It sounds like a parable, but it’s true. The seller of a coveted piece of land had two offers, both for the asking price, with neither would-be buyer willing to budge. So, to break the tie, he told each bidder that the winner would be whoever could find him three extraordinarily rare bottles of bourbon, together worth about $60,000. One of the buyers immediately knew who to call.
“Well, let’s just say within three days the deal was agreed upon,” says Justin Sloan, one of the owners of Justins’ House of Bourbon, a vintage whiskey store with locations in both Louisville and Lexington. Sloan, along with his partner Justin Thompson, specializes in extremely limited releases from Kentucky’s past; he had found the bottles for the bidder. “We find birth year bottles, anniversary year bottles and [bottles for] all kinds of occasions.”
For a variety of reasons, Kentucky has become America’s vintage spirits mecca. First, Kentucky is the longtime home of bourbon, which means that many people in the region have handily amassed collections, sometimes over generations. And second, as of 2017, it’s one of only two states (along with North Carolina and Washington, D.C.) where it’s actually legal for retailers like Justins’ to buy vintage booze from private collections and resell it to customers. As a result, bourbon fans from all over the world now travel to Kentucky to procure rare vintage bottles and drink rare vintage pours. In fact, Sloan says, 75 to 80 percent of their business is from out-of-towners.
“I have definitely appreciated the [vintage] law,” says Brad Talbert, a whiskey collector from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. He visited Kentucky in February, hoping to take advantage of the law by searching for releases from some notable “dead” distilleries, a common quest for vintage hunters. On his last trip, he scored a 1952 Hill & Hill from National Distillers and a 1970s-era Old Fitzgerald from the vaunted Stitzel–Weller distillery.
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The Bardstown Bourbon Company (BBC) was one of the first to specifically take advantage of HB100 after it was signed into law. For its bar and restaurant, Bottle & Bond, BBC tapped renowned bourbon writer Fred Minnick as well as Jack Rose Dining Saloon’s Bill Thomas to help put together a collection of around 400 vintage bottles. Dan Callaway, the company’s vice president of hospitality, believes that part of the bourbon drinking experience comes from understanding the industry’s history, whether that’s pre-Prohibition Overholt rye, “medicinal” Old Oscar Pepper from 1929 or Cedar Brook Hand Made Sour Mash Whiskey from 1892. “We asked them to find bottles that had a unique history and something to say,” explains Callaway, “instead of just having a unicorn to have a unicorn.”
Today, most major cities tend to have one or two bars with a strong vintage selection, often focusing on specific spirits. Canon in Seattle and Old Lightning in Los Angeles are well-known for their collections of old whiskey, Tommy’s in San Francisco has a stellar collection of old tequila and Billy Sunday in Chicago is vintage amaro emporium. Kentucky, however, has dozens upon dozens of vintage bars and retailers across the state, and thus a seemingly never-ending supply of old finds. It’s no longer just bourbon or rye, either. Places have been taking advantage of the law to bring in vintage bottles of gin, Scotch, rum, apple brandy—even Southern Comfort.
“It seems anyone coming for a bourbon experience makes a stop at the Dollar,” says Larry Rice, referring to his bar, The Silver Dollar, which offers vintage pours of rare finds like 1974 Old Weller and 1985 Old Taylor at very affordable prices. Callaway sees the same thing at BBC. “Certainly, the vintage purchases are from people on the trails. We’re a destination, part of the experience, that they want to try rare vintage things,” he adds. “We’ve had people structure their entire trip around trying a specific bottle.” Callaway cites a recent visitor who had come to town specifically to try the iconic Wild Turkey “Cheesy Gold Foil” from the mid-1980s.
Compared with vintage buying online, for many serious collectors like Talbert, visiting Kentucky’s vintage haunts provides access to things he didn’t even know he wanted. At Justins’ he stumbled upon a unique 1996 Old Forester Barrel Reserve, which features a red, white and blue-clad javelin thrower silkscreened on the bottle—a non-sanctioned salute to that year’s Atlanta Olympics. Sloan explained to Talbert that it was a bit of a predecessor to today’s Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, a bottle Talbert loves. “People are making the pilgrimage to Kentucky and getting vintage bourbon is their main goal,” adds Talbert.
There is no fear the state is going to run out of vintage bottles, either. If, in most all other states, seemingly every vintage bottle has been uncovered, that’s not the case in Kentucky. “The amount of bottles still holed up in ‘Grandma’s basement’ is astonishing,” says Sloan. “We literally get calls every week about bottles found in homes … that are now worth some big money.”