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