Cruising around town hunting for bottles of Pappy Van Winkle and George T. Stagg isn’t just a fruitless endeavor—it’s a quite noobish one as well. Many whiskey geeks have long gotten over the flippable commodity bourbons of the moment—we often have “guys” to hook us up with those anyhow—and instead are more obsessed with “dusty hunting.” That is, trekking to out-of-the-way liquor stores in small towns and sketchy neighborhoods (if the clerk sits behind bulletproof glass, that’s a positive!) in search of old bottles.
Not all dusty bottles are desirable, of course. But if you can read barcodes and identify tax stamps, and know where good “juice” was distilled (and when), you could end up scoring some major rarities—rarities most folks aren’t well-schooled enough to even know are tasty. (Whiskey doesn’t age—nor generally degrade—once bottled, no matter how old it currently is.) Plus you can often find these dusties for the low, low retail prices they first hit shelves at.
Dusty hunting isn’t necessarily a walk in the park, but it’s a lot easier than hectoring every liquor store owner about when they’ll have the next Four Roses Limited Edition. Here is a guide for how to dusty hunt—from the practices you can employ most easily, to those skills you’ll need to develop to find exotic bottles in the wild.
Look for dusty bottles (duh).
Simply enter a store and, like a drill sergeant doing a bunk inspection or a white-gloved mother stalking her bratty children’s bedrooms, look for dust. If we assume dust accumulates at a standard rate, then a dustier bottle could very well be a much older bottle, one that for some reason never sold, and a lazy store owner never marked down or returned to a distributor. As I said, not all dusty bottles are good, so don’t think that dust-caked bottle of 1990s Early Times is anything special. Likewise, a “dusty” need not necessarily be dusty. Any bottle of whiskey currently out of production fits the bill.
Trek to the boonies.
Maybe you live in a quiet suburb with fancy liquor stores with mahogany shelves that a nice lady takes a feather duster to at the end of every night. A place like that will almost never have the dusties you’re looking for. Likewise, there are other dusty hunters out there—believe me, if you’re learning about this for the first time right now, you’re already late to the game. So, you’re going to need to find stores no one has pillaged yet. And yes, they exist. Maybe they’re in small towns or the countryside. Perhaps they don’t appear on Google Maps, or aren’t even a liquor store per se (I’ve found success at small-town general stores, convenience shops, and even a gas station). Be sure to check out the Chinatowns, Koreatowns, and Little Italys of this country, whose residents typically prefer intoxicants quite different from bottled-in-bond bourbons. (Photo: visipinedale.org)
Look for oddly sized bottles.
Today all bourbon comes in 375 mL, 750 mL, or 1 and 1.75 L bottles. Prior to 1980, though, ’murica didn’t allow the damn metric system to infect our boozing and products came in pints, quarts, and gallons. Flask pints were particularly popular. Ever wonder why a standard 750 mL bottle is called “a fifth”? Because before the metric system it was indeed labeled 1/5th of a gallon (or sometimes 4/5th of a quart). WhiskeyID is an invaluable resource for seeing how the packaging of any particular product has changed over the years. (Photo: drinksplanet.com)
Go after the stuff that’s ignored.
I’m talking about products like lower-end Wild Turkey, Old Grand-Dad, Old Forester, and Old Fitzgerald. The kind of stuff that—even if it’s actually pretty good—is still cheap and stocked on the bottom shelf; the kinds of whiskeys generally purchased by high-school kids on days they get their paycheck from Taco Bell. If they only knew how much better the older “Old” stuff actually was. For instance, current Old Fitzgerald is distilled by Heaven Hill and it’s a nice, sweet easy-drinker. But pre-1993 or so, Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond came from the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery which Pappy Van Winkle—yeah, that dude—ran until his death in 1965. (Photo: drinkoftheweek.com)
Keep an eye out for tax stamps.
Many fancier bourbons today come with something over the cap—whether that’s a foil wrapping, paper covering, or wax dipping. But we don’t care about those. We’re looking for strips of cheap paper tape. Why? Because prior to 1985, the government mandated distillers place those over bottle caps. Known as tax stamps, they would assure both customers and, more importantly, tax inspectors that no one had opened the bottle and futzed with its contents in this era before tamper-proofing. Nowadays, they alert us dusty hunters that no one has purchased this particular bottle for at least two decades. (Look for green tape for bonded bourbons—that’s 100 proof—and red for all others.) (Photo: nobrokendrips.com)
Know how to read a barcode.
This is where you may begin questioning what you’re doing with your life. Especially as you put on your spectacles and start scrutinizing a dusty bottle’s barcode, specifically, the first five digits. These numbers tell us who bottled a given whiskey, something crucial with bourbon brands so often changing hands. For instance, Jim Beam, the current distillers of Old Grand-Dad, will have a UPC prefix of 80686 on all its whiskeys. But what if that dusty bottle of OGD instead has 86259 on it? That would mean you’ve lucked into some National Distillers supply, super caramelly stuff from 1987 or before. (UPC Codes came about in the late-1970/early-1980s, so you’ll always know your barcoded bottle isn’t older than that.) Also look for DSPs, which are often on bottles of bonded whiskey. Standing for “Distilled Spirits Plant,” the code tells you where a particular bottle was distilled. That much-lauded, now-shuttered Stitzel-Weller plant? Its code was DSP-KY 16, meaning if you see anything from there, buy, buy, buy! (Photo: Aaron Goldfarb)
And determine age.
Unlike wine, a year is almost never listed on a whiskey’s label. Still, there are tricks for IDing the age. Occasionally, the last two digits of a bottle’s year are embossed in the bottom glass. If a bourbon has that ooh-so-scary government warning on it, it was born after 1989. But if it lists just the proof (and no ABV percentage), it’s probably older than 1990. (Photo courtesy The Whiskey Jug)
Don’t act so “thirsty”
Believe it or not, a lot of liquor store owners assume their dusty bottles are merely, well, dusty bottles they’ve been unable to sell. So don’t sprint into stores aggressively demanding, “Where are your ‘dusties?!?!’” In fact, don’t ever say the word dusty in polite society—that term is just between us. Instead, when you enter off-the-beaten-path spots, give the pretense that you’re going to buy something—even just some Pringles—before inquiring whether the shopkeeper has any old bottles somewhere. As Josh Peters of The Whiskey Jug tells me, “Getting to go behind the counter, or, even better, into the back room, is the best way to find literal hidden gems.” He should know; he made a dusty-hunt killing in L.A. last month.
But be prepared to be mocked.
The penultimate step of dusty hunting is keeping your pride in check. Because when you lug your dusty haul to the register, the counter guy won’t believe you’ll actually want such crap. “You’re gonna drink this?!” he might say with disgust. That’s okay, let him mock you. Just don’t let your ego get scarred in such a way you start taunting him about pulling a major heist right under his nose. Ignore him or simply mumble, “I collect old bottles.” Then get the hell out of there. (Video/WKRN)
Now drink the damn dusty!
Finally, remember, your bourbon collection is not a museum, it’s a library. So check out some bottles from your stash on occasion. With a dusty, you have a real chance to drink history!
- Go early in the morning
- Go on weekdays
- Dress decently but not fancy
- Carry cash
- Hit up estate sales
- Raid grandpa’s liquor cabinet (with his permission, of course)
- Return to stores from time to time
- Consider dusties of old Scotch and chartreuse too
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman.