Customers expect to pay $20 or $25 for a cocktail in a high-end bar, but some patrons might blanch at forking over $300, $400 or more. In some of the nation’s most innovative watering holes, that option is becoming more common.
We’re not talking about the $10,000 martini with your girlfriend’s diamond engagement ring at the bottom. The three or four-digit cocktail is likely to be made with vintage spirits—booze that was distilled long before you were born. The mixology universe is embracing these drinks as a hot trend.
Is there really a difference between vintage spirits and the potions being distilled today? Most experts think so. The scale of production was far smaller 50 or 100 years ago, resulting in a spirit that was hand-crafted rather than mass-produced. In many cases, the ingredients and recipes have changed (something the modern distiller doesn’t always admit). Take the case of Wild Turkey. There’s a very active underground market for bottles made in the 1960s and 1970s, referred to as “dusties” by aficionados. Unless you’re fortunate enough to discover one by accident in a liquor store, it’s common to pay $400-700 for the privilege of owning and drinking it. For a 19th century Cognac or Armagnac, that figure can easily escalate to $5,000.
The vintage cocktail trend started in London—most probably in 2012, when Playboy Club owner and bartender Salvatore Calabrese concocted a blend of 1788 Clos de Griffier Cognac, 1770 Kummel liqueur, 1860 Dubb Orange Curaḉao and a few dashes of old bitters. The price tag was 5500 British pounds, or the equivalent of $7767 at today’s exchange rate. Since then, cocktails with old spirits have invaded the English capital and are currently featured at both the Ritz and the Savoy.
The mania for vintage cocktails has migrated across the pond. At The Office in Manhattan’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, you can sip a Wet Martini for $600 made from hundred year-old Tanqueray Sweet Gin, old Noilly Prat vermouth and extinct Lash bitters. By contrast, The General at Detroit’s Bad Luck Bar is a bargain: $90 for two ounces of the extremely rare 1989 Old Grand Dad, “served any way you would care to enjoy it.” Bars such as Vintage PDX in Portland and Jack Rose in Washington, D.C. stock large inventories of old spirits and will tailor a vintage cocktail to the customer’s taste.
The epicenter of vintage cocktails in the U.S. is Canon in Seattle, with an inventory or more than 4,000 spirits. Customers may enjoy a Red Hook ($425), made with 1950 Rittenhouse Rye, 1960 Punt e Mes and 1940 Maraschino liqueur, or a Champs Elysée ($495) with 1935 Courvoisier and Chartreuse. At the top of the range is the Sazerac ($650), combining 1940 absinthe, bitters, and a choice of 1935 Cognac or Monticello Rye. If you’d prefer not to mix it, you can enjoy a shot of 1890 Amer Picon ($950), 1906 Cecil Maryland Rye ($1050) or 1900 Cedar Brook Whiskey 19 Year Old ($1600)—a steep price to pay, perhaps, but not unreasonable considering that it’s a sip of history.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.