The Flavors of Spirits Past

A counterfeiter of old wines, Rudi Kurniawan, was recently convicted for earning millions selling faked bottles of wine. Such is the value of certain old wines, some of them selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Thankfully there is not yet a similar market for old spirits bottles, though it may not be far in the future.

But at this particular moment, old spirits bottles are mere novelty to many, with auction markets and sites only recently including them among their offerings. There is a market nonetheless: among noteworthy bars, Seattle’s justly famed Canon includes tastes of pre-Prohibition whiskies for $100 a shot and more, some bottles scoured from forgotten home bars. Indeed there are probably goodies slumbering in countless basements and unlike wine, time and fluctuating temperatures need not destroy the value and quality of these beverages.

Most spirits are bottled at forty percent alcohol or higher, and they are tough to kill. Their alcoholic strength reflects their very purpose: they will retain their flavor and character nearly forever unless they are exposed to bright lights, air or high temperatures. When someone fishes a bottle of wine out of their grandparents cellar, it’s usually devoid of fruit and good flavor, but when folks come forth with old spirit, chances are good the spirit in the bottle will still be willing.

At a recent tasting, there were several decades-old bottles and all of them seemed no worse for the wear.  Gene Darby, a local enthusiast, had brought in several gems: a Canadian rum and two blended Scotch whiskies. We were mightily impressed by the rum from Gooderham and Worts, a Toronto distillery that closed in 1990, the last of a once proud and robust Canadian rum industry. The pint bottle had its own tin shot cup as its lid, and the bottle was embossed with the facade of a mountain man and his prodigious beard, covering nearly the whole bottle. The rum was quite pleasant, with buttery, somewhat hot, molasses notes. As far as we could ascertain, it dated from the 1920s.

The first of the whiskies was a bottle of Seagrams VO with a tax stamp of 1977, courtesy of Ryan Maybee of Manifesto and the Rieger. It was enjoyable with caramel and chocolate notes, but it was fairly light and short, much as VO has been for as long as I can remember. Indeed this was good evidence that time may have no particular effect on most spirits, for better or worse.

Darby had also brought along Highland Queen Grand 15 blended Scotch whisky 15 year old, and it carried a 1969 tax stamp. This was fairly delightful with smoky notes of peat and iodine, a buttery texture, a nutty intensity with almond and hazelnut, ending in caramel but consistently showing elegance. While a similar Highland Queen bottling is available, this was my first taste and I might seek out some others.

Tasty but perhaps not as exciting was a Dewars Victoria Vat that probably dated from the 1940s. Victoria Vat no longer exists but today you may find Dewars Ancestor to be a similar whisky from the same house. The Victoria Vat offered honey, almonds, and hints of caramel, flowers and seaweed. Throughout it was light and mild, but carried good length.

The excitement of some of these old spirits differs greatly from old wines for which you expect flavors and aromas to have evolved into something heretofore unrevealed. Spirits can go more or less only one direction (down). Unless the spirit has deteriorated, what is exciting instead is the rediscovery of flavors that may no longer be part of the repertoire of a particular brand, as is the case with some old bottles of Chartreuse, a brand that has evolved and changed for centuries.

There may not yet be big money in it, but there is plenty of reason to see what your parents and grandparents have squirreled away in the drinks cabinet. Good hunting!

This article previously appeared in the Kansas City Star

The pain and the pleasure

Novelist Jay McInerney once wrote “Sometimes I think the difference between what we want and what we're afraid of is about the width of an eyelash.” While McInerney’s wine writings are too often dewy-eyed panegyrics to the lifestyles of the rich, there is something to the conflation of desire and anxiety, even fear. A strange study in British Columbia last year showed that a group of men crossing a swaying suspension bridge were more likely to a find a particular woman sexually attractive than if they observed that woman on flat, safe ground.

Silly news? Perhaps. But with Valentine’s Day as background, could we dare to move beyond our safe choices into less charted territory, and if we did so, would that add to the excitement? Instead of the usual Prosecco or Cava for bubbly, what if true Champagne were the tipple? Yes, it’s expensive (likely to be forty or fifty dollars) but you and your companion might discover the remarkable mix of yeast, toast, fruit and effervescence that exemplifies the best of bubbly. Try Billiot ($65), Feuillatte ($45), Gosset $50), Pol Roger ($65) and for the loveliest of pink sparklers, Bollinger Brut Rose ($90)

Oregon Pinot Noir is more talked about than consumed; the 2011 vintage has been completely overlooked: beauties such as Ayres ($28) or Adelsheim ($30) are far too gentle and elegant for most critics. The earthy notes of Rhone wines remind many of bodies in motion: Chapoutier’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape La Bernardine 2009 is spicy and rich.

The silken juiciness of great German Riesling may offer wine’s shortest path to pleasure. There are plenty of stars in Germany’s firmament: Fritz Haag, Gunderloch, J.J. Pruem, Karthausershof, Moenchhof, Schloss Lieser, Weins-Pruem and Zilliken are just a few. Or you can evoke Greece’s bright beaches with the brilliant sunniness of Sigalas Assyrtiko ($22) or Skouras Moschofilero ($19), both vibrant icons. Chenin Blanc has a mineral, savory character expressed best in the Loire Valley (try Huet’s Vouvrays) or in South Africa: Raats ($14) and Ken Forrester ($16) are easy to highlight.

But if deep red is the color for your Valentine, the extravagance of Italy’s Amarone is hard to top: Masi Costasera ($65), Tommasi ($70) or Zenato ($75) are deeply generous in spirit.

When your intention is to demonstrate your ardor, then ardent spirits may be just the right drop. Sure, you know Cognac, but there are other brandies to explore: I can ardently recommend its wilder sibling Armagnac (there are not many in this market, sadly) or California’s Germain Robin Craft Method Brandy ($55). As for me, I’ll give my Valentine her choice of all of these. She knows I’ll be content with any of them, along with a copita of head-spinning Del Maguey Mezcal, as good a mix of fear and pleasure as any.


This article previously appeared in the Kansas City Star