Spirited search for the ultimate Maryland bottle

Johns Hopkins' whiskey business: Everybody wants Hopkins' Best

Baltimore ... Or Less

March 07, 2004|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Many economic depressions ago, in Baltimore, a wholesale provision firm named Hopkins Brothers resorted to a merchandising expedient.

The head Hopkins, a man named Johns, agreed to let rural customers settle their accounts by bartering. They would send him corn whiskey, barreled at the many small stills in the valleys of Virginia and North Carolina; the firm would rectify and bottle the stuff, then retail it. The brand name: Hopkins' Best.

A descendant, Helen Hopkins Thom, told of this business undertaking in her 1929 book Johns Hopkins, A Silhouette. Selling souls into perdition, she wrote, "offended the Society of Friends," to which Johns Hopkins belonged, "and he was temporarily turned out of Meeting." For awhile, though, "He continued to sell whiskey..."

In today's Baltimore, that story gives James K. Stimpert recurrent dryness of the throat. Is there anywhere -- does anyone have, he wonders -- a Hopkins' Best bottle? Presumably empty, but either with the name embossed in the glass or with a legible paper label still attached?

Stimpert is the archivist for the university that has carried its own Hopkins label since 1876. He sorts, guards and preserves all manner of documents and artifacts. But he has never seen a Hopkins' Best bottle, let alone gotten his hands on one.

"It would be the ultimate Maryland bottle," says Steve Charing, president of the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club, which holds its 24th annual show and sale today from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. Some 300 dealers are expected to have wares on display.

"Bottle categories include beer, gin, figurals, bitters, sodas, milks, medicines and barber bottles, as well as whiskeys," says Bob Ford, the show chairman. "Sometimes the containers are metal or stoneware. We also do free appraisals of related material brought in by the public." To have value, whiskey bottles should predate Prohibition (1920).

Where bottles hide

Old bottles come from many sources: from existing collections, whose departed owners lust no more; from community dumps, located with the help of old maps; from former privies, especially in the yards behind city rowhouses (after indoor plumbing's arrival, the privy was usually filled in with solid junk objects); from within walls, as plasterers leave their empties.

For whiskey specialists, though, the best source is often 19th-century barns. Coming back from town, a farmer would drive his wagon there first, to unload and hide the strong drink, before taking to his house and family what other goods he had brought back.

For those in search of the Hopkins' Best bottle, though, the trail is long and tenuous. No mention of Johns Hopkins (1795-1873) occurs in the field's standard reference works. The authoritative local guide, Baltimore Bottle Book, compiled by William A. Andersen, M.D., with full listings for city and county, sets 1840 as its starting point for Hopkins' Best; apparently it was the Panic of 1837 that brought Johns Hopkins into the whiskey market.

How much would a Hopkins' Best be worth? That's a question perhaps only answerable by buyer and seller. But a look at some other rare local examples may provide a clue.

At last year's bottle show, a Western Maryland dealer prominently displayed a well-kept Old Horsey label whiskey quart. This select rye for hotels and clubs was distilled outside Burkittsville, before Prohibition, by the Outerbridge Horsey family. Its price tag: $550. (It did not sell.)

Baltimore Bottle Book author Andersen tells of an amber milk bottle from Baltimore's old Hygeia Dairy: "When that quart ever comes back into the market, it may bring as much as $1,000."

Bill Schramm, who tracks breweries in old city directories, says a pottery bottle from the National Brewing Co. or a glass bottle from brewer F. Sandkuhler is likely to be the first beer to top $1,000.

It could appear

That a Hopkins' Best could just show up suddenly is not entirely out of the question.

Several summers ago, at another show, a barn bottle, its paper label weathered and worn, but readable, briefly appeared. It was an authentic W.T. Walters whiskey quart.

Yes, that W.T. Walters, who would become well-known in late 19th-century Baltimore for his achievements in railroads, shipping and, of course, art collecting. But first, he was the owner of several up-country Pennsylvania distilleries; he moved to Baltimore in 1847 and became rich as a liquor rectifier and wholesaler. His W.T. Walters & Co. paid for the extra touch of having its name embossed at the heel of its amber bottles. The Walters Art Museum owns several examples, but nary a one with label, too.

In his archives office on Hopkins Homewood campus, James Stimpert can imagine members of the senior class someday pooling assets to pay for the Hopkins' Best bottle that somehow, somewhere materializes. He just hopes that when it does, the ultimate Maryland bottle doesn't turn out to be a hoax by some clowns in the freshman class.

Former Sun reporter and editor Jim Bready has been a member of the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club since 1975.

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