Tasting the Past at Liberty Hall Museum

The new "History in a Bottle" exhibition showcases bottles and demijohns found in 2015 in a long-forgotten cellar. We got to taste a few of the treasures.

Hand-written tags and labels were still on the antique bottles found at Liberty Hall Museum in 2015. Photo courtesy of Kean University

In 2015, during a renovation project at the Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University, staff uncovered a forgotten cellar with dozens of wine and spirit bottles and demijohns that once belonged to the house’s residents, the Livingston and Kean families. Collected over the course of 200 years, the newly discovered bottles included Madeira, port, Bordeaux wine, Jamaican rum and scotch that date to the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as Civil War-era bourbon.

The bottles were found behind a wall that was likely erected during the Prohibition era, and several of the discovered demijohns were nearly thrown out. “The demijohns were up in the attic, and I assumed they were full of stuff that had spoiled,” said John Kean Sr., president of Liberty Hall Museum. “I was going to give them to my employees to make into lamps.”

It’s a good thing he didn’t. Several of the discoveries were put up for auction last December through Christie’s, a world-famous auction house. A quart-sized bottle of Lenox Madeira that was imported to Philadelphia in 1796 and originally bottled in 1798 sold for nearly $16,000. Another, a five-gallon demijohn filled with Old Sercial Madeira from 1846, sold for $39,200.

The cellar at Liberty Hall Museum. Photo by Shelby Vittek
Demijohns in the cellar at Liberty Hall Museum. Photo by Shelby Vittek
The cellar at Liberty Hall Museum. Photo by Shelby Vittek
Photo by Shelby Vittek
Demijohns filled with Madeira and bourbon at the Liberty Hall Museum. Photo by Shelby Vittek
John Kean Sr., president of Liberty Hall Museum. Photo by Shelby Vittek

Earlier this summer, I was invited to a press-only tasting of mid-19th century Madeira, and medicinal bourbon that dated to 1887. The old Madeira was floral and smoky, with notes of vanilla and dried fruit. Despite its age, it was bright and citrusy on the finish, a testament to the wine’s ageability. The bourbon was unlike anything youd might find on shelves today. Tasting aged wines and spirits is always an otherworldly experience, and I was grateful for the opportunity to sample some of the museum’s treasures.

Unfortunately, there’s not enough for the public to also get a taste. But you can find the rare collection of bottles and demijohns in the museum’s new permanent exhibition, “History in a Bottle,” which opened in early July, and examines the history of the United States through alcoholic beverages and the role of natural cork in their preservation. You’ll also get a chance to walk through the cellar where they were all once held—a truly unique glimpse into the past.

Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University, 1003 Morris Avenue, Union. Tues-Sat, 10 am-4 pm; $8-$12.

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