Sunken scotch has captured the imagination—and pursestrings—of whisky enthusiasts for generations. It’s the term used to refer to liquid that’s unintentionally aged at the bottom of the sea after a shipwreck. Now American whiskey is poised for the same treatment. Call it banished bourbon.
The story starts on an ill-fated evening in December of 1854. A passenger steamer called The Westmoreland foundered in the frigid waters of northern Lake Michigan. In addition to the 17 lives lost that night were the contents of the ship’s hull, which included 280 barrels worth of whiskey.
This precious cargo was largely forgotten by history until 2010, when shipwreck diver Ross Richardson discovered the Westmoreland wreckage 200 feet below the surface of Platte Bay, Michigan. According to his team, the cold and calm conditions of the water here have worked wonders in preserving the submerged vessel. In fact, he estimates it to be among the best-preserved wrecks of the 19th Century.
Which brings us to the bounty of booze it still guards to this day. There’s no guarantee how much of the liquid is left, or what quality it exists in, considering that it’s resting in wood rather than glass. But the price of what remains would be quite robust regardless. A single bottle of scotch salvaged from the SS Politician off the coast of Scotland fetched £12,925 at auction in 2021. In a best case scenario, this cache of 280 barrels could result in as many as 56,000 bottles. If each one was valued commensurately to its Scottish counterpart—a big if—that would equal over $871 million USD in liquid gold!
And it’s not just collectors who are clamoring for a taste. As first reported by The Mirror, earlier this month, Richardson says that a regional distillery wants to salvage the juice—for scientific research. “The genetic makeup of corn was much different in 1854 and may have had a different taste to today’s corn,” he told the newspaper.
Traverse City Whiskey Co. would be the most likely candidate for this sort of project. One of Michigan’s largest craft distilleries, it sits mere miles from the site of the wreck.
Whoever wants to get their hands on this hooch is going to have to sit tight a little longer. Permits are required for removal of any artifacts from the Great Lakes. And even Richardson acknowledges that the process of obtaining one can be cumbersome—a matter of years, not just months. But we’ve been waiting 170 years to finally taste this whiskey, what’s a few more? Until then, if you’re really that eager to sip banished bourbon, you can try bellying up to the shores of Platte Bay with a very long straw.