Inside the Booming Market for Vintage Spirits

In the last half-decade, the market for vintage spirits and liqueurs has expanded, so much so that old and rare bottles of whiskey, Cognac and Chartreuse are setting record prices at auction—and becoming increasingly difficult to find. Bryce T. Bauer on the nostalgic appeal of these bottles and how collectors are sourcing them.

Pre-Prohibition whiskey, late-1800s white Chartreuse—in the fine and rare alcohol game, wine has finally got some serious competition.

In the last half-decade, a robust market for vintage spirits has emerged, with buyers rapidly driving up costs and bars adding pricey old spirits—and drinks made with them—to their menus.

“Once upon a time there was Rubicon between wine and spirits,” said Wyatt Peabody, a wine advisor at the high-end wine services company Soutirage, which also works with old spirits collections. “For the most part, wine guys were wine guys and they didn’t care about spirits. Now, we’re seeing people take spirits seriously and give the same kind of attention to their spirits collection that they have been to their wine collection.”

The bulk of that collecting, says Peabody, is in whiskey, driven in part by the fervor for Pappy Van Winkle—fervor that also sends people in the secondary market toward other whiskies that were made at the same time as Pappy at the Stitzel-Weller distillery, which closed in 1992. But interest in old bottles beyond whiskey has also been growing in the past five years, producing passionate followings of their own, many of which are linked to key epochs in drink history, such as pre-embargo rum, pre-phylloxera Cognac and pre-Prohibition anything.

The reason people covet older bottles of wine is because much of it will change and improve in the cellar. The immediate question is whether the same thing happens with spirits. That turns out to be a contentious topic. Whiskey and most other old spirits that have been properly stored in a well-sealed bottle ought to taste essentially the same as the day they were bottled. For collectors of those spirits, then, the real aim of seeking out a vintage product is not necessarily to get something that has improved with age, but rather to reach back across time to get a sense of how something tasted to drinkers decades—even a century—ago.

With many spirits, changes in culture and technology have been reflected in the way they’re made, as well as in the ingredients that go into them. As a result, flavors have changed over the years, too.

When Edgar Harden, founder of the London-based online vintage spirits retailer Old Spirits Company, analyzed his sales data, he found that a large majority of the bottles he sells are purchased by individuals and bars with the intention of drinking, rather than saving them. These purchases go beyond spirits like whiskey and Cognac and into liqueurs and aromatized wines, both of which undergo significant changes in bottle.

The most pronounced difference is usually seen in vermouth, Harden says, which tends to oxidize after five to ten years.

“Red vermouth just becomes even richer and more amazing,” he says, while white vermouth, “transforms into something sherry-like, which can be amazing, but you can’t use it as you would have once upon a time. You almost have to [treat] it as a new ingredient.”

The liqueur that draws the most attention from vintage spirits enthusiasts is Chartreuse, as there are many aspects of the production process that contribute to variability among bottles.

For one, even though the recipe for Chartreuse is hundreds of years old, it’s far less exact than what would be used in a modern distillery. For one, the recipe is held in strict confidence by just two monks who alone mix together the comprising 130 botanicals—herbs, spices and flowers, which can taste different from season to season—meaning that the exact amounts of those ingredients vary slightly with each batch.

“I’ve actually watched the monk and he’ll take a pinch of this, like a chef grabs a pinch of salt,” says Tim Master, the director of specialty spirits at Frederick Wildman & Sons, the United States importer of Chartreuse. “Today’s monk’s pinch may be different from the monk who made it in the ’80s.” Once in the bottle, the liqueur evolves as well, its botanical profile morphing from, in the case of yellow Chartreuse, honey sweet and floral to more savory and spicy.

The increased attention to old Chartreuse has helped make it more available, but has also made it more expensive. On the open market, bottles can sell for a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars. Exceptionally rare ones, though, can go for much higher; in November, at what was purported to be the largest auction of Chartreuse ever, Christie’s in Geneva sold a bottle of white Chartreuse, which was only made between 1860 and 1900, for more than $20,000, twice the high estimate.

For firms like Soutirage, bottles of old spirits generally come from the few high-end collectors who have long made cellar space for the stuff. Harden, on the other hand, who founded Old Spirits Company in 2008, says he often gets bottles from forgotten cases that were once held by old restaurants or liquor stores and eventually ended up in the owner’s basement. But many individual collectors have developed other “techniques” of uncovering old spirits.

“A lot of the bottles that I’ve found were just hanging out in forgotten corners of old mom-and-pop liquor stores. If they don’t sell, they just sit on the shelf for decades,” says Eric Witz, a Boston-based vintage spirits collector, who has spent the last few years hunting down Chartreuse (his day job is in publishing). “I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve gone to every liquor store in the state.”

This method—often referred to as “bottle dusting”—is one that’s been used by collectors of all types of spirits (and wine, too) around the country, so much so that many places have been cleaned out. “Go rural,” says Master, who is responsible for that “bottle dusting” coinage.

Witz says that Ebay was historically a good source for vintage spirits, but in 2012, ABC’s “20/20” conducted a sting operation, showing how underage drinkers could acquire alcohol from the site. Ever since, listings for collectible bottles have been removed.

Estate sales and private sales, or trades, among collectors are also common sources, but going this route requires that the buyer know enough about a bottle to be able to figure out its age—which is tricky, considering that many aren’t labeled with dates. (Chartreuse added a date code on the cap starting in 1990.) To discern age, collectors look at markers like bottle design and proof and pull from a necessary knowledge of the brand or the spirits of the era.

It’s this kind of obsessive attention to detail—and predilection for good old-fashioned sleuthing—that’s creating a new market for these old bottles. That, and a curiosity about what has been lost to time—”everything from the way they were meticulously making these distillates without cutting corners,” says Peabody, “to old-growth forests for the barrels they were aged in… to who knows what.”