Ori-Gin unknown

By Neal McNamara

The Unicorn Tavern is gifted a bottle of potentially antique gin — but no one knows for sure how old it is.

Last Tuesday afternoon, Tom Malvedis, the owner of the Unicorn Tavern in Lansing’s Old Town, pulled out from behind the bar a four-sided fifth bottle of gin wrapped in plain white paper. On the paper, Malvedis had drawn a sketch of the bottle’s original label that showed that the alcohol was made in the Waterloo Bridge Distillery, established in London in 1814, and went by the brand Piccadilly Club.

When Malvedis removed the piece of paper, it revealed a glass bottle with a crackled pattern and a label so badly torn that the only type that could be made out was the “ondon” in “London” and the “g,” “n” and part of the “i.”

Malvedis tipped the bottle at a 45-degree angle to show off the bottle’s seal, still intact, emblazoned with “Waterloo Bridge Distillery” and on the top the initials “D.W.D.” and “Piccadilly Club.” The seal was deteriorating, with a solid green froth covering some of the words.

“Piccadilly Gin isn’t listed or recognized by anybody,” Malvedis said pointing at the bottle. “But the date on the label said it was established in 1814.”

The allegedly antique gin was a hot topic at the Unicorn that day. After Malvedis showed this reporter the bottle, Robert Cochran, a Board of Water and Light commissioner and Unicorn patron, brought over his cell phone to show some quick Internet research he had done — someone had posted a question on a Yahoo forum asking the worth of a bottle of Piccadilly Gin.

“It may be worth thousands,” Cochran read from the tiny screen on his phone.

Malvedis, 86, was given the bottle by a customer last week. Malvedis said the man told him he would be having heart surgery the next day and wanted to give a bottle away, just in case. Malvedis said that the man told him that he had found the bottle and several more — which he kept, with the labels fully intact — in the wall of a house he was working on “up north.” Malvedis said he only knows the man’s first name, which is Ron, and that he lives in Charlotte. He didn’t know where up north the bottle was found.

“He wouldn’t even sell me one of those good bottles because he thought it would be worth a lot of money,” Malvedis added.

Interestingly, the name of the person who posted information on Yahoo about Piccadilly Club Gin went by the username “Ron L.” The respondents to his inquiry seemed to be under the impression that the gin was actually from 1814.

The gin may be old, but perhaps not as old as some think.

Ronald Rasnake, who is listed on the Web site Antiquebottles.com as an expert in antique gin bottles, was sent photos of Malvedis’ bottle and thinks it might be from Prohibition.

“Finding bottles inside walls of older buildings is not that unusual. Rarely, bottles found in these places may be very old and of interest to collectors. However, your friend’s Piccadilly Gin bottles are from the second quarter of the 20th century,” Rasnake wrote in an e-mail. “Except for bottles in excellent condition, including their caps and labels, Piccadilly Gin bottles are of limited interest to collectors. My theory is that your friend’s bottles (along with their contents) were smuggled into Michigan from Canada during national Prohibition in the U.S.”

Rasnake said he has seen Piccadilly Club bottles for sale on eBay, but he doesn’t have any real information on how much the bottle could be worth.

Bill Brown, an antique gin bottle collector with the Australia-based Web site Gin-bottles.com, said he couldn’t offer any assistance because his expertise relates only to gin bottles that are at their youngest 100 years old.

The Gin and Vodka Association, a trade group based in England, couldn’t come up with anything on Piccadilly Club; neither could the Diageo, a major distributor of famous name liquors and spirits.

Malvedis has been trying to find Ron since last Tuesday to check on his condition and find out more about the gin. So far, he has been unsuccessful.

Malvedis has owned the Unicorn (formerly, The Shamrock) since 1978 and has run it since 1979. This isn’t the first time the Unicorn, a smoky bar that has retained the former grit of what used to be known as North Lansing, has been host to an antique liquor bottle. Malvedis recalled a bottle of sealed bourbon of indeterminate age that he had received as a gift. One night a Unicorn patron asked to see it and ended up unscrewing the cap and ruining the vintage, like a child opening and playing with his father’s original “Yak Face” Star Wars action figure.

Malvedis, a native of Massachusetts who speaks with a slight Greek accent, said he would keep his Piccadilly Club away from prying fingers in an enclosed dark area.

“I don’t let anybody see it, I don’t let anybody touch it,” he said. “It has got to be in the dark.”