, eagles, Masonic, railroad flasks (which commemorated the building of the country’s rail system), sunbursts and other pictorial flasks. Their main purpose was to symbolize attainment, progress and the advancement of the United States as an emerging nation.

Today, these American historical flasks can sell for prices ranging from $50 on up to $150,000, depending on the piece’s color, crudity, condition and rarity. These categories can vary or coincide (example: a common flask in a rare color). They date back to 1820 and even earlier, chronicling the country’s emergence through embossed depictions of Benjamin Franklin, Zachary Taylor, the French General Lafayette, Pike’s Peak, the railroad system and many more.

While flasks were being produced by the thousands east of the Rockies, out west it was a different story. With westward expansion (that turned into an explosion, with the California gold rush of 1849) came the demand for whiskey, as a means of relaxation. Initially, it was shipped to San Francisco by the barrelful from Kentucky, but soon bottles (as fifths) appeared on the scene.

By 1870, there were plenty of brands of whiskey to choose from, and each one came in its own colorful, attractive bottle. The western whiskeys took off as a collectible following the publication of two books: Spirits of the Old West, written in 1968 by Bill and Betty Wilson; and Bottles of the Old West Whiskey, written by John L. Thomas. Thanks to these, the hunt was on.

Virginia City, Nevada was a good place to look, as the silver mines there kept thirsty treasure-hunters busy in those early years. And, of course, in San Francisco, the hub of the bustling new frontier, and elsewhere in California, people were finding whiskey bottles with writing on them. Some even had pictures of horses, roosters, walking bears and other animals.

Whiskey bottles are divided into two groups: the early applied-top variants, and the post-1895 tooled-top variants. After 1920, the Volstead Act ended the legal sale of alcohol, and so bottles were made by machines. These were far less interesting. For general purposes the golden age of whiskey bottle collecting is from 1865-1900 (and up to 1915, in rare instances).

Today, whiskey bottles and historical flasks remain very popular. The whiskey bottles are called “fifths” because they contain one-fifth of a gallon (sometimes one-sixth). Flasks are usually either a pint or a half-pint. Anything larger than that is rare. What makes them desirable and collectible, though, is their color, crudity, condition and rarity – or any combination thereof.

Say you come across a common bottle in an odd color (which, for whiskey bottles, is either yellow or green). That can change its value dramatically. A western whiskey bottle can fetch anywhere from $20 to $20,000 (far less than its historical flask counterpart, made in much more elaborate designs by detail-minded eastern manufacturers, and produced much earlier, too).

For the western whiskey collector, there’s nothing like a fresh-dug, full-face embossed fifth, with lots of crudity and in a desirable color (perfect condition would also be nice!). Today’s collector is on a constant search for that next yellow Teakettle Whiskey or a Bear Grass with a picture of a bear’s head. The one that got away might never be found, but the thrill is in the hunt.

American Bottle Auctions is always accepting quality consignments for future sales. To consign a single bottle or an entire collection, you may call them toll-free, at 1-800-806-7722; or, you can e-mail them, at [email protected] To learn more about American Bottle Auctions and the Dec. 9-18 Internet and catalog sale, please log on to

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