High Life Decoded: Antique Spirits

Is it really worth shelling out more for gin from the 1930s? We investigate the growing obsession with vintage spirits and cocktails.

  • Troy Sidle of Pouring Ribbons (photo: Jakob Layman)
  • Nicolas de Soto of Experimental Cocktail Club (Photo: The Boilermaker / Addie Chinn)
  • Photo: Rufus Exton
  • Photo: Rufus Exton
  • Photo: Rufus Exton

In this series, the First We Feast crew investigates the truth behind highbrow products saturating the food world. We consult experts to figure out how to navigate all the snobbery and decide whether they’re really worth all the hype.

As the cocktail renaissance continues apace, bartenders are constantly looking for new ways to separate themselves from the pack. Whether it’s resurrecting old recipes, aging Manhattans in wooden casks behind the bar, or serving gin and tonics on tap, there’s plenty of cool innovation to be had—but also plenty of opportunities to get ripped off shelling out $18 for some brash drink-slinger’s latest experiment.

One of the newest trends to pop up at bars is, like many booze-world developments, all about looking backwards—way back, in fact, to spirits that were produced and bottled 50, 60, and even a couple hundred years ago. Salvatore at Playboy in London has been serving throwback hooch for a while, and now several bars in NYC—as well as spots like Yusho in Chicago—are exploring antique spirits as well, both straight-up and in historically minded cocktails.

Proponents of the trend will tell you that vintage bottles offer a priceless time capsule into the ways recipes, production, and tastes have evolved over time. Haters will tell you that bars just want you to cough up $150 to buy some dusty-old bottles that no one wants.

To learn more, we talked to two barkeeps and spirits experts to find out whether that fancy pants Vieux Carré made with 50-year-old Benedictine is really worth the cost of your dinner.

THE EXPERTS:

Pouring Ribbons co-owner and bartender Troy Sidle has been collecting and tasting antique Chartreuse bottles for the past five years.  He will be visiting the distillery this April and explains that the color of the green Chartreuse comes from spinach.

Nicolas de Soto is the head bartender at Experimental Cocktail Club in the Lower East Side, a new offshoot of Paris’ famed cocktail den of the same name. At ECC, customers can order vintage cocktails, such as a martini made with Gordon’s gin from the 1950s.

THE BARTENDERS SAY:

The year of bottling makes a spirit antique. A spirit does not have to spend any time aging before being bottled to be considered antique. That is to say, an un-aged gin or a young spirit bottled in 1955 is antique, while a 20-year-old whiskey is not if it was bottled only a year or so ago. De Soto explains how this notion transfers to the vintage drinks served at ECC: “A cocktail made with several antique spirits would be an antique cocktail. For us, an antique spirit is something that is no longer made, either at all or by the same process.”

Spirits do not age in the bottle. The process of aging to change the character of a spirit happens prior to bottling, often in barrels. Whatever ‘age’ that spirit is when it goes into bottles is the age that it will stay. De Soto breaks this down further, saying,  “A 12-year-old whisky will always be 12 years old regardless of if it’s been in the bottle for one year or twenty. It’s a common misconception [to think otherwise].” The changes that do happen inside the bottle result from contact with residual air, which often causes the hooch to mature and mellow over time. Too much air is no good, though, because the spirit will loose too much alcohol content. For the most part though, these changes are very subtle. De Soto says, “Once it’s bottled, it’s done.”

Vintage bottles are time capsules of what certain spirits tasted like at a specific point in history. Since actual changes in the bottle are minor if the spirit has been stored properly, the main allure of throwback booze is that it offers an opportunity to compare old spirits with what we are used to today. De Soto describes many older spirits as having a much rounder quality than what you might now know from the same liquor. “Gordon’s Gin from the 1950s is closer to a Genever than an actual London Dry Gin, with less juniper and more malt flavors. Also ingredients may not have been the same (like barley, wheat, and grapes) as they were back then. Maybe there is a better control of the quality now, or maybe there was then.” So even if the recipe within a certain brand has remained static, differences in the ingredients used at the time will result in variations in flavor.

Each year of Chartreuse is different. Sidle says that all bottles of Chartreuse always have the signature Chartreuse flavor, but different years can be more herbaceous, more floral, and sometimes even display a “prominent brown-spice kick” when you go back through the archives. He goes on to say, “Chartreuse doesn’t change much in the bottle, depending how it was stored. A lot of times the more ephemeral top note qualities from the maceration of herbs will subside, but the distillate itself isn’t changing.” For him, the fun is in having a unique tasting experience, where the same booze from different periods can be compared side-by-side. He asks, “Why does the 1994 Yellow Chartreuse taste so mild, and honey-like with the crispness of green grapes, and an early 1980s Yellow Chartreuse knock your socks off with bitterness and rich cocoa and mint? Was it the base distillate that changed? We certain herbs less pungent at times? Did they alter the proportions of the ingredients? Who knows!”

These spirits are rare and pricey. Rarity, uniqueness, and scarcity make antique spirits expensive—often extremely expensive. Sidle explains that a 1970s Yellow Chartreuse may not be better than the 2008 version, but because he has a lot less of it behind the bar, it is far more expensive. “They taste dramatically different, but there’s only so many sips in that bottle to experience what that difference is,” says Sidle. Differing flavors in a product that technically no longer exists in same form may be the impetus for buying pricey bottles, but de Soto warns that you should alway taste first before serving anyone else. The spirit may have gone flat or even turned, in which case it could make you sick.

THE VERDICT:

Unless you are an extreme cocktail fiend or a drinks historian, this new trend might be lost on you and your wallet. We’re not going to go as far as saying that the whole thing is a crock by any means; indeed, the scale is too small to suspect that it’s just a dubious money-making scheme. However, the drinking of antique spirits clearly has a strong cerebral element, so if you are simply looking for a delicious cocktail or pour of whiskey, you’ve got plenty of other less costly options to choose from.

That said, those who appreciate the art of booze-making may find great value in the experience offered by antique spirits, since you’re literally tasting a drink that will run out at some point, with no future of replication. And for cocktail lovers, exploring vintage liquor is also a way to better understand why old drink recipes existed as they did, and how they were affected by the quality of spirits of the past. De Soto describes the bottles as being like textbooks: “You have history hidden in the bottle. Recipes change so many times, this is a good way to discover how drinks were at a certain time in history.”

Sidle, too, sees these bottles as a way of traveling back in time. “American cocktail culture had to spend a lot of time researching the history of drinks before Prohibition,” he says. “Now those recipes and knowing where to look up [old cocktails] have become rather second nature, it’s time to research the products themselves.”

And if you’re intrigued but unwilling to spend the loot, you can always try to weasel your way into a free tasting of the world’s most expensive cocktail.

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