Couple’s Discovery of Prohibition-Era Whiskey Unravels Mystery of Bootlegger

Here’s fun article on a bootlegger mystery by Merri Jill Rhodes for Better Homes & Gardens.

The handsome, early 20th-century American Foursquare perched on a pastoral rising along Highway 10 in uber-rural upstate New York had long been the topic of whispers and innuendo.

Nick Drummond, 30, and his partner, Patrick Bakker, 29, bought the sturdy but aged fixer-upper last year in the sleepy Mohawk Valley farming village of Ames, N.Y., in Montgomery County. It’s a stone’s hurl south of the small town of Canajoharie, just at the banks of the Mohawk River, and sits just four miles north of Sharon Springs in Schoharie County.

The young couple were drawn to the peaceful surroundings, the wide-open pastures with cows and intermittent barns and silos that comprise the mildly sloping landscape around the home for days. They loved the aura of the house, the intrigue and all the potential they envisioned for its restoration. Drummond and Bakker also got an earful of the hot tittle-tattle that came with the deal, including the urban legend that a bootlegger had built the property.

 “The stories about this house just made the whole thing better,” says Drummond, adding that neighbors and former owners had filled them in on some of boozy lore. “Was there cash stashed somewhere? There were rumors that a count lived here, that he was a baron. The house was always childless. Was he a barren baron?” he laughs.

We loved the fact that the house came with these legends,” he says, “but [we] thought it was all fake.”

Then, while renovating the home’s mudroom in September, the couple discovered the first of what now totals 78 bottles of early 20th century-era blended Scotch whisky, secreted away under floorboards, false siding and makeshift compartments — 13 meticulously bundled packages of six bottles each.

Word of the couple’s Prohibition-era find spread fast on news sites and social media, igniting interest among collectors, distilleries and auction houses, including Sotheby’s, that want to acquire, taste or feature the bottles. The couple dared to taste some of the shady brew just before Christmas. It wasn’t half bad, Drummond admitted. “It definitely had a kick to it and tasted like whisky. Almost smokey, maybe? We determined it tasted like tweed suits, old pipes and a dash of sexism.”

But among old-house lovers, house restoration experts and preservationists, the couple’s discovery has kindled a more familial joy, with some drawn to the romance of what their own homes might reveal as they painstakingly refurbish them to their original luster. (Drummond and Bakker chronicle their ongoing discoveries and restoration adventure on Facebook and Instagram, where the account, @bootleggerbungalow, has amassed a following of more than 58,000 just since early October.)

Drummond understands their interest. He and Bakker are hard-core history buffs who have dedicated their upstart careers to historical architecture, restoration, and period design and décor. Drummond attended architectural school at the University of Maryland, where he focused on design and studying historical preservation of period buildings. In his teens, Drummond left his hometown outside Baltimore to live for a stint in Sharon Springs, solely to inspect the decaying architecture and interiors of the once-grand hotels and historic buildings across the valley and environs — many of which still sit empty today. Bakker, originally from the Netherlands, is a floral designer who recently opened Botanie, a beautifully appointed boutique flower and gift shop inside a trendy, newly renovated bank building in Sharon Springs.

Their 2,000-square-foot house, with its original exterior stucco, is an American Foursquare-style with a few Colonial Revival touches: columns with Ionic capitals, and a half-wrap-around porch. It was built in 1915 by an enigmatic real estate dealer known around the Mohawk Valley as “Count” Adolph Humpfner — also dubbed by locals and newspapers around the rural environs as “The Mystery Man of the Mohawk Valley.”

And this is where their astonishing tale really takes off. Because Drummond and Bakker’s discovery, unfolding over several stranger-than-fiction days, proved to be about more than hidden bottles of nearly century-old bootlegged scotch. Pieced together with decades of newspaper articles and other records, the discovery would fill in the portrait of the enigmatic, self-styled Count who first owned the home, his shady smuggling operation at the height of the Prohibition era, his unexpected death and long-contested estate overseen by a dodgy interloper, and a perennial runaway bride — gone missing for 21 years, declared dead, and then found living in a quaint little town on the shores of Brooklyn.

How the Unearthing of a Piece of History Unraveled a Twisted Tale

Drummond’s vision for the home included remodeling the mudroom that’s just off the kitchen, fitting a powder room in the 70-square-foot space. The structure was not original to the home, he says, and was tacked on after construction, presumably by Humpfner.

So in September, as contractors worked inside, Drummond went to work outside the addition, along the foundation on the northwest corner of the house. “I was trying to get access to underneath the mudroom to insulate it, so I began taking off some of the rotted skirting boards.”

While prying off several feet of flimsy wooden slats, Drummond uncovered a material he thought was insulation. Strange, he thought, insulation was not commonly used in homebuilding during that period. “Then I reached underneath and felt the bottom of a wall, which was also weird. I thought, ‘This room is a porch, so there’s no reason to have walls under the floors.’”

As Drummond tore away at more of the slats, a bottle dropped out of a bulky package wrapped in brown paper, he says. He pulled out the tattered bundle to inspect its contents and could see what he thought were bottlecaps poking through some of the paper. “When it finally hit me what I was looking at, and realizing what these bottle tops were, I thought, ‘Oh my God, Humpfner actually was a bootlegger! This is a bunch of bootlegged booze!’”

Drummond bellowed for the contractors to come out. “We pulled the rest of the boards off and realized the whole side of the mudroom was filled with these packages… The workers wanted to open them, but I wanted to leave them as they were because they are historic.”

Bakker returned home from work just as Drummond was in the throes of extracting the booty. “He was so excited,” Bakker says.

The men carried the packages inside the house and carefully piled them on the dining room table. “A few days went by and I thought, ‘What else is in that mudroom?’” Drummond says.

The couple immediately thought of the crawl space hatch in the floor of the old mudroom. “But then I said, ‘Oh my God, now we have to crawl into that hole!’” Drummond recalls.

They descended into the dank hidey-hole with a flashlight. “The first thing that was weird was, we didn’t see any floor joists,” he explains. “Then, we noticed a solid ceiling made up of a bunch of boards, and all the boards were attached with flathead screws.

“There would never have been a ceiling in a crawl space. That was never an insulated room. So, that made no sense, either. And the flathead screws take more effort and expense to install, and no one would do that. So, I thought, ‘There’s something in the floor.’”

Sure enough, as they pried back a few boards, four packages of the aptly named brand, “Old Smuggler,” six bottles in each package, were hidden away. Two more bootlegged packages remain in compartments in the crawl space.

Drummond and Bakker no longer just own a home with a past; both are committed to safeguarding its history, both hidden and in plain sight. To that end, they will install a clear partition on the new floor in the mudroom to showcase the two bundles that remain in their original compartments.

“In some ways,” says Drummond, “I don’t want to rip it all apart totally because Count Humpfner nailed those boards.” So the two parcels remain in place, visible but under the mudroom.

Bakker agrees. “You were right in thinking, ‘We should leave some of this and be careful with it,’” Bakker tells Drummond. “This is only original once.”

Both relish the idea of keeping some of the booty bottles in the house and on display as part of their décor. “This is so crazy,” Bakker says. “Those two boards in the mudroom. Why didn’t anyone rip them up? There’s a weird romance in the anticipation of that. Is it filled with jewels, is it a body, is it money? You only get that once. I like the anticipating.

“We have a legend here that is real,” Bakker adds. “When do you get those? And that’s one reason why we haven’t taken the rest of the bundles up yet from under the mudroom.”

Today, the other 11 bundles consisting of 66 bottles of Old Smuggler scotch are displayed in what was once Humpfner’s grand dining room. Except for a few bottles left dry when their contents evaporated, much of the collection appears to have been undisturbed since at least the 1920s, when Prohibition was in full swing. Of the few loose bottles that can be inspected, each is signed with the name R.M. Clark, a signature of the companyand dated October 23, 1923The original labels are in-tact and plainly legible:

Blended Whisky Produce of Scotland
Very Old 
Stirling Bondinc Company,
Stirling & Glasgow, Scotland
Stirling Bonding Company Limited.
Stirling & Glasgow, Scotland. Est. 1878

That the stash is so well preserved is not surprising: Each bottle was sheathed in the original Old Smuggler tissue-paper, reading, “The Produce of the Heather Hills of Scotland,” then painstakingly cloaked in long, hardened sticks of straw. The bundles were stuffed with loose straw, then wrapped together in multiple, heavy layers of brown packaging paper. Like a cherished Christmas present, the bulky parcels are tied and knotted tightly, several times over and crossways, with sturdy white string.

The bottles were also fitted with what Drummond believes was an early version of a nonrefillable cap. A spirits expert at one of the auction houses Drummond consulted told him the cap was most likely created to prevent counterfeiters from using established brand labels and bottles.

Drummond and Bakker speculate that such an assiduous swaddling regimen was meant to protect the hooch for either shipping or receiving, or both. “This was all imported,” says Drummond. “Humpfner was not making this stuff in his house. So, this was the good stuff.”

The location of the home would have aided any bootlegging operations. “The history of the brand shows it would come in from Scotland to Canada, and they would move it through here,” Drummond says, noting that Ames, which teeters on the line between Montgomery and Schoharie counties, is three hours or so from the Canadian border. The nearby Mohawk River and Erie Canal, which connects to the Hudson River down into New York City, lends a guess as to how the booze may have been coming and going through Humpfner’s residence.

“This would have been a good, out of the way place because it’s connected to factories, rivers, and railways,” says Drummond.

It was not unusual for people to be making moonshine in bathtubs and stills all over the country during “the great social and economic experiment,” nor was it illegal to drink alcohol during the federal outlaw, from 1920 to 1933. But the Humpfner find is exceptional because of the originality, the authenticity, and the story that comes with it all.

“The other finds that I’ve seen are all private collections of booze like this,” Drummond says. “But none have been a bootlegger’s bundle.”

Distributors and auction houses, including Skinners in New York City, a distillery in nearby Cooperstown, another in Kentucky, and private collectors and outlets in the Philippines, Australia, and Russia, have been seeking information from the couple for months, all showing interest for various reasons in the authentic booty.

“It doesn’t age well, but it doesn’t go bad, either,” Drummond explains. “We’ve had a bunch of places reaching out, places that make modern spirits that want to test them to analyze spirits from the Prohibition era to recreate them. They need untouched bottles, which is what we have here.”

The find has also been recounted in various local and national news reports and may soon be the subject of an episode on a mystery and crime-based television show.

“It’s a who-done-it,” says Drummond, “and everyone wants to help figure out what the actual story is. Everyone is sending us snippets of crazy information.”