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What Would You Pay for a True Taste of Cocktail History?

Bartenders are using vintage spirits to recreate classic drinks as they would have tasted in decades past. Christopher Ross on the new boom of vintage cocktails, from Mai Tais made with 1960s Trader Vic's rum to an FDR-era Champs-Élysées to a $3,000 Sidecar.

On cocktail menus across the country and overseas, drinks are popping up that appear to have fallen through a hole in time. At Canon in Seattle, you can order a Champs-Élysées made with Courvoisier and Chartreuse from 1935—a year when FDR was still president and Babe Ruth hit his final home run. At the Milk Room in Chicago, guests can order a Jasmine cocktail made with 1960s Campari, a burgundy-colored liqueur that bears little resemblance to today’s neon-red version. The Beaufort Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London serves a Hotel Nacional cocktail composed of apricot brandy from the 1960s and a rare Cuban Bacardi rum from the 1940s, predating the Cuban Revolution.

For years, bartenders have made a hobby of collecting rare and vintage spirits, doling out neat pours for favorite (or well-heeled) customers. Now, spurred by a growing market for historic booze, these spirits are showing up in cocktails as they might actually have been served decades ago—a development, critics say, that constitutes a waste of good liquor. But for proponents, cocktails made with vintage spirits offer a tantalizing, visceral brush with history, while opening up new and unexplored dimensions of flavor. They’ve also essentially introduced a new luxury category to the cocktail world: that Hotel Nacional at the Savoy goes for 250£ (roughly $315), and Canon’s Champs-Élysées will set you back $495.

“The same drink made with contemporary ingredients versus vintage spirits are as comparable to each other as a tricycle and a Ducati,” say Jamie Boudreau, the owner of Canon, a leader in the vintage spirits market. “If you’ve ever sipped a vintage spirit, you realize there’s a complexity and length of finish that just doesn’t exist in most modern-day spirits.”

For Boudreau, the appeal of stirring and shaking with vintage spirits is about getting as close as possible to historically recreating the drinks of yore. Like most bartenders who use antique spirits, he sticks with simple, mainly spirit-forward classics that allow the prized main ingredient to shine. His menu will soon feature ten cocktails made with vintage spirits, including drinks like a Pegu Club (1964 Booth’s gin, 1930s Cointreau, lime) for $205 and a Negroni (1971 Tanqueray, 1960 vermouth, 1970 Campari) for $195. These often taste both softer and more concentrated than contemporary versions.

The interest in and growing demand for vintage spirits across the U.S. and in other cities around the world has, in turn, generated a cottage industry of experts who source these hard-to-find, often scarce bottles. A little over a year ago, Alex Bachman—a former bartender at Chicago’s Billy Sunday—founded Sole Agent, a Windy City-based firm dedicated to locating and selling historic spirits. He relies on a small team of scouts who crisscross the globe, salvaging dusty back vintages from defunct restaurants and bars, auctions and shuttered distilleries and wholesalers. Recent finds include a bottle of the now-defunct gentian-based bitter Secrestat from the 1920s (called for in a number of esoteric classic cocktail recipes), vintages of Fernet from throughout the 20th century and Gordon’s Dry gin from the 1940s. Sole Agent works with over 30 bars and restaurants in Chicago, including acclaimed spots such as Lost Lake and Longman & Eagle, as well as a few venues in California, like the world-famous San Francisco tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove.

The genesis of Bachman’s interest in the field dates back to when he first started as a sommelier at Charlie Trotter’s, which boasted one of the finest restaurant wine cellars in the country. Poring over Trotter’s massive wine list, which included some vintages as old as a 150 years, Bachman began to wonder if a similarly rigorous classification could be applied to spirits dating back dozens of years.

“The vintage means something in every spirit,” says Bachman, though the differences don’t necessarily manifest themselves year to year like wine. Historic spirits with macerated ingredients or lots of botanicals are covetable because of how they age, resulting in rich complexity. Liquors like whiskey or gin, on the other hand, remain more static in the bottle, offering a frozen snapshot in liquid time.

Sole Agent’s biggest customer is Milk Room, a dimly lit, eight-seat hideaway in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel that specializes in classic cocktails made with vintage spirits. It was in part the building itself, an 1890s Venetian Gothic landmark with stained glass windows and candelabras, that inspired the idea for a bar that would transport guests—and their palates—back into the past. Bartender Paul McGee oversees the menu, which currently features eight classic drinks, including a Daiquiri and an De La Louisiane, each made with at least one rare, vintage spirit. Alternately, guests can select something from the pages of historic brandies, whiskies, gins and amari to sub it into their favorite cocktail.

McGee also runs the bar programs at the hotel’s three other venues, but the Milk Room takes up the lion’s share of his time, despite having just a fraction of the seating of the other spots. That’s because regularly employing vintage spirits poses a number of challenges to bartenders.

For one thing, scarcity severely limits how much R&D a bartender can do to find the right balance of ingredients for a drink. The taste memory that enables a bartender to predict how a modern bottle of Buffalo Trace or Plymouth gin might play in a drink is useless when it comes to bottles whose flavor profiles or formulas haven’t been used in decades. And vastly complicating the process of ordering and planning menus is the fact that some of the spirits are irreplaceable. “When the bottle is gone, the chances are great that we will not get another bottle like that again,” says McGee. “It really heightens the experience.”

But not everyone gets behind the idea that historic spirits have a role to play in cocktails. Pablo Moix, a co-founder and owner of the bar Old Lightning in Los Angeles, boasts a highly curated library of vintage spirits worth a sizeable fortune, but he doesn’t encourage mixing them in cocktails. “Master distillers are like mixologists,” he says. “A well-made spirit is basically a cocktail in a bottle. The idea of having something that’s perfectly distilled is much more exciting to me than making a vintage Manhattan.” Moix also points to the relative difficulty of sourcing vintage bottles that have been preserved correctly and whose integrity hasn’t been compromised by exposure to light, oxidation or anomalies resulting from the use of corks.

For the bars that carefully vet vintage bottles and take the time to learn how to deploy them in ways that improve a drink, the rewards are clear enough. “I don’t think it’s wasteful,” says Leo Robitschek, the bar director of the NoMad Hotel’s decorated drinks program in New York City. “The comparison I give people is caviar. Caviar is amazing on its own, but it can also be an accent to a dish that makes that dish better.” Robitscheck dedicates a small but popular section of the menu to cocktails made with vintage spirits. It’s caught on to the extent that some customers have actually called ahead to see if the Jungle Bird is being made with 1960s or 1970s Campari, each resulting in a different expression and slightly tweaked recipe. The ’60s version of the liqueur is bright with notes of cooked strawberry, while the ’70s version has a fresh berry profile as well as an earthy bitterness. These kinds of variations, and how they change a drink, can be a revelation to guests as their stable, singular idea of what a brand tastes like unfolds into faceted multiples.

“Age mellows these spirits out in such a beautiful way. You’re getting a piece of history,” says Robitschek. And just as importantly, he adds: “They’re absolutely delicious.”

A Taste of the Past

vintage cocktails

Illustration: Ric Carrasquillo

A new, flourishing market for vintage spirits has afforded bartenders an unprecedented opportunity to recreate the flavors of the cocktails of the past with historical accuracy. From a $3,000 vintage Sidecar to a Mai Tai with ’60s-era rum, here are nine drinks that showcase how contemporary bars are serving up history in a glass.

Canon, Seattle | Champs-Élysées | Price: $495
Head bartender Jamie Boudreau broke out the deep cuts from his bar’s 4,000 bottle collection to create this singular FDR-era Champs-Élysées. Using both Courvoisier and Chartreuse from 1935, this is about as historically accurate as vintage cocktails get, since the drink itself was first recorded in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. Price: $495

The NoMad Bar, New York City | Tuxedo #2 | Price: $28
The key to the acclaimed hotel bar’s Tuxedo #2—made with Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve Gin, Noilly Prat dry vermouth and maraschino liqueur—is the vintage absinthe. A Pernod Fils from 1941, the spirit offers, “besides the licorice and anise qualities, all these other vegetal flavors you don’t usually have,” says bar director Leo Robitschek. “It’s like taking a Tuxedo and adding some age to it.”

The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel, New York | Sidecar | $3,000
This tony bar was, at one point, selling the most luxe Sidecar imaginable, composed of Rémy Martin Louis XIII Black Pearl Cognac—a blend that includes eaux-de-vie over 100 years old—and pre-Nazi-Germany Cointreau. At that time, the liqueur was actually made with oranges from the island of Curaçao, according to the bar’s consulting mixologist Brian Van Flandern.

Beaufort Bar at the Savoy, London | Hotel Nacional | Price: 250£ ($315)
The Hotel Nacional cocktail was created at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and served to illustrious guests like Winston Churchill and Marlene Dietrich. The Beaufort recreates a version that resembles something like what those luminaries might have sipped, using a 1960s apricot brandy and a pre-Revolution Cuban Bacardi rum from the 1940s whose remaining stocks are incredibly rare.

Milk Room, Chicago | Old Pal | Price: $45
Paul McGee’s tiny, elegant bar boasts an outsized vintage spirits collection that can be combined in any number of ways to recreate rare historic classics. McGee’s personal go-to? An Old Pal. Made with rye and dry vermouth, the 1920s drink is one of the best vehicles for showcasing 1950s Campari, which he says offers “more depth of flavor, nuance and floral notes” than contemporary versions.

Jack Rose, Washington D.C. | Manhattan | Price: $300
Boasting one of the best vintage spirits collection in the country, Jack Rose mixes up a delectable Manhattan made with Cocchi di Torino vermouth and 1982 19-Year W.L. Weller whiskey, a bottle which can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. With this vintage, the brand was the first to substitute winter wheat for rye in the mash, making for a more rounded, fruited profile.

The Rivoli Bar at the Ritz London, London | Negroni | Price: 90£ ($113)
Ever wonder what a Negroni tasted like in the middle of the 20th century? The Rivoli Bar can help you out with that. One of their four vintage cocktails is the classic Italian drink featuring pours from bottles of Gordon’s Gin, Campari and Martini Rossi sweet vermouth—all dating back to the 1950s.

Queen Mary Tavern, Chicago | Martini | Price: $33
Choose from among a selection of vintage gins at this nautical Wicker Park watering hole to mix into a Martini. A 1970s Plymouth gin, says general manager and beverage director Daniel Smith, “is thick and heavy in the mouth, super rich, woodsy and earthy.”

Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco | Mai Tai | Price: $150 – $720
At this tiki landmark, Martin Cate serves most of his collection of vintage rums neat, but if you ask nicely he might make you a Mai Tai with an authentic 1960s bottle of Trader Vic’s Mai Tai rum. The cocktail “is well-receptive to a full-bodied, long-aged rum,” says Cate. Price: Depending on the vintage rum used, a Mai Tai can run anywhere from $150 to $720.

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