Drinking antique booze has become a thing of late. Much of the allure lies in the idea that it can provide a clear snapshot into the past.
In 2010, salvage divers from Sweden found 230-year-old intact Champagne bottles in a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Of course, they popped a bottle and found it to be ”very sweet Champagne with notes of tobacco and oak.” South Pole explorer Ernest Shackleton left behind three crates of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt whisky under the floorboards of his expedition’s Antarctic camp. Over 100 years later, master blender Richard Paterson gave it a thorough chemical analysis and good old-fashioned sip. Now, thanks to Whyte and Mackay, for $175 you can sample a recreation of the Mackinlay’s Rare Old. They suggest you take a taste, close your eyelids, and imagine Arctic landscapes with roaming penguins.
Distilleries aren’t the only ones getting into the act, bars are also catching the bug. Salvatore Calabrese, co-owner of the bar at the Playboy Club London, made headlines in 2012 when a customer accidentally dropped a $77,000 bottle of cognac. In New York’s East Village there’s a bar called Pouring Ribbons, it flaunts an entire page of vintage Chartreuse bottles on its menu. A simple tipple can set you back as much as $125.
So whether you’re uncovering an ancient Swedish Brännvin tucked in the corner of your grandfather’s liquor cabinet, or purchasing a 1952 Petrus Pomerol at some high-end auction, there are a few things to keep in mind before you tip one back:
- They all oxidize at least a little, which alters the original flavors.
- Make sure the bottle is sealed. At best, some alcohol will have evaporated. At worst, there’ll be bacterial contamination or mold.
- Gin, vodka and tequila last if sealed well. Any top notes will most likely soften. A bad gin will be cloudy or have an iodine-like odor.
- Brown spirits were created to age, but won’t age much in a bottle. Some non-chill filtered whiskeys will cloud with time, which is fine.
- Some wines like Port and Sherry, continue to mature in the bottle. A good rule of thumb is not to decant anything over 20 years old.
- Absinthe and other herbaceous liquors have infusions, which may not endure with time. Be sure that these have remained sealed.
- As a rule, avoid cream liquors. They can spoil after only a few of years.
In the end, not every antique wine or spirit is expected to last. Some of the most expensive old wines turn out to be just millionaire’s vinegar. As for us, we’ll stick with a 10-year-old bourbon poured over one of our handcrafted whiskey stones. We’ll leave the decoding of ancient history to archaeologists.