Bottle #60: Novil Brandy

Bottle #60, Novil Portuguese Brandy, is the oldest bottle that I’ve found so far. In fact, it’s so old that it was already old when Grandma added it to her collection.

In the unboxing episode where I discovered this one, I got really excited that it was bottled by Ben-Burk, the company that came out with the Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guides way back in the 1930s. But even before I was done recording that episode there was a little voice whispering in the back of my head that something was weird about that. And as soon as I was done recording the episode, I started looking at this bottle a lot more closely.

Read the rest of the story

For most American glass bottles, there’s an easy way to find when the bottle itself was made: look at the bottom of the bottle for the 2-digit date imprint. So I flipped my bottle of Novil over, and found a number that looked a lot like 41. I kept turning it round and round, making sure I was reading it right, but it really did say 41.

And while I didn’t expect to find a bottle that old in Grandma’s collection, it did match up with the label. Ben-Burk sold their company to American Distilling Company in 1942, so they wouldn’t have been around to bottle Novil brandy much later than that.

Family lore is that Grandma started collecting minis in the 1970s. And while I have found a few that seem to have been bottled in the 1960s, going all the way back to the 1940s would have been a big stretch. After all, Grandma was only 13 years old in 1941! So she must have acquired it as an already-old tiny bottle and just added it to her collection.

I couldn’t find out much about Novil itself, or the company that imported it, Seaboard Liquor Co. What I could find were some old newspaper advertisements for Novil, clustered around 1944. What was really interesting about those ads is what they were selling. In the first, Novil’s entry is preceded by seven different kinds of rum — and followed by Herbsaint, vodka, and Port. Then in tiny print at the bottom of the ad are the words: “also limited supply of whiskey.”

That’s when I realized what was going on. The US entered World War II in late 1941, and in 1942 the government banned domestic production of whiskey and gin at the nation’s distilleries, and required them to produce the high grade 190-proof alcohol that was needed for aviation and torpedo fuel. Other distilleries were turned to manufacturing penicillin. The government assured everyone that the 500 million gallons of whiskey in warehouses at the time would be enough to last for at least four years, by which point the war would be over. But that quickly proved overly optimistic, and the country soon found itself running short.

With domestic production on hold, imports were the way to go. In 1944 Puerto Rico exported three million cases of rum to the US, and Cuba five million cases. Much of this rum was terrible: unaged and badly made. It sold primarily because people were forced to buy cases of it to get whiskey. (This is the origin story of the famous Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane from New Orleans.) Tequila imports also rose, and I saw another ad for Novil where it was advertised alongside “Mescal Whiskey,” which was presumably just mezcal plus marketing.

With France under occupation, French brandy and Cognac would have been no-goes in the US. But clearly Seaboard Liquor Co had managed to get its hands on some Portuguese Brandy, probably in barrels. And they managed to get it to the US, possibly dodging U-Boats in the Atlantic. And then they had Ben-Burk put it into bottles, one of which ended up in my Grandma’s collection.

It is, sadly, mostly empty, and with some black floaty bits in the bottom. I’ve tasted enough old, evaporated bottles by now to know that I won’t find much delight in drinking this one. So I think I’m going to keep this 80+ year old bottle just as it is.

Listen Now

Watch Now

Bottle #60: Novil Brandy

|

Bottle #60, Novil Portuguese Brandy, is the oldest bottle that I’ve found so far. In fact, it’s so old that it was already old when Grandma added it to her collection.

In the unboxing episode where I discovered this one, I got really excited that it was bottled by Ben-Burk, the company that came out with the Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guides way back in the 1930s. But even before I was done recording that episode there was a little voice whispering in the back of my head that something was weird about that. And as soon as I was done recording the episode, I started looking at this bottle a lot more closely.

For most American glass bottles, there’s an easy way to find when the bottle itself was made: look at the bottom of the bottle for the 2-digit date imprint. So I flipped my bottle of Novil over, and found a number that looked a lot like 41. I kept turning it round and round, making sure I was reading it right, but it really did say 41.

And while I didn’t expect to find a bottle that old in Grandma’s collection, it did match up with the label. Ben-Burk sold their company to American Distilling Company in 1942, so they wouldn’t have been around to bottle Novil brandy much later than that.

Family lore is that Grandma started collecting minis in the 1970s. And while I have found a few that seem to have been bottled in the 1960s, going all the way back to the 1940s would have been a big stretch. After all, Grandma was only 13 years old in 1941! So she must have acquired it as an already-old tiny bottle and just added it to her collection.

I couldn’t find out much about Novil itself, or the company that imported it, Seaboard Liquor Co. What I could find were some old newspaper advertisements for Novil, clustered around 1944. What was really interesting about those ads is what they were selling. In the first, Novil’s entry is preceded by seven different kinds of rum — and followed by Herbsaint, vodka, and Port. Then in tiny print at the bottom of the ad are the words: “also limited supply of whiskey.”

That’s when I realized what was going on. The US entered World War II in late 1941, and in 1942 the government banned domestic production of whiskey and gin at the nation’s distilleries, and required them to produce the high grade 190-proof alcohol that was needed for aviation and torpedo fuel. Other distilleries were turned to manufacturing penicillin. The government assured everyone that the 500 million gallons of whiskey in warehouses at the time would be enough to last for at least four years, by which point the war would be over. But that quickly proved overly optimistic, and the country soon found itself running short.

With domestic production on hold, imports were the way to go. In 1944 Puerto Rico exported three million cases of rum to the US, and Cuba five million cases. Much of this rum was terrible: unaged and badly made. It sold primarily because people were forced to buy cases of it to get whiskey. (This is the origin story of the famous Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane from New Orleans.) Tequila imports also rose, and I saw another ad for Novil where it was advertised alongside “Mescal Whiskey,” which was presumably just mezcal plus marketing.

With France under occupation, French brandy and Cognac would have been no-goes in the US. But clearly Seaboard Liquor Co had managed to get its hands on some Portuguese Brandy, probably in barrels. And they managed to get it to the US, possibly dodging U-Boats in the Atlantic. And then they had Ben-Burk put it into bottles, one of which ended up in my Grandma’s collection.

It is, sadly, mostly empty, and with some black floaty bits in the bottom. I’ve tasted enough old, evaporated bottles by now to know that I won’t find much delight in drinking this one. So I think I’m going to keep this 80+ year old bottle just as it is.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *