Oral surgeon’s hobby — well, obsession — has
become hard for him to contain
Ralph Van Brocklin places one of his 2,000 bottles back on the shelf with care.
The bottles originally contained things like whiskey or bitters, with names like Tarantula Juice or Dr. Baker’s Great Vegetable Blood and Liver Cure (which, ironically, had a high-alcohol content).
In their prime, the bottles helped ease the suffering of gold miners in the Old West. The whiskey was, as collector extraordinnaire Dr. Ralph Van Brocklin said, “one of the only pleasures they had. They worked where it was miserably hot in the summer, miserably cold in the winter. They were paid a pittance for the amount of work they did. Most thought they would have their own claim, but they ended up working for the mining companies.”
Now many of these bottles bring a different kind of pleasure to Van Brocklin, a local oral surgeon. They’ve become a hobby, an investment, even a passion. He has about 2,000 mostly rare bottles, mainly whiskey flasks from the 1840s up until Prohibition in 1920, but the collection includes approximately 500 mini jugs, 400 shot glasses, 50 to 100 canteens and 100 or so cylindrical whiskey bottles.
They range in worth from $5 up to $40,000. What would be a mild curiosity for most of us, were we to dig it out of the ground, is treasure to Van Brocklin. He’s hooked on antique whiskey bottle collecting.
“It’s ironic,” he said, looking at his impressive office display. “I don’t drink whiskey, but I’ve got all these whiskey bottles.”
What’s the draw of this hobby? Same as almost any serious hobby: “The fun for most of it is in the acquisition, and then going to shows and showing it off. But it’s also fun to look at it. Some collectors pack everything away or put it in a safe. But what’s the use of having a collection if you can’t enjoy it, and let others enjoy it.”
His collection obsession began as a youngster when he focused on coins, but he was introduced to bottles in 1968. They were an inexpensive (at the time), easy-to-find form of collectible that could be dug from the ground without much trouble or fancy equipment. The first dig produced some pretty good stuff, “and from then on, I was hooked,” he said.
Collections are not static. They swell and shrink, change in value, shift directions. Van Brocklin’s has been in a steady state of evolution. His love for the hobby became so consuming that he eventually served as president of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors. His collection became too large and valuable for the home, so many of his favorites are in the office, professionally displayed under tight security.
“There are times it starts to get out of hand,” he said. “Then you have to pare it off and maybe sell off a whole line.”
One of his finest pieces is the Genuine Old Bourbon Whiskey green bottle. He sold it in 1975 for $800 and used the money to help finance his college education. But eventually he wanted that bottle back, not just for the fact that it was rare, but also because it was the first big find of his hobby’s career.
“I aggravated (the owner) about it,” Van Brocklin said, “and 21 years later I bought it back for $15,000. Actually I bought his whole collection. He’d lost a lot of it in an earthquake and he wrote me and said he didn’t want to sell just the Genuine Whiskey Bottle; he had 62 bottles to sell. When he told me the price, my jaw almost hit the floor. It was astonishing. But I tallied it all the way up and it added up. It was actually a good deal on the bottles for what they were worth.
“So then I had to figure out how to pay for it. But it turned out I had a lot of bottles here sort of on the sidelines that I could sell. I had no idea how much money I had in glass.”
Another case of bottle envy concerned the Blue Pig, a one-of-a-kind creation that held whiskey bottled by Duffy’s Crescent Saloon. Only a handful of these particular pig-shaped bottles exist in any color, but this brilliant cobalt color was unique, and Van Brocklin was highly skeptical it was genuine.
After months of inquiring to a man in Indiana, he finally came face-to-face with the Blue Pig, which the potential seller had encased in bubble wrap in a cooler.
“You could see the color so intensely,” Van Brocklin said. “I was going ‘Oh, man.’ I really didn’t believe it until I saw it.”
And, of course, he bought it. The neck and opening of the bottle are on the pig’s rear end, meaning people drank from the pig’s butt.
“It’s absolutely one of the best bottles I’ve ever owned,” Van Brocklin said.
His research has taught him some of the stories behind the bottles — of saloons and distilleries long since defunct, in areas that went boom and then bust. Some items are from the Tri-Cities region, although most are from the Old West.
His collection display is practical but employs some technology. Some of his prized colored bottles are kept on shelves with backing light; the many clear whiskey flasks, which comprise the bulk of his collection, are two deep on wooden shelves. All valuable bottles are secured to the shelves by two small drops of an unusual gel normally used when splicing underwater cable. The bottle is pressed onto the drops and sticks firmly enough to stay in place, but not so firmly that it can’t be removed.
It all looks great. The one catch — dusting it.
“There’s no secret to that,” Van Brocklin said. “The secret is it doesn’t get done very often.” But no one except Van Brocklin handles the bottles. Over 33 years, handling tens of thousands of bottles, he has broken only three, he said. “Even if I asked them to dust them, my staff would refuse to do it.”
The next great purchase may still be out there for Van Brocklin. He knows the market as well as anyone. In fact, the really serious collectors are a special group that usually works together rather than against each other.
“Most of us are pretty good about saying to someone, ‘If you ever wanted to sell this, I’d like to buy it.’ But there are a few people who will hound you to death,” he said. “Of all the hobbies, this is a good group. I don’t think you could find a better, more honest group. We kind of look out for each other.”