NEW YORK — By today’s standards, early whiskey advertising may seem dated and male-centric. Images of elegantly-attired, cigar-smoking gentlemen drinking together as well as hunting scenes with buffalos and Old West cowboys dominate the medium. The macho archetype of the typical whiskey drinker of the early 1800s gave rise to a whole genre of advertising to appeal to that market. While such advertising imagery would likely not be produced today, it still holds appeal to collectors.
Before sanitary public water sources became widespread and reliable, people were often sickened by drinking water. The production of whiskey requires hot water, which unwittingly rendered it a safer option despite its alcoholic content, and it became a drink of choice for many early Americans. Pharmacists even touted whisky as a cure for health afflictions.
In the late 1880s, German immigrants brought their recipes for beer with them; the drink was generally faster and cheaper to make than whiskey, and soon became a huge industry. Whiskey continued to be a staple, however. Some centuries-old legacy brands are still in business alongside recently-formed distilleries that have, in recent years, adapted their marketing approaches to appeal to both men and women. (Because all of the examples shown in this article tout American brands, this story employs the spelling of whiskey with an “e.”)
Antique and vintage whiskey advertising and memorabilia is not likely to go out of fashion, according to John Mihovetz, a department head at Morphy Auctions, based in Denver, Pennsylvania. “I think that there are just certain genres of advertising that will never go away. Hunting and fishing advertising, whiskey, alcohol and coffee — these are things that are ingrained in American culture. No matter what, those items are never going to lose their luster as far as collectibility,” he said.
Period lithographed signs for whiskey brands are highly desirable, but the price point for the finest examples hovers in the $20,000-$30,000 range, putting them out of the reach of many collectors. One such prize is an Old Forester Whiskey tin litho sign depicting a gun-toting man in a sombrero against an Arizona landscape, guarding an oversized bottle of his prized whiskey. A circa-1900 example sold for $24,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2016 at Dan Morphy Auctions. It was made by Chas. W. Shonk in Chicago, which was established in 1891 and renamed Shonk Work in 1906.
The sign is a fine example of whiskey advertising and has cross-collecting appeal with Old West collectors. “There is a whole subculture of collectors that are strictly into these Old West lithographs, which I can’t blame them at all because you look at the graphics and it’s ‘oh my gosh’,” Mihovetz said. “A lot of that Old West cigar whiskey saloon type stuff — it’s really, really beautiful.” He cautioned that the sign is part of a subculture group, though. “Subject matter is everything, and there are a lot of people who can’t play at that level, but as far as presentation goes, it’s wonderful,” he added.
Showtime Auction Services had a dozen early tin litho whiskey signs in its May 2019 auction, three of which grossed more than $30,000 each. Leading the collection was a Seal of Kentucky Whiskey tin sign that brought $37,500 plus the buyer’s premium. Copyrighted 1904 by the B.S. Plersheim Merc. Co. in Kansas City, Missouri, the sign, titled “It’s Tempting,” featured a man leisurely sipping whiskey in an easy chair while three nude nymphs hover over him, holding their own glasses of whiskey.
There is a whole host of whiskey collectibles available from porcelain decanters to whiskey jugs and glasses as well as ephemera. A key example is a group of five bottles of Old Commonwealth bourbon whiskey, which were bottled after spending seven years in a barrel and then sealed in Coal Miner #4 porcelain decanters. The grouping made $5,600 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021 at Leland Little Auctions. The decanters are inscribed “Lunch Break” on the base and feature fine coloring and detail from the apple the miner eats to the proverbial caged canary in a coal mine that rests near the miner’s feet. Interestingly, the boxes are misspelled “coal minor.”
Bar decor items advertising whiskey brands, as well as signs repurposed as bar decor, are also sought after. A handsomely-framed Brown, Forman & Co. Whiskey tin advertising sign titled A Pleasant Reminder, in excellent condition, earned $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020 at Showtime Auction Services.
Stoneware whiskey jugs that were made pre-Prohibition are hard to find and will bring solid prices, even if they lack pictorial decoration. Tennessee passed a prohibition law in 1910 — exactly 10 years before the national Prohibition era began — and many local distilleries moved operations out of state. A circa-1910 jug for the short-lived Lynchburg, Tennessee business of Len Motlow brought $3,200 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2019 at Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals. In 1912, Jack Daniels passed his whiskey business to his nephew, Motlow. Though some extant glass bottles have been found, pre-Prohibition stoneware jugs showing Motlow’s own Tennessee imprint are scarce.
Vintage whiskey advertising abounds because it is deeply ingrained into American culture. There are colorful examples in a variety of forms and price points to tempt collectors across the board, from graphically-striking advertising to trays and signs to three-dimensional objects. Even a teetotaler might find something that merits raising a glass.