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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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Jamie Bourdreau of Canon in Chicago

Boudreau of Canon believes the difference between vintage spirits and ones made today is so vast that “it’s like comparing a tricycle with a Ducati. We can’t compare today’s spirits with those of yesteryear, as they were produced in a completely different way. Types of grain have changed (or no longer exist), the wood for barrels has changed, and the volume of spirit we create and our control of it has changed.

It’s unfair to compare a new whiskey with its 100-year-old counterpart,” he says. While distilleries tend to keep their recipes secret, a number of spirits, including Southern Comfort and Drambuie, are made to a sweeter recipe today than they used to be. Edgar Harden, who founded online vintage spirits retailer, the Old Spirits Company, in 2008, describes Southern Comfort from the 1950s as “much richer and less sweet” than today, while he believes Drambuie has lost its heather-honey and peat-smoke notes, and Grand Marnier used to be “richer and more complex”. Mazuruk of The Ritz sources his spirits

from Harden, who has recently noticed a dramatic increase in demand for his products. Harden acquires his liquid treasures from private collections to guarantee their provenance. To ensure their authentication, he inspects each bottle’s capsule, cap, label, glass and ullage to make sure they haven’t been tampered with. In contrast to wine, Harden believes vintage spirits have long lifespans after being opened if stored properly.

“An open bottle of pre-Prohibition Bourbon will last forever if kept in a dark cupboard,” he says. According to Harden, a spirit’s evolution in bottle depends on its abv, with higher-abv spirits changing less than those with a lower abv.

“The freshness and impeccable smoothness of 45+% abv vintage gin can be breathtaking, as the high proof allows the gin to maintain itself like a 90-year-old with great skin, hair and teeth,” he quips.

Boudreau of Canon agrees with Harden that, rather than being time capsules, bottled spirits are alive and change over time. “Depending on the spirit, you’ll see great or subtle changes over time.

A perfect example is Chartreuse, whose many botanicals fade and shine as the spirit evolves,” he says. Sandy Hyslop, director of blending for Royal Salute, takes the opposite view, believing once it is in bottle, a whisky will

be perfectly preserved and its character fixed. “I firmly believe that whisky doesn’t develop further in bottle. An unopened bottle of whisky can be kept for many years without the flavour deteriorating in any way,” he says. It’s a point of pride for Hyslop that the character of Royal Salute hasn’t changed since it was created in 1953.

To assure this, each year a portion of the blend is held back to add to the new blend. “This is an expensive process, but one we feel adds to the quality and continuity of the product,” says Hyslop, whose main aim is for Royal Salute’s flavour and taste profile to “stay as close as humanly possible to the original”.

Leo Robitschek, bar director at the NoMad Hotel in New York, believes vintage spirits enhance a cocktail in the same way caviar does certain dishes, and doesn’t view the practice as wasteful or sacrilegious. Among the vintage cocktails on pour at NoMad is a Jungle Bird, made with Havana Club Selección de Maestros rum, pineapple, lime, and Campari from the 1960s.

While venues such as The Savoy and Canon charge sky-high prices for the chance to enjoy a visceral brush with history, all but one of the vintage cocktails at NoMad are priced between US$28-US$62, making the experience affordable for mere mortals.

Celebrity favourite The Ivy in London’s Covent Garden is also offering an affordable glimpse into the past with its 1917 Champagne cocktail, priced at £25.

Created by head bartender Darren Ball to mark the restaurant’s centenary this year, the fizzy cocktail is made with ‘R’ de Ruinart Champagne, 1917 Hermitage Cognac and a sugar cube soaked in 1917 Madeira.

But as popular as these vintage cocktails might be, not everyone views them as a positive addition to a bartender’s armoury.

The Rémy Cointreau Group, owners of Rémy Martin’s revered Louis XIII Cognac, which is made from around 1,200 eaux de vie ranging from 40 to 100 years old and is housed in a Baccarat decanter, actively discourages drinkers from enjoying the elixir in a cocktail. “We strongly recommend it to be enjoyed neat to fully appreciate its firework of flavours and aromas,” says a Rémy Cointreau spokesperson, who describes the £2,250 Cognac as “the fragrance of time”.

The 1917 Champagne cocktail at The Ivy made with 1917 Cognac and a sugar cube soaked in 1917 Madeira

This didn’t stop The Palm Court bar at The Plaza Hotel in New York from serving a $3,000 Sidecar cocktail made with Louis XIII Black Pearl and Cointreau from the 1930s in a Baccarat crystal coupe. Liam Sparks, Midleton whiskey’s UK brand ambassador, is all for the idea, believing vintage spirits make more authentic classic cocktails.

“I don’t find the idea sacrilegious at all. It’s simply offering the consumer an experience from the past. We’ve got old cocktail tomes like The Savoy Cocktail Book from the 1930s, so it makes sense to try to make drinks from that era with spirits from that era,” he says.

For Edmund Weil, co-founder of Old Street speakeasy The Nightjar, vintage spirits can turn his guests into time travellers and directly transport them to the Prohibition era, the clandestine spirit of which his bar aims to evoke.

“When we opened in 2010, we loved the idea of serving liquid time capsules that could bring our guests back to the early days of cocktail culture,” says Weil, who sources many of his drops from Harden’s Old Spirits Company, in addition to trawling auction catalogues for special lots. Keen to keep his antique offerings affordable, all of the vintage

spirits on his list, from 1863 Hannisville Rye and Old Tom gin from 1910, to Fox’s Cherry Brandy from the 1940s, are priced between £30 to £60 per 50ml measure, and can be shaken into pre-Prohibition cocktails for £60 if desired. While the list attracts a lot of interest, it’s the diehard Bourbon and rye aficionados who are splashing out on them, particularly American guests.

The single bottle Weil is happiest to have unearthed is an 1895 Rhum Clément from Martinique, which, he says, “tastes like biting into fresh sugar cane”, and gave him a fresh perspective on the rhum agricole category. With increasing demand for old and rare spirits and dwindling bottle stocks, vintage cocktail lists are a moveable feast in theory but remain rather static in practice.

Weil adds the odd bottle or two to his collection if he finds something interesting at auction but admits that the spirits he’s after are hard to get hold of and are steadily rising in price.

Like people, spirits tend to mellow with age, and the chance to experience this evolution is irresistible for spirits obsessives keen to taste Campari coloured with carmine dye from crushed cochineal beetles rather than its tamer modern-day incarnation.

In an era characterised by speed and movement, vintage spirits are a portal to the past and offer the chance to travel back in time via liquid snapshots of history that are perfectly preserved, like an insect in amber.

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