Antique spirits: Tasty and valuable

May 28, 2016 11:00 AM

Distilled spirits have been showing steady growth, particularly in the past six years, and according to the Distilled Spirits Council, supplier sales for spirits increased 4.1% in 2015. An increase in cocktail culture and younger drinkers choosing spirits over beer is helping drive this trend. Focus has also been shifting towards excitement over innovation, premiumization and access to greater choice than ever before. With the continued demand for brown spirits as a category, especially American whiskeys, the world has become interested in spirits, their history and character.

Like honey, salt and sugar, distilled spirits are one of only a handful of food and beverage items that if stored properly, will never spoil. Alcohol itself has long been used as a method of preservation. Distilling spirits itself is an ancient practice. Although there are many unknowns about when the first processes of distilling spirits was developed, the ancient Greek alchemists are often credited to be the first, dating back to the 1st Century, though the Chinese and the Moors probably weren’t far behind.

With a rich history and renewed interest in distilled spirits, it’s no wonder that people around the world have taken an interest in collecting old, rare and out of production bottles. In the past, many collectors scoured mom and pop liquor stores for unsold inventory of old and rare spirits. But with that method becoming exhausted, there are now many resources that have surfaced making both buying and selling items of interest easier. Additionally, some bars around the world are collecting bottles they will sell to guests neat, for tasting or for use in a truly classic cocktail. Sites like whiskeyexchange.com and oldspiritscompany.com buy and sell vintage spirits and bars like Pouring Ribbons in New York or Nightjar in London have a collection for purchase by the glass as well. 

While all rare and old spirits in good condition are sought after, some types are more desirable and therefore more valuable than others. Whiskeys, Cognacs and liqueurs often take the lead, with rum and gins not far behind. With distilled spirits thatare free of sugar (as are most whiskeys and Cognacs) a well-made and properly stored (airtight) bottle should essentially taste much like it did when it was first produced. There are variances from the bottling techniques of today — mostly due to the result of changes in technology, aging practices and raw materials used as the base. So when you open a bottle of pre-prohibition whiskey, for example, you can, in a way, transport back in time and experience whiskey as it was made way back when. With liqueurs, however, the sugar and the botanicals, herbs or spices used to flavor them can often cause dramatic changes, sometimes for the better. Old bottles of Chartreuse are often the most sought after and valuable bottles for collectors. Founded in 1737, Chartreuse is a liqueur made from a blend of 130 different herbs and spices with a recipe highly guarded and passed down by a few monks through generations to monks that are still making the liqueur today. Because of this, a bottle of Chartreuse made just 30 years ago might be different from Chartreuse today due to changes in the agricultural conditions or sourcing of herbs and botanicals. Also, different monks producing their interpretation of the recipe, distillation advances and age play a factor in taste. Tim Master, director of specialty spirits at Frederick Wildman & Sons, producers of Chartreuse says, “Once in the bottle, the liqueur evolves as well, its botanical profile morphing from, in the case of yellow Chartreuse, honey sweet and floral to more savory and spicy.” 

According to punchdrink.com, a bottle made between 1860 and 1900 sold at Christie’s auction house in Geneva for more than $20,000. Though this being on the high end, rare spirits can often be valued at a couple hundred dollars and upwards. 

Bay van der Bunt, head of The Netherlands vintage liquor shop Oldliquors.com, says, “Rummaging through relative’s attic, basements and garages looking for old liquors might just make the inevitable family visits worthwhile, because these not-so-obvious family heirlooms can be worth a lot of cash.””

About the Author

Hillary Choo is an award-winning mixologist, brand ambassador and former bartender. Hillary has received multiple recognitions, most recently Top Ten Mixologists in Miami by The Miami New Times in 2013 and Bartender of the Year Miami by Eater. Hillary is Portfolio Ambassador Miami for Bacardi USA. Follow Instagram at HillaryChoo. @ohillaryo