When Did Age Start to Equal Greatness in Spirits?

A vintage spirits arms race has sent prices soaring, driving some to question whether a taste of “liquid history” is worth the cost.

Several years ago, I was invited to an undisclosed bar in lower Manhattan that had just acquired a bottle of single malt Highlands Scotch from the 1960s. It ran $250 per ounce—luckily, I was not paying. The bottle was cracked, and as my companion and I took a sip, we looked at each other, not quite sure what to say. We took another sip. “This is terrible, right?,” my companion said. It was, in fact, one of the worst things I have ever tasted. Overly floral, but with an odd underlying cheesiness, it was impossible to finish.

“I think it’s become easy to dupe uneducated consumers into buying anything with a story, and being historical or antique is its own story,” says Joshua Richholt, a vintage spirits collector and managing partner of The Well, in Brooklyn.

When we refer to antique or vintage spirits, we’re not simply talking about Scotch with an old age statement. Instead, we’re referring to bottles that were literally released decades ago. Today, sipping these old spirits has become such a status symbol that many drinkers have no problem paying hundreds of dollars an ounce for a glass of, say, 1965 Old Fitzgerald, or tens of thousands of dollars for a bottle of 1979 W.L. Weller. This thinking that old equals great has caused auction houses like Christie’s to start vintage spirits programs, illicit secondary markets to boom online and high-end vintage bars, like Mordecai in Chicago and Old Lightning in Los Angeles, to flourish.

While vintage spirits have only recently become widespread and accessible to most, the market for them actually goes back several decades. “I was really the pioneer of the vintage spirit market,” claims longtime bartender Salvatore Calabrese. In 1984, he began serving vintage Cognac and Armagnac at Dukes Hotel London. His first acquisition was a bottle of 1914 Croizet, which he acquired for £70. When he sold off the entire bottle in one week at £15 a glass, he knew he was onto something. He quickly began amassing a collection of Cognac and Armagnac that stretched back to the 18th century, thus blazing a trail for consumers who would gladly overpay to taste what Calabrese dubbed “liquid history.”

When America’s high-end restaurant world began dipping its toes into vintage spirits, it was also by way of Cognac. Alex Bachman, one of the world’s top dusty bottle hunters via his company, Sole Agent, first noticed this while working as a sommelier at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Charlie Trotter’s in the early 2000s.

“These rich regulars would come into Charlie Trotter’s: ‘Hey, I’ve got this bottle of Napoleonic Cognac we gotta open.’ ‘I’ve got Amer Picon from the ’30s,’” recalls Bachman. “It was very obscure shit they were genuinely curious to taste.”

Sensing an opportunity, Bachman says the sommeliers at Trotter’s and other key spots in town started curating small collections of vintage spirits for top customers. And Trotter’s eventually offered a small cache of old Cognac, Scotch and eau de vie, though they never formalized the program by creating a menu for it. It was mainly a hand sell for VIPs.

“We would fly rock star chefs over for dinners, guys like Joël Robuchon, and [Trotter’s] wealthy, multi-repeat customers would always want to drink crazy booze at the events,” recalls Bachman. “That was the first time I really saw people enjoying vintage spirits in a service environment.”

Meanwhile, a slew of single-category collectors had slowly been emerging in the States. Many, like San Francisco’s Julio Bermejo, turned their bars into a showroom for their vintage obsessions. After taking over the beverage program at his father’s eponymous Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco in the late 1980s, Bermejo saw a need to educate his consumers on 100 percent agave tequila, which was a rarity in America at the time.

“What got me started [stocking vintage in the bar] was my love of Herradura and the fact that they had said that they were purposely changing their recipe,” he says. Not trusting that the change would be for the better, he starting snatching up any cases he could find of pre-1992 bottlings. His collection now totals over 160 different releases, and he continues to acquire old stock, mostly when he stumbles upon it, like he did recently when he found a 55-case pallet of 2006 El Jimador Añejo in a Brown-Forman warehouse in Kentucky.

Martin Cate, whose much-loved tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove, lies a few miles east of Tommy’s, began offering vintage rums upon opening in 2009, primarily in an effort to understand what old tiki classics had once tasted like. Cate, along with Chicago’s Paul McGee and New Orleans’ Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, was amongst the earliest group of tiki devotees who began displaying intriguing examples of rums that had flavor profiles that simply didn’t exist in current products. For many modern tiki enthusiasts, this opportunity to thus “time travel” to a past they’d never been a part of—even if at a heavy cost—was hard to pass up.

If many of these late-aughts and early-2010s bars built their programs around vintage Caribbean rum, French brandy and tequila, it’s mostly American whiskey that is driving the current feeding frenzy for vintage booze. Bourbon lovers have become obsessed with tasting examples from defunct distilleries, like Stitzel-Weller, with many consumers absolutely certain old whiskey is better than anything we have today.

With every new trend, there’s a boom, and then, unfortunately, comes a wealth of inexperience, whether from the professionals or the consumers.

The first bar owners to really afford consumers the opportunity to sample America’s lost whiskey history were three men in three separate cities: Mike Miller, who opened Delilah’s in Chicago back in 1993; Bill Thomas, who gave us the Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., in 2011; and Jamie Boudreau, who opened Canon in Seattle in 2011 with a “a single row of the sprawling floor-to-ceiling shelving… dedicated to liquor bottles of at least 100 years of age.”

Today, Canon is the reigning World’s Best Spirits Selection at Tales of the Cocktail three times over and boasts over $1 million worth of American whiskey. Last year, Boudreau even joked to PUNCH, “We have more vintage [bourbon] than the Bourbon Museum in Kentucky, and many of their bottles are empty.”

By the early 2010s, the success of bars like Canon had attracted the cocktail revolution’s “in” crowd. Soon an arms race had begun.

Longman & Eagle opened in 2010 in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, offering National Distillers-era Old Grand-Dad and Jim Beam from the 1960s. In 2012, Pouring Ribbons opened in Manhattan with an entire vintage Chartreuse list. And while vintage amaro is seemingly everywhere these days, its moment started at places like Chicago’s Billy Sunday back in 2013.

The trend reached a fever pitch in 2015 with the opening of Milk Room, a pricey, eight-seat bar in the Chicago Athletic Association hotel. The intimate space, helmed by McGee, offered not only vintage whiskey, rum and amaro, but entire vintage cocktails, like a Hanky Panky made using ingredients dating to the 1940s. (The desire to completely recreate vintage cocktails would soon become an integral feature of the trend.)

In the last few years, vintage wonderlands have begun opening, places like Mordecai, White Lightning and Justins’ House of Bourbon in Lexington, the latter bolstered by a recent law that allows Kentucky retailers to acquire vintage bottles directly from home collectors. That law and similar ones in other states have opened the floodgates, and now countless bars and restaurants are dabbling in vintage spirits.

As the trend has grown, the quality of the curation in many newer bars has greatly declined. “With every new trend, there’s a boom, and then, unfortunately, comes a wealth of inexperience, whether from the professionals or the consumers,” says Bachman, who declined to name the bars he believes are doing vintage spirits a disservice. It may actually be the customers that are fueling this cash grab, however.

“Folks are buying things now just because they’re old,” says Justin Thompson, co-owner of Justins’ House of Bourbon. A top buyer and seller of vintage American whiskey, recently he’s noticed customers interested in old gin, which he finds odd. Midcentury gin is known as being a particularly dark era for the category, with brands licensing out their name to various distilleries without much quality control. Yet countless bars are now stocking examples from the era, both for single pours and in vintage cocktails.

“The old [gin] doesn’t taste anything like it used to,” claims Richholt, “even though it often gets marketed as ‘trying it like the original recipe was meant to taste.’” Some of the actual producers of these spirits don’t think the older versions are particularly great, either. “A bottle of prewar gin is going to be quite a grainy alcohol,” says Sean Harrison, current master distiller of Plymouth Gin. He’s tasted plenty of vintage bottles of both Plymouth Gin and other brands and doesn’t understand why people today are spending tons of money to taste them, especially in $45 cocktails. “I don’t like these ‘100-year-old’ cocktails. The essential oils will have gone, and the alcohol base probably wasn’t that great in the first place.”

His words are suggestive enough to make one wonder if many of these vintage bars are being fully transparent. Is it in their best interest to reveal that a 1960s gin is subpar when they’re able to sell it for $75 an ounce—especially when moneyed consumers are seemingly programmed to believe that old is equivalent to great?

Anthony LaPorta, the assistant director at The Aviary NYC and The Office in Manhattan, was the only vintage spirits professional I talked to who disputed the point that consumers today overrate vintage. “Every now and then I will have guests who make the assumption that age equals quality, but most people actually feel the opposite,” notes LaPorta, who started selling vintage bottles at The Office’s original Chicago branch. “They’re skeptical there’s any real difference. I have spirits in the collection that are unbelievably good, and I can’t charge what I think they’re worth because they don’t carry enough value for my guests.”

He cites a 1940s Cognac at $265 per ounce as being one of the best-tasting spirits in The Office’s current collection, but one he is simply unable to move. “[It] sounds expensive, I know, but if it was bourbon it would be twice as much.” (Ironically, old Cognac, the spirit that helped kick off the vintage spirits obsession, has now been largely left behind.)

To this point, LaPorta believes that where the customer typically wins out is with unexpected liqueurs, like amaretto, which change in interesting ways over the years. “With lower demand for less commonly ordered vintage spirits, like Fernet Branca, Jägermeister or Southern Comfort, we can acquire and sell them for a lower price, which in turn builds appeal [toward other vintage spirits],” explains LaPorta. “We actually sold an entire bottle of vintage ouzo in less than a week because it was delicious and cheap. I was convinced I’d be sitting on that one for years; when was the last time you heard anyone ask for ouzo?”

The fact that LaPorta is selling something as obscure as 1970s ouzo points to just how big the trend has become. Online, it’s initiated a sort of mad dash within private Facebook buy/sell groups that shows no signs of slowing.

“There’s a lot of older whiskey that is just blended with GNS [grain-neutral spirit],” notes Richholt. “It’s gross shit, but people on the secondary market still buy it for hundreds [of dollars] simply because it’s old and they don’t realize it’s just flavored vodka.”

Maybe it’s because, in a world where even dive bars can make bespoke Negronis, ordering a classic cocktail has become less exciting. When even chain restaurants have bourbon “unicorn” bottles like George T. Stagg on the back bar, something more unique needs to be pursued by the most committed connoisseurs. Fanatics want to continually up the ante in regards to what they are buying, drinking and, most importantly, bragging about online.

There’s more than enough evidence that age may not, in fact, equal greatness when it comes to spirits. But when you’re peddling a spirit that only a handful of living folks have tasted, it’s really just mystique you’re selling. It’s not the first word in “liquid history” that has become most desired; it’s the second. Or, as Mordecai bar manager Tom Lisy summed it up:

“People want to feel connected and transported to the past. It’s romantic, sentimental and nostalgic—all qualities people love investing in.”

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