Hot on the heels of our Cask 88 whisky auction last November, the Insider spoke to vintage spirits expert Edgar Harden about his particular interest in this area, and how he turned his love of vintage spirits into a thriving business.
You were previously an antiques dealer and furniture expert at Christie’s. How did you get into vintage spirits?What attracted you to it?
I discovered vintage spirits accidentally during a wine cellar clearance for a client. He said more or less, “Take the Mouton to market but bin the gin!” He meant literally take the case out to the skip, so I took it home instead. It was a 1960s Gordon’s and I tried one bottle neat at room temperature; it was smooth, citrus-led and delicious. I then set about trying different combinations for Martinis and other ginled cocktails. The spirit was basically fullstrength still, maybe 1 degree lower, and held up well when diluted and mixed with other spirits (new or vintage). I was sold. The clincher was that I quite easily sold the remaining eleven bottles to a leading London bar owner. The juice was good, there was apparently a gap in the market and it was relatively easy to sell. The rest is history, as they say, and the Old Spirits Company was born.
Can you describe how certain spirits age in the bottle? For example what happens generally to an aged cognac compared to say an aged scotch or gin?
The basic rule is that the higher the proof the longer it takes for a noticeable change to come about, but when it does it is often impressive and long-lasting. A strong Polish vodka can take decades to noticeably change, but when it does it is rich, smooth and bready, quite delicious on its own, in a Martini or Vesper, and wonderful with food. On the other hand, a White Vermouth, whether sweet or dry, can change noticeably in five years because it oxidises quite quickly. One would, therefore, use it much more sparingly than new Vermouth, say 8-, 10- or 12-1, because it is sherry-like; or it can be treated as a unique new ingredient, however the cocktail maker sees fit.
Cognac, Scotch and Gin all age at roughly the same rate because they are generally all 40%. The difference can be that the two former spirits were barrel-aged and often the character of the wood emerges, particularly in spirits of extreme age, 100 years in bottle, for example; that the character imparted to the spirit in its youth is so noticeable in old age is at once romantic and curious. Generally speaking all three spirits would become smoother through bottle-ageing. The flavour profile inevitably changes as well. The personalities of individual eaux-de-vies and malts used in the Cognac and Scotch can become noticeable in an unintended way because of how they age together and independently. Colour can also change; you might taste violet in a cognac and there might be a violet coloured edge to it in the glass that was simply not there when it was bottled 60 years earlier. A Scotch might seem smokier or drier or more estery in a way that belies the brand personality for which it is traditionally known. In the gin the distillates can advance or recede; the Gordon’s I discovered in the beginning would have been Juniper-led, but when I came upon it the citrus had taken over because of the way the distillates decay at different rates and then recombine.
How many of the vintage spirits that you sell roughly are for the trade or for individuals? Of the bars that you do sell to where are they based in the world? And of the individuals how many do you think drink the spirit and how many do you think are collectors who leave the bottles unopened?
Pre-Covid I would have said about 75% trade, in the broadest sense of the term, and 25% individual. But now it’s more like 60/40. About 90% of the bottles are consumed, with 10% being “collected” and objectified. The bars are in the Continental US, England, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Australia and a few other locations that are one-offs. The US is my largest buyer, followed by the UK.
How much of your interaction with customers is a consultation? Are the people purchasing these vintage spirits searching for specific spirits? Or are they looking for a certain taste and you steer them in the right direction?
Generally speaking by the time somebody arrives at the point of buying vintage spirits they know what they want, usually right down to the brand and decade. A collector of whisky or a bartender who wants to recreate a classic cocktail with period ingredients. Some people who really get it are open to suggestions of what Bourbon they should buy and from when, especially if I have some defunct or arcane brands in stock that they would never have tried but which require some explanation and upselling. A very few take complete direction, which is a lot of fun for me, and they are often among the most satisfied. A woman came to me and wanted a dozen bottles for her husband to have a vintage home bar, and they were both very pleased. Some bottles were inexpensive and delicious, and they never would have chosen them, like 1950s crème de menthe, and others were very expensive and really impressive (1970s Glen Flagler 8YO, anybody?).
How long do you think this increased interest in vintage spirits has been around for? Have you noticed periods of increased interest in recent years?
Interest in vintage spirits has increased steadily over the past ten years. I think the fact that there has not been a spike means that this is not simply a fashion and that the taste for these treasures is here to stay.
What is the most popular spirit that you sell?
Sadly it’s Bourbon, but I fight that trend everyday with some success! I’ve tried many different types and brands of vintage spirits and can truly say that I have never been put off or tried something displeasing. It is in this spirit that I always try to get clients to take a leap of faith, to experiment and try something new to them or outside of their natural taste or comfort zone. This usually pleases those willing to take a step into the unknown.
Why do you think people are attracted to vintage spirits? Is it because of some tangible connection to the past that these bottles hold? Or is it more to do with being the owner of a luxurious/exclusive product? A combination of the two or other factors?
Generally speaking vintage spirits attract hedonists with an interest in history. They are pre-disposed to be already sold on the liquids. Historic periods, specific places and people, beautiful and substantial packaging and of course, sublime liquid, often with great viscosity, await them, and this is what they seek. There is also the simple fact that these spirits were differently and often better made, usually of organic ingredients, by default with less technology and in smaller quantities; the result is that a product is very different from a contemporary one, even if the brand still exists. There is also the time-machine effect: that this Cognac was made from pre-Phyloxera grapes that are not available anymore, that Hemingway drank this exact gin or rum, that Forbidden Fruit is no longer made, etc.
How would you describe the sensation of drinking a vintage spirit?
That’s going to vary from one person to another, but for me it’s very much about being in the moment. I am very alert and present and right there as I drink my Vesper made from period ingredients, while I think of Ian Fleming sitting in Duke’s bar during the afternoon toiling over the manuscript of Casino Royale. I am at peace. I forget about everything else. I enjoy the mouthfeel of the Kina Lillet, Vodka and Gin delicately blended together into a taste-tornado that spins me back in time.
How do you think these vintage spirits should be drunk? Are there certain bottles that are too special to be mixed into cocktails and should be drunk straight? Or do you think both ways are equally valid?
Yes, I think that almost any given vintage spirits could be enjoyed neat or in a cocktail; the issue really is do you have the right other ingredients and the skills to combine them into a great drink. In fact I think that all vintage spirits should first be tried neat so that they can be enjoyed for what they are and so that you know the taste of them well enough to balance them with the other ingredients in the vintage cocktail; recipes often require adjustment. Try Apricot Brandy, Dry Gin and Angostura Bitters neat to appreciate their individual character, but by all means combine them into a Barnum! Personally I would not use a Forge de Sazerac Cognac from the time of Napoleón in a vintage Sazerac, but I have a client who does.
Why do you think the vintage cocktail boom and interest in old and rare spirits has taken off over the last ten years?
Boozies, as I call them – the spirits version of foodies – simply took a little longer to develop a broad base and reach critical mass. Before the turn of the century the contingency was smaller, which was reflected in fewer ultrapremium releases and top hotel and independent cocktail bars. Consumer taste and expectation has developed exponentially over the past 15 years as the market has been spoiled with great product and myriad top cocktail bar openings. In the morass the pinnacle had to be redefined: something from the past, made differently of materials no longer available, in specific places, during specific times and above all, available in strictly limited quantities – something not everybody could have, or afford, or perhaps appreciate, something truly high-end – the market for vintage spirits and vintage cocktails was born. If drinking history was not the most exclusive and decadent option, then one would have to sell one’s soul to find something more over-the-top.
Do you think spirits evolve once they are bottled, and if so how?
Definitely, all classes and brands of spirits change in different ways. Generally speaking the higher the ABV the more preserved a spirit is in terms of how the manufacturer intended for it to taste (and assuming it has a good closure, the Angel’s share should not be too alarming); the lower the ABV the more dramatic the evolution can be. The freshness of a 45+% vintage gin can be quite breathtaking. The high proof has allowed the spirit to maintain itself, like a 90-year-old with good genes, good skin, good hair and good teeth who can still walk; the gin will be impeccably smooth, even neat at room temperature, although which distillates you taste and in which order will surely not be as the brand had planned, but unforgettable nonetheless.
Which single bottle of old and rare spirits have you been the most excited about getting hold of and why?
One that comes to mind, because it went back to a member of the family, is a bottle of 1800 vintage Madeira. This family was involved in the shipment and importation of Madeira into New York during the 18th and 19th centuries. This example was privately-bottled for a member of the family and it was accompanied by handwritten paperwork discussing the family business in Madeira, the vagaries of weather there and on the seas and importation of the wine into New York in barrel, where it was bottled and labelled for the family. Additionally this was an example of a bottle that had been collected by somebody early during the 20th century, which is very unusual; Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt III (1870-1953) had owned it and it had her cellar labels on it as well – very precious, very rare and now it is back safe with the family deep underground in New Orleans in a flood-proof cellar.
How long do vintage spirits keep for once you’ve opened the bottle?
They keep as long as a new spirit would keep for if properly resealed and stored. Some vintage gins and vodkas can go in the freezer and Vermouths into the fridge; a bottle of Pre-Prohibition Bourbon will last forever once opened if kept in a dark cupboard. Liqueurs and Amari also last well at room temperature if tightly resealed. Deliciousness is a factor, however, and they may not last that long.
How can you guarantee the authenticity and provenance when buying from a private collection?
Provenance I know because I visit the collections in situ before buying. Authenticity requires that each bottle be inspected individually (capsule, cap, label, glass, liquid, crate, etc) until I am satisfied that they have not been tampered with. High profile clients include the Connaught and the Savoy, so this must be absolutely spot on.
As a spirits buyer, what qualities do you look
for in a vintage product?
In the best cases, meaning in the spirits that I sample, deem very good and then stock and sell,
a vintage spirit was clearly well-made of good ingredients, has a high-enough ABV and was
stored well-enough to continue to display its good pedigree over long periods of time. If you
go back far enough, by default all ingredients were organic; this relative purity can make such
a big difference in vintage spirits because there are no impurities that negatively-alter the flavor profile.
Flavours can change dramatically from the way that a manufacturer intended for a spirits to taste, but this is not a bad thing, just plant distillates decaying at different rates and recombining into different unintended combinations or flavors. Bitterness leeching out of an inorganic ingredient could ruin a bottle of vintage spirit. Running parallel to this, more rough and ready distilling and assembling or spirits and no chill-filtration can positively add to the character of a spirit years down the road and actually perpetuate its subtle quality and longevity. People want something different that will make their taste buds say “Wow!” and transport them back to another time and place. I am guessing that, as with other antiques and collectable, condition (ie label and bottle), visual appeal (ie graphics) and rarity will have an effect on the value? Yes and no. A beautiful bottle with a beautiful label, a high liquid level and in great shape might be worth to one person what a relatively non-descript bottle with a plain label and a not perfect liquid level that contains historically-interesting and potentiallydelicious contents. There really is somebody for every bottle and vice versa, but generally-speaking the better the original appearance and the state of preservation, the higher the value of the bottle.