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All you need to know about vintage spirits

We speak to Edgar Harden, founder, and director of Old Spirits Company about vintage gin, whisky, and liqueurs.

It’s time to look in Grandpa’s liquor cabinet. Those bottles of pre-war gin might be worth a pretty penny – or will at least make one mean martini. While the world of exceptional wine and whisky is one where age and limited production command a premium, most white spirits and liqueurs may not be valued the same way but they are still worth your while.

These may start ordinary and, with time, become rare, exceptional products as their character changes. “For me, a noticeable change in spirits starts after about 30 years in the bottle. When I began selling vintage spirits 10 years ago, my cut-off point was the early 1980s. Now it’s the early ‘90s,” says Edgar Harden, founder, and director of the London-based Old Spirits Company.

Also, unlike a high-end, five-figure bottle of Scotch most of us would treasure for a special celebration, vintage spirits are consumed time and again – and mostly by those looking to taste a piece of history. After all, how often does one get to taste the rum Ernest Hemingway, for whom alcohol was an existential salve, drank? “I recently did a sales analysis and determined that about 90 percent of sales were intended for consumption,” says Harden.

(Related: Johnnie Walker first of Diageo’s brands to get 100 per cent plastic-free paper bottles come 2021)

The flavour difference

While spirits generally do not change soon after being bottled, several decades of sitting around can cause compounds to start breaking down and introduce oxygenation and evaporation, changing their
character. As a rule of thumb, the higher the alcohol by volume percentage (ABV) of a product,
the less dramatic the change.

“The freshness of a vintage gin above 45 ABV can be quite breathtaking,” says Harden, sharing his experience with a bottle of vintage Gordon’s, where its original Juniper-forward notes had taken a backseat to the citrus. On the other hand, something like Campari, at 25 ABV, would have undergone revelatory changes. “[The Campari] would have oxidised completely after 40 years, darkening in colour as its ingredients decayed and recombined, and creating a rich, nutty flavour.”

Even beyond the influence of age, multiple factors that can contribute to a product’s significant deviation from what consumers might find today. Recipes, equipment and even raw material such as grain or fruit could have been very different, resulting in a different-tasting spirit. While brands are usually reluctant to discuss this, the difference is perceptible.

(Related: The Prima & Ultima set collects 8 history-making, vintage whiskies)

“A 1950s Drambuie, an iconic golden Scotch whisky liqueur infused with a secret blend of honey, herbs and spices, tastes of heather honey and smoke from peatier malts while a 1950s Grand Marnier has a richer, more complex flavour than the current product because the dried orange skins came from a variety of different types of orange,” notes Harden.

As the vintage spirits industry is relatively young, there is little historical market data on how prices have changed over the years. Of course, as with anything with a significantly limited supply, prices can surge. “There was little organised activity in the vintage spirits sector [10 years ago]. With no frame of reference, we were led to make up our prices based on the age and quality of the spirits we sampled.”

An Exquisite Pour

An Exquisite pour This bottle of Premier Empire, Reserve de Sazerac de Forge & Fils fine Champagne cognac that was distilled circa 1804-14 was bought for £10,000, to be used in vintage sazerac cocktails.

With spirits from the 1970s making up most of the company stock, Harden used them as a reference point, pricing the lower ABV stuff such as vermouth, amari (Italian herbal liqueurs commonly consumed as an after-dinner digestif) and other liqueurs at “a slightly lower level” while valuing older and younger material around it. Special items – one-off and rare bottlings – of course, get special prices, independent of Harden’s age guidelines.

(Related: Royal gin from the home of Queen Elizabeth II)

If one wanted to make a basic vintage negroni, for instance, a bottle of Campari and London dry gin from the 1970s would currently cost roughly £200 (S$352) each, while a bottle of Martini Rosso from the same period costs about £160. For those looking to invest in this field, Harden suggests picking up vintage bottles of Japanese or Canadian blended whiskies, cognac and vodka, as well as later released bourbons and rums that are “already showing well even though they may not have the full 30 to 40 years of age that generally identifies a bottle as vintage”.

Taste of the times

  • Pre Prohibition

    Pre-prohibition American spirits

    These include bourbon, rye, and blended whisky that were distilled before the enforcement of America’s Prohibition Act (1920 to 1933). “Pre-prohibition anything is by far the most popular period. There is an inescapable mystique to it that people find too alluring to pass up,” notes Harden.

Age is not variable in the case of vintage spirits. Consumers also look out for bottles representative of lost eras, recipes, and cultural touchstones. Here are a few popular ones that have given people a chance to experience the past.

The price of age

Photo: Addie Chin

Edgar Harden, founder, and director of the London-based Old Spirits Company. Photo: Addie Chin

For vintage spirits, old is gold. As the vintage spirits industry is relatively young, there is little historical market data on how prices have changed over the years. Of course, as with anything with a significantly limited supply, prices can surge.

“There was little organised activity in the vintage spirits sector [10 years ago]. With no frame of reference, we were led to make up our prices based on the age and quality of the spirits we sampled.” With spirits from the 1970s making up most of the company stock, Harden used them as a reference point, pricing the lower ABV stuff such as vermouth, amari (Italian herbal liqueurs commonly consumed as an after-dinner digestif) and other liqueurs at “a slightly lower level” while valuing older and younger material around it.

  • Rum Vintage Spirits

    On the high seas

    Sold for £2,500, a flagon of British Navy Rum from a time when the spirit was still given out as a ration for sailors.

Special items – one-off and rare bottlings – of course, get special prices, independent of Harden’s age guidelines. If one wanted to make a basic vintage negroni, for instance, a bottle of Campari and London dry gin from the 1970s would currently cost roughly £200 (S$352) each, while a bottle of Martini Rosso from the same period costs about £160.

For those looking to invest in this field, Harden suggests picking up vintage bottles of Japanese or Canadian blended whiskies, cognac and vodka, as well as later released bourbons and rums that are “already showing well even though they may not have the full 30 to 40 years of age that generally identifies a bottle as vintage”.

Vintage Spirits

Atlas Bar offers a series of classic cocktails made using vintage spirits

Cocktail potential

With vintage spirits and liqueurs, it would be remiss not to try them in a cocktail that allows the product to shine. Some of the most forward bars in Singapore such as Atlas, Idlewild and The Other Room have menus inspired by the past and offer vintage cocktails. “I think it’s pretty cool to say you’re having the same martini that Winston Churchill did in the ‘40s or ‘50s,” says Jesse Vida, head bartender at Atlas.

The art deco-inspired bar holds the largest collection of gin in the world and offers guests the chance to order a martini made from a choice of gin from each decade, starting from 1910 and all the way till the ‘90s.

Looking out for fakes

Looking out for Fakes

As with anything on the secondary market, counterfeit and adulterated products pop up from time to time. Harden, whose training is in art history and has held jobs with museums, galleries, and auction houses, shares that “inspecting old objects in person for authenticity” has been his life’s work. For one, the manufacturer usually has several safeguards in place.

For instance, the kind of seal can tell you a little about the time your bottle dates back to. “The twist-off cap is a 19th-century invention and paper or early plastic seals were in place over the cap to create a secure closure. Prohibition-era whisky bottles usually had a metal cap with a small tab that one pulled to remove a metal ring, which acted as a kind of seal. Once removed, the cap could not be fixed in any way to recreate a sealed bottle from the period,” reveals Harden.

To minimise risk, he buys from private collections, visiting the seller to establish the provenance of the bottles, and checks that everything – the capsule, cap, label, glass, liquid, and crate – is in satisfactory condition.


How to spot a fake

Here are some basic guidelines to see if it’s the real stuff.

Check for obvious tampering

Ensure the seal isn’t broken, there are no spelling errors in the text and that the label is original. Pictures can usually be found online.

Check the level of the liquid

A spirit that’s meant to several decades old should have a lower fill line than a new one.

Ask the experts

Most counterfeits are very high-end Scotch and low-end spirits like vodka, which may be produced illicitly to avoid paying duty. Since the former can fetch hefty sums, it pays to have a professional look at anything before you purchase it. If your bottle is particularly old or rare, try contacting the distillery, which might even be interested in purchasing the bottle for their collection. Old Spirits Co. provides a moderately-priced service of bottle valuations, complete with a report on its company letterhead.