August 25, 2015

Happy Hollow Oldest Reserve - Bourbon Past vs Present Part Two

For bourbon fanatics, you can't get better than a bottle that's been hiding on the back shelf of a liquor store gathering dust for thirty years. Why are these dusties so treasured? Are they really that good? This past Spring, we teamed up with Jim Parisi of Xavier Wine Company in Manhattan's Meat Packing District to find out. Bourbon Past vs. Present was born. Two new and two dusty bourbons fought it out including Old Taylor 86 from the late 1970's against the new EH Taylor Barrel Proof, and a 1973 Old Forester Bottled in Bond against the new Old Forester Birthday Bourbon.  The winner, by a landslide, was the 1973 Old Forester BIB.  For Bourbon Past vs. Present Part Two, we wanted to up the ante and find an even earlier bottle.

A Mystery

As Jim was putting the word out that we might be planning a sequel, a friend of his sent us a picture of a very rare old bottle of bourbon that he'd purchased at an auction some years ago. He volunteered to let this bottle go for our tasting and we accepted, not sure exactly what we'd gotten our hands on, but excited nonetheless. This is it:

Oldest Reserve

What we do know about this bottle (because it's written on the label) is that it was distilled in 1953 and bottled at 15 years old (presumably in 1968), that it's bottled at an interesting 101 proof, that it was distilled in Kentucky and bottled by the "Happy Hollow Distilling Company" in Lawrenceburg.

While this seems like some good information, it's not very much to go on. This bottle is not really a "dusty" since it was a special limited release and not most likely not generally available to gather dust in liquor stores. So none of our dusty hunter friends could help us identify the source.

Old Happy Hollow

There doesn't seem to be anything we could find called "Old Happy Hollow Distilling Company".  This isn't unusual since just like today, many brands pop up and bottle whiskey from various distilleries and give themselves interesting names (see Black Maple Hill). The signature dripping red wax hints at Maker's Mark. So we explored connections between Maker's and Happy Hollow.  And we found some...

Bill Samuels started Maker's Mark in 1953 (1953!) when he purchased the Burks Spring Distillery, which was originally named Happy Hollow Distillery because of its location in Happy Hollow, Kentucky. Here's an awesome picture of the reopening of the Burks Spring Distillery that also refers to the site as Happy Hollow.  We found the excellent Maker's Mark collector site No Broken Drips (by the way we love seeing this kind of dedication to a brand!  go guys!!). While they didn't have Oldest Reserve listed as a Maker's Mark bottling, they did note that Burks Spring Distillery used to produce a bourbon called Old Happy Hollow.

There's a lot of marketing hype about the origins of Maker's Mark. Supposedly Bill Samuels destroyed the old family bourbon recipe and (in lieu of doing a run of test distillations) took eight different mashbills and baked a loaf of bread with each one. (Hard to see how there's a grain of truth in that, but whatever). One of the recipes he'd borrowed from Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, which substituted wheat for rye as the second ingredient. Supposedly this mix made the best loaf of bread and the rest is history. Meanwhile Bill's wife Margie was busy melting wax in the family's deep fryer and coming up with the signature bottle design.

Whatever truth or exaggeration exists in the history of the brand, we know that Bill did own the distillery previously known as Happy Hollow in 1953 and he was starting to establish a new company. However, if the above picture is accurate, they made their first barrel of whiskey in 1954, it's doubtful that Oldest Reserve was actually distilled by the Samuels Maker's Mark crew. In most cases when a distillery changes hands, part of the deal is to acquire existing stocks of whiskey. Is it possible that Samuels purchased old stocks of Happy Hollow / Burks Spring bourbon and then later bottled them?  This theory does seem consistent with the statement on the bottle "from the few remaining barrels of a very rare stock distilled in Kentucky... by the Happy Hollow Distilling Company."

Ok well enough theory, we still honestly have no idea what this stuff is, who cares let's drink it.

Tasting Notes

Nose: This doesn't have the mustiness that we associate with old bourbon. Perhaps due to the pristine condition the bottle was in?  Maybe is was cellared for many years and not exposed to a lot of heat or sunlight?  In any case it gives the nose of a nice high-rye bourbon.  Definitely not a wheater.  Well we knew that since they didn't start making wheated bourbon until 1954. Maybe it was some of the old stock of Burks Spring / Happy Hollow.  Ok back to what we know: the nose has a very nice combination of spice (high-rye bourbon) and sweetness. There's buttered corn, there's anise (black Twizzlers?), there's Worcestershire Sauce, rose water, fresh wet grass, char, cayenne pepper, a hint of brine - pickled okra, cologne.  A lot of layers coming out of this nose which at first seemed straightforward.  With 15 minutes to open up, (how did we not notice it before), there's that musty old bourbon quality. Skunky, funky, roll-it-up-and-smoke-it nose that we get from certain beloved bottles...

Palate: Very lovely. It stays perfectly balanced coming in on the tongue with rye spice, meeting the sides of the mouth with sweet green apples, and giving a hint of dry wood and the top of the throat.

Finish: Dry finish, punchy and delicious. You can still taste the spirit for sure, but there's a great drinkability here and a deep integration of heat, spice, sweet, and wood that all come together. Again it tastes nothing like a wheater, but like some of the great traditional bourbons that we've tasted from this era. There's a touch of oaky bitterness on the end of the finish that's maybe technically a flaw but still enjoyable.  Very unique bourbon that would be tough to confuse with modern day sauce.  What a treat!

Thanks to Jim for hosting another great tasting! Do you have any ideas / requests for Past vs Present Part Three? Let us know and we'll try to make it happen.  Cheers/SB


  1. Re "Old Happy Hollow Distilling Company," I have a bottle of 100 proof "Sam Clay" bonded 8yo bourbon which lists it in Nicholasville (Reg. Dist. No. 45) as distiller on the back label . The bottler was "Sam Clay Distilling Company" of Lawrenceburg (D.S.P. KY 27). The broken seal has "OLD HAPPY HOLLOW DI" stamped in red still remaining as well as the dates "FALL 1957" and "FALL 1966." This was my grandfather's last bottle, and no one has poured from it since he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1967 after using it to make himself a ginger ale highball. Grandpa, a wholesale grocer in Van Wert, OH, was very partial to his "Sam Clay" and always reminded me the times I shopped for him to "make sure you get the 100 proof, Tommy!"

    1. Hi Tom,

      What a wonderful story! If you have time please share a picture of this bottle. Perhaps you and your family should enjoy a taste of the Sam Clay next year for the 50th anniversary of your grandfather's passing. It's wonderful to have a real personal connection to a whiskey that can bring back memories of those we love. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Grandpa fought off his heart attack during the 25-mile drive between Lima and Indian Lake, my grandmother said. He was shaking like a leaf as he unlocked his weekend cottage, and he immediately reached for this bottle. And yes, I plan to try it on the 50th anniversary, providing I'm still around myself at 74!

  3. SmokyBeast-

    Your article has given visual truth to my family's story that I have had trouble proving to be true. My grandfather was David W Karp, owner of Old Happy Hollow Distillery. He bought what is now the Markers Mark Distillery back in 1937, and sold it to William Samuel is 1953 who claims to have started the red wax bottle. It was called Burk Springs Distillery at the time. My family has a few bottles that my grandfather labeled with his children's birth information that have the red wax as well. My uncle has been trying to get his hands on an authentic old happy hollow bottle. Where did you find the one from the article?

  4. No way Thurston, that's so cool! So we were on the right track after all? We'd love to talk with you about this some time. We got the bottle from a private collector who picked it up at auction. I think it was Bonham's or Chrystie's or one of the big ones. Send me an email, and we can talk more. Maybe have you on the podcast or something! Cheers/Steve

  5. If I may, I'll add a bit more to this great e-mail chain. William and Mary Catherine Burks, (My 3X Great Ancestors) the original property owners and distillers, themselves, gave their interest in Happy Hollow Distillers, AKA Burks Springs, to their son, George R Burks. There is an accurate time-line of events posted online at

    1. Anonymous: Please contact me. I am a descendant of George Burks. Email me

  6. I have an Old Happy Hollow Distributing Co. bottle of 16 year old Straight Rye Whiskey, in excellent condition, with an unbroken US Internal Revenue tax seal, with it's original contents. The label says that it was made in the spring of 1957. I came across your site when I was investigating the value of this bottle. I appreciate the history that you provided. Do you have any insight as to the value of this bottle? My name is Bob, my email is laserbob44@

  7. Just came across a Old Happy Hollow oak Barrel dated 1955

  8. I have a bottle of this Oldest Reserve if anyone is interested....

    1. I am interested.