Bartenders embracing thirst for vintage spirits

From London to Chicago, there is a growing appreciation of vintage cocktails made from old and rare spirits. Lucy Shaw speaks to bartenders who have a soft spot for these old timers – and who are selling them at eye-watering prices.

Edgar Harden of the Old Spirits Company. Photo credit: Addie Chin

In 2012, maestro mixologist Salvatore Calabrese made history at his Playboy Club in Mayfair when he created the world’s most expensive cocktail in front of a captive audience. Priced at £5,500 a glass, Salvatore’s Legacy was a heady blend of 1788 Clos de Griffier Vieux Cognac, 1770 Kummel Liqueur, 1860 Dubb Orange Curaçao and two dashes of Angostura bitters from the 1900s.

Visibly nervous before the attempt, Calabrese asked his assistant to mop the sweat from his brow. Silence fell upon the packed room as Calabrese tackled the ancient Cognac bottle with a knife, corkscrew and metal tongs. Three months earlier, Calabrese was left heartbroken when a different bottle of 1788 Clos de Griffier Cognac destined for the record attempt was smashed to smithereens by a customer who accidentally knocked it off a table after ordering a glass.

His world record and the smashed-bottle story drew the attention of the world’s press, and seemed to signal the start of a trend for luxury cocktails made with old spirits both at classic cocktail bars such as The Beaufort Bar at The Savoy and at more modern venues like Canon in Seattle, a seven-table drinking den with 4,000 spirits on its list.

Canon’s owner, Jamie Boudreau, believes vintage spirits offer complexity and length that are simply not found in their contemporary equivalents.

His 10-strong vintage cocktail menu allows the prized main spirit to shine and includes a US$495 (£370) Champs-Elysées, made with 1935 Courvoisier, 1935 Chartreuse and lemon; and a $425 (£317) Red Hook that marries 1950s Rittenhouse Rye, 1960s Punt e Mes and Maraschino from the 1940s.

His most expensive sip is a $650 (£484) Sazerac made with 1945 Monticello Rye and Pernod absinthe from the 1940s.

In an fiercely competitive bar scene catering to increasingly savvy and discerning drinkers, vintage cocktails give bartenders a point of difference, as they offer customers an inimitable experience by transporting them back in time.

They also serve to keep restless bartenders engaged, allowing them to play Sherlock and sniff out extinct spirits from around the globe then bring them back to life in their creations.

What could be better for a cocktail aficionado than the chance to enjoy an Old Fashioned or a Negroni featuring a spirit made at the same time as the cocktail was invented?

At The Beaufort Bar at The Savoy, head bartender Joe Harper shakes up six vintage cocktails, including the £250 Nacional, named after the iconic Havana hotel frequented by everyone from Ernest Hemingway and Marlene Dietrich to Sir Winston Churchill. Made with Cuban Bacardi from the 1940s (before the rum distillery moved to Puerto Rico) and 1960s apricot brandy, alongside lemon, pineapple juice and sugar, the cocktail tips its hat to the Nacional’s signature sip.

At The Rivoli Bar at The Ritz London, you’ll find four vintage cocktails on pour, including a £500 Sazerac made with Lheraud Cognac dating back to 1906 – the year the hotel opened. “There are only six bottles available worldwide, and we have three of them,” enthuses bar manager Jurek Mazuruk. His best-selling vintage cocktail is a £90 Negroni crafted from Gordon’s Gin from the 1960s, Campari from the 1970s and Martini & Rossi Rosso Vermouth from the 1980s.

Jurek Mazurka of the Ritz London

Topping The Beaufort Bar’s list is one of the oldest and rarest spirits still in existence – Harewood House rum distilled in Barbados in 1780, a dozen dusty bottles of which were unearthed by chance by members of Christie’s wine department, who found them hiding under a thick coating of cobwebs during an inventory of the cellar at Harewood House in Leeds in 2011.

The auction house expected the bottles to sell for around £700 each at its December 2013 sale, but they ended up going under the hammer for £8,225 a piece, illustrating the growing global thirst for old and rare spirits.

The Savoy charges £12,000 for the chance to experience “a true piece of liquid history”, and offers tailored serves of the ancient rum to high-rolling guests.

Noah May, who was part of the Christie’s team that discovered the 1780 rum stash, describes it as, “the oldest, most extraordinary, complex, vibrant and transcendent spirit I’m likely to taste”.

May believes that when it comes to spirits, they don’t make them like they used to. “Vintage spirits generally taste better because the quality of ingredients and scale of production often led to a finer product,” he says.

However, he feels the greatest appeal of vintage spirits is their emotional pull. “Distilled spirits don’t generally change in the bottle like wine, so by inhaling the aroma and tasting the liquid, you can be directly transported to another time. You are, in a sense, linked to the hands that picked the grape or grain and placed the spirit in wood. It is an intimate and unique way of engaging with history,” he says, revealing that there is “extraordinary growth potential” for the old and rare spirits market at auction.

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