There’s a certain smugness one feels when somebody asks, ‘Oh wow, where did you get your coat?’ and you answer with those two fateful words: ‘It’s vintage.’ Nothing quite beats owning something from the past: the unknown stories it could tell, the connection to its history and the sense that you – and maybe only you – have given it a new lease of life. The same can be said of vintage spirits.
One bartender is so enamoured with vintage spirits, he’s been using them to set records. Back in 2015, Salvatore Calabrese (cocktail legend and avid spirits collector) created the world’s oldest Martini using Park & Tilford New York gin and orange bitters from about 1900, and Noilly Prat vermouth from around 1890. Back to the present day, and you can order Salvatore’s Legacy from Calabrese’s vintage cocktail menu at the Donovan Bar in London, a drink with ingredients that combined are over 700 years old – and that will set you back £5,500 a glass, making it the world’s most expensive cocktail.
Drinking ‘old’ spirits isn’t something completely new, though. Whisky, and most notably Scotch, is a liquid where age has often equalled rarity, value and, of course, cost. Using old whisky in cocktails is also nothing new: take the Presidential Gift at Washington’s Silver Lyan which incorporates a ‘very old’ Aberfeldy single cask. ‘There is a rule that a sitting president can retain a gift if it is $375 or less,’ says the bar’s owner Ryan Chetiyawardana, ‘so we wanted to create something [at that price point] that was luxurious, and fitting of a president.’ Since the bar opened in 2020, the cocktail has become something of an icon with guests keen to get their hands – or mouths – on this old and rare whisky.
When it comes to liquids like gin and bitters, the vintage aspect is perhaps more of an emerging trend. At the start of 2022, the Connaught Bar (recently holding onto its title as the World’s Best Bar) announced a limited-edition cocktail menu using some lovely old liquids. ‘After many years making lots of The Connaught Martini we thought, “why not show our guests where our Martini comes from?”,’ says Giorgio Bargiani, the bar’s head mixologist. Director of mixology, Ago Perrone, fired up his suppliers and got his hands on some Gordon’s gin, Martini Rosso and Extra Dry from the 1970s, and now the team is serving vintage Martinis, Negronis and White Ladies for around £80 at a time.
They aren’t the only ones serving up liquid history. Chicago’s Billy Sunday has a Vintage Toronto drink on its menu, while back in London at The Gibson, Marian Beke has been serving cocktails made from aged spirits for around five years, using bottles ranging from 60 to 100 years old.
‘You get to taste time’
‘I was very fortunate to develop an interest in the early days that was nurtured by people like Sukhinder Singh, or my old landlord Edgar Harden of the Old Spirits Company,’ Chetiyawardana tells me. ‘I was able to taste everything, from very old Tarragona [Chartreuse] to 18th-century absinthe and 19th-century Scotch.’ At every bar opening, he cracks open something special for his team, like an 1865 Cognac or a 1910 amontillado sherry.
For Chetiyawardana, one of the attractive things about using these spirits is the change in flavour profile. Even some big, well-known brands will have had different recipes when they were first created.
‘They use different herbs, spices, varieties, barrels or even sugar to what exists nowadays. Tasting old vermouth and liqueurs brings this acutely to life, but the oiliness and weight to aged spirits is also very distinct. Then there’s the fact that these bottles have evolved over time, so not only are you trying something that doesn’t exist anymore, it’s also distinct due to the time aspect inherent to it – and you get to taste this time.’
That’s not to say that old always means better, though. ‘The gins are a little disappointing,’ Beke tells me. ‘They’re more like a vodka with a hint of juniper. But the Campari and vermouths are amazing.’ For Bargiani, there are other peculiarities he’s found along the way, like the fact that the ABV of vintage Gordon’s is higher than the 40% it is now; vermouths were bottled at 750ml; and Cointreau came in 350ml bottles.
There is perhaps a stronger and more emotional allure to drinking spirits from the past – something that will never be made the same way again – and recreating cocktails with them to taste how they would have done in the 1900s.
‘There’s a romance to tasting something made by a different generation, or in a very different time,’ says Chetiyawardana. ‘Some of these are distinct to a spirit, like Cognac distilled by female distillers during the war, or Chartreuse [made by the Carthusian monks] from exile in Tarragona, but some also just talk to a time and place that is specific to the bottle.’
‘You’re buying history,’ explains Beke, something he believes is what ultimately attracts his guests to these cocktails time and time again.
Five ‘vintage’ cocktails to try
- White Lady at The Connaught Bar, London, £78
All the liquids from the bar’s vintage menu come from the 1970s, and this White Lady uses Gordon’s gin and Cointreau.
- President’s Gift at Silver Lyan, Washington DC, $375
Described as ‘rich and long’, single cask ‘very old’ Aberfeldy is mixed with honey from the Congressional Cemetery hives, ‘applejacked bitters’ and ‘gold cherry’.
- Poet’s Dream at The Gibson, London, £75
Adapted from a 1930s English bar guide, the Poet’s Dream uses 1960s Horseguard gin, 1950s Martini Vermouth, 1950s D.O.M. Benedictine and 1940s Ph.Van Perlstein bitters.
- Vintage Toronto at Billy Sunday, Chicago, $28
This Canadian whisky-based classic combines Lot 40 Canadian Rye Whiskey and gomme syrup with 1960s Fernet Pedroni and 1940s Abbott’s Bitters.
- Aviation at Donovan’s Bar, London, £300
Gordon’s Gin, crème de violette and Zara maraschino all from around the 1930s give a blue-hued, air-travel-inspired cocktail that was first invented in 1916 the vintage treatment it deserves.