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Issue 50 - The strange case of Capone's whisky

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Whisky Magazine Issue 50
September 2005


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The strange case of Capone's whisky

Leon Schoyan's whisky find was every diver's dream. Jim Leggett reports on how Prohibition era Scotch found its way back home

Dazzling sun shafts pierced the gloom where, 20 feet below the surface of the Detroit River, diver Leon Sehoyan groped his way towards a pile of grimy gunwales. Pursuing his summer weekend hobby of searching out old bottles he swam toward the wreck.

“I’d found hundreds of bottles in the river over the years, old beer, soda, even glass baby bottles, but nothing like this.” Leon recalled how he’d stumbled upon a genuine rumrunner’s booze boat.

Hardly recognisable in the mud the old hull and her rusted engine piques Leon’s excitement.

“Right away I suspected I’d found a Prohibition era rumrunner. When next I saw a couple wooden boxes still sealed and full of very old Scotch whisky, I knew I’d found a Mother Load.

“Visions of high speed chases, revenue agents in hot pursuit, shooting wildly trying to stop this boat popped into my mind. I imagined ghosts of Al Capone, Elliot Ness and clandestine smuggling as I explored the wreck. Then I brushed silt away on one box; writing on the box, a British Royal seal and the legend; Alexander & MacDonald Leith NB Purveyors to the House of Lords “I figured I’d come across a treasure stash of bootleg Scotch, cases of the precious stuff were scattered near the wreck. I wrestled a case up to the surface, hoisted it aboard my boat then pried off the lid. Adozen dark green bottles glinted in sunlight for this first time in 80 odd years.” No whisky connoisseur will ever turn down the chance to sample a rare Scotch even if it’s been languishing like buried liquid treasure at the bottom of the Detroit River for decades.

So rare were Leon’s discoveries even the most experienced whisky expert refused to venture a price for 100 year old pot still malts. This precious golden potable was destined to cast new light on American bootlegging history.

Soon Leon’s mates were swapping tales of how their grandpas flaunted American law and made big bucks smuggling booze, of speedboat chases and waterfront shootouts.

Happily news of the amazing find was confined to trusted pals, none of whom squealed as the secret stash headed gently for his cellar.

Fast forward.

“A few years later I picked up the newspaper, a story saying salvagers had just found that same wreck, plus an empty beer keg or two caught my eye.

Bootlegger’s boat to rise from Detroit River reported the discovery of a 23 foot wooden runabout powered by a four cylinder engine.

Diver’s plunge into the past, raise rumrunner’s treasure surmised the boat was used by rumrunners smuggling hooch into the United States from Canada.

“What they didn’t find was her cargo of Prohibition era whisky! I had to laugh reading that yarn, I’d gotten there first!” ‘The reason they only got empty bottles is because I got the full ones’ Leon scrawled on the margin of two newspaper clippings.‘This is the rum runner I got your Scotch off of. PS I’ll show some of the others next time we have a drink’ (signed) Leon Sehoyan.’ I first met Leon while in Detroit on a news assignment and immediately he heard my Glasgow accent his eyes lit up as confided he had something exciting to show me. Down in his cellar he pulled a dust cloth from a stack of boxes, reached into one and grabbed a bottle of Scotch.

Removing a neck foil, he twisted the cork then poured us both a generous dram. 1905 was stamped on the seal “This whisky was destined for one of Capone’s speakeasies,” he said. “Now we have it. Cheers!” Its big sleep at the bottom of the river hadn’t diminished the taste of this vintage Sandy Mac, so we poured another wee nip as Leon agreed to take me downriver next day, to show me where his treasure was found.

We left the Grosse Point Marina aboard Leon’s 26-foot craft and headed south, and 20 minutes later he throttled back, swooshed to a stop and dropped anchor. Donning his red wet suit and mask he beamed mischievously, then plopped backwards into to the water.

In minutes he was back, clutching a bottle in each hand.

“I’ve found single bottles plus a couple of cases hereabouts, some dating from 1905, 1910 and the like. Their metallic cork seals preserve the stuff in perfect condition.” Sandy Mac, so the case wording read, had won ‘Gold Medals International’ and ‘Highest Awards Exhibitor’ followed by the embossed signature ‘Alexander Macdonald Ltd.

Leith, Scotland’ Apart from minor water damage to some labels the newfound bottles of old Scotch drying on the deck looked almost new.

“I’d never heard of Sandy Mac before finding this lot,” he exclaimed.

Also found were single bottles of Johnny Walker, Old Smuggler and Gordon’s Gin with flip-top caps. Some bottles carried the Royal Warrant; By Appointment to His Majesty the King.

By profession Leon is a barber. His chic hairstyling boutique in Grosse Pointe caters to the likes of Sherylyn Fenn’s (Twin Peaks) family, and her famous rock star aunt Suzie Quatro.

Part time he’s a volunteer rescue diver with the Grosse Point Marine Rescue Unit. He’s credited with saving several lives too.

“I live near the water so the cops often call me for help with submerged vehicles.” The clandestine sport of bootlegging flourished in the Detroit area for about 14 years during Prohibition, and allegedly became the biggest employer and revenue maker next to the automobile industry.

In 1927 the US government decided to make a big push to control the illicit liquor business in Detroit and 100 or more hand picked Customs Service and Border Patrol officers joined others from the Prohibition Bureau to combat the smugglers.

Soon this giant posse was zooming all over the lakes and rivers in fast patrol boats trying to stem the flow of liquid gold that washed ashore, concealed in everything from phoney egg shells to fake gas tanks.

But the interdiction campaign was declared a flat failure after it was revealed in records from the Ontario Provincial Government boats carrying some 3,388,016 gallons of liquor had left Windsor for Detroit that year alone and US Prohibition agents had managed to seize a mere teaspoonful – a paltry 148,211 gallons.

Leon’s sunken boat wreck was probably one almost snared. Painted red, she carried a faded number on her side and her bottom was blown away.

“When chased by Revenue agents they’d take a shotgun, blow a hole in the boat and sink their cargo.” Leon explained. “Later when the coast was clear, they’d go back with grappling hooks to retrieve the booze. 500 maybe 1,000 cases were typical of loads carried aboard.

Ironically it was Prohibition that led to the popularity of Scotch in North America, during which genuine Scotch whisky was prized above rubies. Home-brewed concoctions such as Black Strap, Panther Whisky, Happy Sally, Yack-Yack and the likes was often lethal causing blindness and death among unsuspecting drinkers.

Canny Scots were quick to see an opportunity for fast money; soon they were shipping their healthier products to Canada and the Caribbean. Schooners would sail openly just beyond the 12-mile limit, offloading their cargoes to speed boats sent out to meet them by American bootleggers.

According to a book on the legends of the Prohibition era, Bill McCoy from Florida was said to have made a million dollars, also landing himself a place in the dictionary. A gentleman of high principle McCoy refused to carry any but the finest brands, and the expression ‘The Real McCoy’ became part of the English language.

Sampling wee nips from an old bottle one evening Leon wondered aloud what to do with his liquid treasure. The stuff was gathering dust beneath a faded British flag, probably would still be there today had chance, opportunity and some swashbuckling daring not conspired to intervene.

His collection includes some picturesque names; Old Nobility Southern Sunshine, Gooderman Worts, Canadian Rye, Old Smuggler (dated 1910) Rum Clement and Havana Club Brand and Canadian Club.

Since he’d decided to get rid of his collection, I offered to take a few bottles. As for the rest, whisky auctions are held regularly in Glasgow. I suggested he get in touch with Christie’s, they might be interested in this unique stash.

“Yeah” he mused, “how fitting to return this grand old Scotch to its native land.” An affirmative reply from Christie’s, Leon decided to ship the whisky from Detroit to Glasgow as freight aboard a regular airline only to run into red tape. Cargo officers said they wouldn’t accept whisky.

Disappointed, he rang me that night saying the deal was off.

Not one to give up without a fight, I suggested he try another ploy; why not declare them antique bottles?

The plot worked and next day the re-named Scotch was speeding home again to Scotland.

As auction day rolled around Christie’s sumptuous 50-page catalogue ran a fine black and white photograph showing off four of Leon’s bottles; Lot 249 – Old Nobility, Lot 250 – Old Smuggler, Lot 251-2; Sandy MacDonald (showing front label and rear labels.).

Lot 249 was described as Old Nobility Southern Sunshine – early 20th century. Made and bottled by United Brands, Detroit, Michigan. Stopper cork, paper tax seal. Glass embossed ‘Federal law forbids sale or re-use of this bottle’. Level; low-shoulder. 100 proof.

According to the catalogue it was expected to fetch between £150-250 ($286-475).

As for Lot 251-2 – Sandy Mac, the listing read: Acase of ‘Sandy Mac’ from an American cellar. There followed an in-depth description of the real Sandy MacDonald – early 20th century, and 10 lines of glowing product promotional information, also noting ‘as supplied to the House of Lords’.

Leon’s collection of whisky created great interest among bidders in Glasgow.

Adding to local mystique a story about his remarkable find ran in Scotland’s Sunday Mail.

His Detroit finds were compared with the movie Whisky Galore, the true life comical yarn about the S.S. Politician which sank with thousands of cases of whisky off a Scottish island during World War II.

“I often wonder if the lucky folks who bid on Lot 251, my 100 year old bottles of Scotch, ever realised they’d won themselves a tangible piece of America’s and Al Capone’s history?” Leon muses while scrutinizing navigational maps, trying to figure where next to dive in search of lost liquid gold.

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