$1900-a-bottle whiskey 'evaporated'

Caretaker faces court over disappearance of rare and valuable drop.

When Patricia Hill discovered a batch of 100-year-old whiskey hidden in the walls of the house she was renovating in Pennsylvania, the haul was so large that she needed help to remove it. Fortunately John Saunders, the live-in caretaker of the mansion Miss Hill was transforming into a bed-and-breakfast, was on hand to assist in transporting and cleaning the nine cases of pre-Prohibition spirit.

Yet after dusting the bottles down, Mr Saunders, 62, allegedly returned on his own to polish off half of them. The caretaker was due to appear in court today in Pennsylvania, charged with stealing and drinking 52 of the bottles of Old Farm Pure Rye, which were valued by auctioneer Bonhams at $US102,000 ($97,500) – around $1900 a bottle.

Returning last year to inspect the whiskey, produced in 1912 at a nearby distillery owned by the industrialists Henry Frick and Andrew Mellon, Miss Hill says she found that about half the boxes contained empty bottles. "I thought I was going to faint," she said. "I was in shock."

"The corks were removed or a hole punched through the bottom half to get the whiskey out," local police chief Barry Pritts said in his report. "The labels were pulled off."

Mr Saunders, sitting quietly in a nearby recliner, offered an explanation. "The whiskey probably evaporated," he told police. And besides, "being that it was old", it "was probably no good".

Yet Miss Hill, 57, was immediately suspicious. "I picked him up out of his chair and said 'Tell me the truth!'?" she said. "But he stuck to his story."

However it is alleged that the caretaker did not count on police recovering a sample of his DNA from his home, after he failed to turn up to an appointment for a cheek swab.

"The DNA profile obtained from John William Saunders matched the DNA profile obtained from the mouth of three of the whiskey bottles," Chief Pritts said.

"What a nerve," said Miss Hill, who had planned to display the whiskey in a nearby museum. "To me it is just unfathomable. But, I suppose, it must have been delicious."


Mr Saunders was sacked by Miss Hill and is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing at a district court in Scottdale today. He faces up to seven years in prison and a maximum fine of $US15,000 if convicted. Mr Saunders denies the charges.

Miss Hill's renovation of the mansion, which once belonged to J.P. Brennen, a local coal and coke tycoon, was completed. After opening her bed-and-breakfast last year, she remains "an optimist", she said.

However she deeply regrets the loss of the vintage whiskey, which Brennen is believed to have kept for sharing with renowned local industrialists Frick, Mellon and Andrew Carnegie.

Daily Telegraph