Perhaps you’re not leaping to position Pappy on your back bar. (In this economy?). But beyond such well known (and predatorily priced) grail bottles, offering vintage, rare, and obscure spirits can benefit a bar program economically as well as add cachet.
“Vintage spirits offer a glimpse into the past,” says Charles Joly, the founder of Crafthouse Cocktails and a veteran of The Aviary and The Office in Chicago, the latter of which is renowned for its vintage-spirit offerings by the ounce or in pricey cocktails. “You’re drinking a bit of history, whether it's ‘medicinal’ bourbon prescribed during prohibition, pre-phylloxera cognac, or spirits from a shuttered distillery. They transport you to another place and time.”
Bottles with age have the “ability to offer real insights into the taste profile of the past,” says Martin Cate, who commands an expansive collection of rum at San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove. “They offer interesting contrasts to current releases.”
At Washington, DC, whiskey bar Jack Rose Dining Saloon, owner Bill Thomas finds the draw is obvious. “There’s such demand for vintage spirits, particularly in the whiskey realm. There’s double the fascination for any defunct distillery; people seek them out on our shelves because they’ll never get to try them again. There’s even fascination with distilleries that have undergone changes, like Wild Turkey, who demolished their distillery and rebuilt the new one.”
When Joaquín Simó was opening Pouring Ribbons in the competitive New York City market, he wanted a bar program that would draw drinkers in, “something we could publicize that was slightly separate from cocktails. We found two niches: themed menus and vintage Chartreuse.”
Plus, there’s the overall nerd appeal. “Of course we picked an obscure French alpine liqueur with more than 130 ingredients that no one has any clarity on because the monks who make it took a vow of silence,” says Simó with a laugh.
Ready to get dusty? Unfortunately, scarcity dictates that you can’t just snag a few of these singular bottles via the standard distributor channels. Simó built up his bar’s collection over the course of a decade, starting with scavenging through the bottom shelves of old liquor stores and circling estate sales. Back at the beginning, even eBay held treasures, although laws now prohibit going that route.
But the commodification of rare spirits has led to financial challenges. “The market has exploded to a point that it’s really hard to find value,” says Simó. “You used to be able to find fantastic bottles for $100 to $200. With prices upwards of $800, how am I even going to be able to charge a customer for a pour?”
A possible solution? There are other avenues to explore, and other categories of spirits. “The whiskey category is experiencing massive inflation, but you can still find value in tequila or liqueurs; Billy Sunday’s focus on obscure and rare distillates has done an excellent job of showcasing that people will go to a bar to drink liqueurs,” Simó continues.
Thomas relies on community for his collection. “After decades in the industry, I’ve built a lot of fond relationships with older collectors, whiskey enthusiasts, or former employees of distilleries. Really, they’re all just old friends.” He’s dabbled in auctions, but “they are generally overpriced for me,” he says.
And remember what's right in front of you. “Don’t focus so much on past releases; start with the modern classics,” says Thomas. “Don’t miss out on today’s releases. Stockpile them, because they’ll likely become the highly sought-after vintages years down the road.”
But before opening your wallet, Cate recommends gauging if it’s worth stocking them at all. “Feel out your regulars to gauge interest level before making any investment,” he says. “Vintage spirits that just sit there unenjoyed can become a financial loss.”
While you may be tempted to just pour some esoteric spirit into a glass, “You don’t just splash out a 140-year-old brand and toss it on the table,” says Joly. It’s not about speed: “You want to have the capability to slow down service and connect with the guests.”
“Remember, a lot of the time people are not used to drinking liqueurs neat,” says Simó. While rare pours can command celestial price tags, he pushes his staff to not think of it as an upsell but an evangelism effort. “We sell on enthusiasm. The point is not to sell the most expensive pour, but to gauge where a customer’s knowledge is.”
You need to meet the guest at their level of knowledge. “If you came in curious about Chartreuse, I would never try to sell you some obscure ’70s green,” Simó continues. “Start with half an ounce of current Chartreuse and we’ll see what you think. If we start with cheap Chartreuse, we can get you into cooler stuff, but if you start with the rare stuff and don’t like it, you may never come back to Chartreuse.”
Cate offers education via a rum club, The Rumbustion Society. “Members join and taste their way through a self-guided history and style lesson, with lots of tastings for ‘homework,’” he says.
So how do you price these unicorn bottles? Simó does so based on how difficult they are to replace. “Once we scored a full case of old yellow, so we priced it less aggressively,” he says. From there, he factors in the cost of a small pour of current Chartreuse, “So people can experience a side-by-side comparison,” he says. “It’s cool to see what’s more vibrant in the fresh stuff versus the old stuff—what flavors have dissipated and emerged.”
Thomas seconds that approach. “Whiskey lovers have a constant fascination with comparison,” he says. “They love to try and analyze old spirits, particularly before and after a process or facility change.”
Another factor to pricing: the unpredictable vulnerability of the spirits. “There’s a risk you take when buying aged,” says Thomas. “It might look great in the bottle, but you never know until you get it into a glass.” He’s found bottles that have been “slowly getting oxygen for 100 years,” he says. “You open the cork and it’s great, but one week later it’s bad. It just falls apart.”
Cate has found similar issues. “There’s some degree of financial risk that the spirits may be undrinkable,” he says. “Sometimes they have turned in the bottle, typically due to a corrupted enclosure or from no-longer-used coloring agents that begin to add off-flavors.” He recommends keeping the bottles in good condition and gassed to prevent oxidation if there’s too much air in the bottle.
“In the end, there's only one way to tell: You have to taste it yourself,” says Joly. “If you open an old bottle to test it and it's not drinking well, unfortunately the bar ends up eating the cost.”
The Cocktail Question
Can you serve these spirits in cocktails? Absolutely—it can be a delightful way for guests to experience what a cocktail from decades past might have tasted like originally. But should you? That’s another matter entirely.
“Overall, you have to figure out what your goal or niche is,” says Joly. “Are you looking to serve vintage cocktails, like a 1970s Blood & Sand with all the spirits from that era? Do you want to focus on bourbon? Scotch? A specific liqueur? Remember, you're then building a specialized library in which you and the staff are expected to be the librarians. Choose a category you're passionate about and want to dive into.”
A number of bars have chosen to offer cocktails made with vintage spirits. Milk Room in Chicago offers Old Fashioneds made with 1970s fernets and Sazeracs made with absinthe from the 1930s. In addition to Billy Sunday’s slate of vintage liqueurs, the bar has a list of vintage cocktails, with many priced under $30.
But the cost of such cocktails can be so high as to be prohibitive to most guests. Smuggler’s Cove once offered a Mai Tai made with Wray & Nephew 20-year-old rum from the 1940s. “We made the cocktail free—the rum was already $2,000 for 2 ounces,” says Cate. “It would be lousy to charge $2,014.”