Cigar Aficionado

Finally--A New York Spirits Auction

It's about time!

This past Saturday marked the first time that spirits were auctioned in New York City since before Prohibition started in 1920. Christie's, the London auction house that also has a presence here, and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a national trade association, are to be thanked for lifting the statewide ban that stood even while prohibition had ended in 1933.

The ban as it stood forced any private owner wishing to sell prized bottles of spirits (distilled alcohol, including whiskies, brandy and rum) to go elsewhere with their prizes. Typically that elsewhere was London, an enlightened culture that holds spirits auctions every few weeks, not every 88 years.

One of the storied collections that American buyers missed out on came from Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress and celebrity. When one of her many husbands died his bottles were shipped to England. Not only did that mean most American buyers missed the auction, but that New York State missed out on the chance to collect thousands of dollars in sales tax. (The sale on Saturday brought $304,800, with a superlot of more than 700 bottles going for $102,000 and a bottle of Macallan single malt aged for 60 years bringing $54,000. Had the sale not gone off in New York, the total loss of sales tax would have been $25,542.24.)

Doesn't make much sense, but laws of prohibition rarely do. That is something that we cigar smokers are vividly aware of.

Part of the shame of it is that antique spirits are such a natural for auction as they stay relatively intact as long as they are sealed in the bottle. Spirits stop aging once they leave the casks they matured in, unlike wine, which continues to change in the bottle, sometimes not for the better.

You can open a Cognac that was bottled a hundred years ago and have a pretty good idea of what it tasted like to those who drank it a century earlier. Also unlike wine, you wouldn't need to consume the entire bottle when you opened, but could enjoy it sip by sip for years. This means spirits auctions are more conducive to enjoyment of the beverage than simply passing on collectors' bottles that will never be consumed.

Seems ludicrous that such a ban should have stood so long especially in a place like New York, which is an auction center of the world and which has allowed wine sales since 1992. But the point is that it did and it would have kept on standing if not for the action of some motivated parties.

Bad laws don't go away on their own.

They can, however, go away. That is a point in which we cigar smokers should take heart. It took 88 years, but the actual legislative effort was made only in the last year. The interested parties appealed to level-headed lawmakers and a change was made to a law that made no sense.

Why can't like changes be made to antismoking laws that outstep the bounds of common sense and seem to be based in the misguided vindictiveness of health fascists who want to tell us what to do.

Isn't it about time cigar smokers take back some of their rights to enjoy this adult pleasure?

"This is a theme in Lou Dobb's new book: government no longer cares nor works for The People. Politicians care about one thing only - reelection. And that means beholding to special interests." —January 11, 2008 11:05 AM