There is an undeniable allure attached to objects from the past. Antiques and collectibles take us back in time, whether a younger us was there to experience them at their conception, or our imaginations are called upon to fill in what we do not know and write the story over again. Like the transportive power of a good book or movie depicting a world that no longer exists, for many, a bottle of booze may hold a similar power.
The spirits world is seeing a turn in what is considered valuable. The connoisseur of fine spirits has risen out of the consumer who has been told that fine Cognacs and Armagnacs as well as limited edition, vintage, single barrels, cask strength and rare blends of Whiskies (all of which are either very expensive to make or made only in very small amounts) are the most valuable spirits to own and consume. We are now seeing an emergence of a new breed of cocktail connoisseurs who appreciate each individual spirit that coincides in the glass for its own inherent value.
While auction houses like Christie's are probably still stocked with 50 year old Macallan and Dalmore 64, there is another market for collectible spirits embraced by bartenders, enthusiasts, and the educated consumer, where bottles of Tequilas, vermouths, liqueurs and many other categories are selling on eBay for a pretty penny. The cocktail connoisseur understands the history behind these spirits and takes interest in their evolution over a period of time. An original bottling of John D Taylor's Velvet Falernum, which to many holds the nostalgic value of the birth of Tiki and also gains value as more and more people turn their attention to it, as early as 5-10 years ago may have just collected dust in a bodega before being tossed in the trash.
With the cocktail resurgence comes excitement for craft distillates that were more skillfully made before larger companies got their hands on them, like Campari for example before it was artificially colored. Once a spirit is purchased by one of the juggernauts, production methods often change to accommodate increased demand dictated by new marketing, which in turn places a higher value on older marks and defines them as being more artisanal. We saw this happen with Herradurra once it was bought by Brown-Forman. What many remember to be a classic, distinctive and well crafted Tequila morphed into something that just doesn't taste the same, and to the chagrin of many bartenders and Tequila lovers, is now drifting into the world of Tequila indifference where Cuervo, Sauza and Patron have been living for a very long time.
Speaking of which, a friend of a friend recently found a bottle of ancient Original Jose Cuervo in his wife's grandparents liquor cabinet when it was still made by Siete Leguas. So old in fact that the bottle's label defines Tequila by saying "A distillate from the Mezcal Plant, a variety of the Maguey" as perhaps the general American populace was still coming to understand exactly what Tequila was. Fascinating. Because Tequila is a relatively new category, many keep their eyes peeled for all kinds of pre-conglomerate bottles, like Cazadores before Bacardi and El Tesoro before Beam Global.
Understanding spirits chronologically stimulates nostalgia and entices enthusiasts to revisit old bottles they have only heard about. In some cases, a bottle is only worth as much as it is to someone personally, but in many other cases collections are starting to be built that may one day take the place of venerable Cognacs and Whiskies at auction houses like Sotheby's. This movement is bolstered by the opening of craft liquor stores and limited edition blends being created for bars.
Not only is the spirit collecting world embracing more obscure bottles like Cynar, Chartreuse and Strega for their historical value, but as production comes to an end for many brands, the last bottling, if preserved, will only increase in value over time. The Pimm's Collection is a good example, which once produced fruit cup variations 1-6, all with a different spirit base. The company hit a rough patch in the 1970s and all but No. 1 has been discontinued, while No. 3 transformed into Pimm's Winter Cup and No. 6 is only produced in very small quantities.
Categories like Tequila and rum which rarely got serious consideration not too long ago--having been dominated by multinational brands of inferior quality--are now moving to the forefront. Newer brands like Ocho, a Tequila released in vintages, is already gaining significant value as bottlings from 2007 and 2008 are being sniffed out and hunted down like some kind of illicit contraband (not unlike the Pappy Van Winkle's that released a few weeks ago). Mezcal as an emerging category is also of great interest to collectors. Del Maguey, for example, has produced single village/single vintage Mezcal since its inception, and the earlier generation bottles are highly coveted. While the money-palettes will turn to thousand-dollar bottles of French oaked Tequila in hand blown crystal (which tastes more like brandy than agave), those who 'get it' will gravitate toward the authenticity and age-ability of products like Ocho and Del Maguey.
Interestingly, for rum--what's old is new. The most coveted bottles for spirit collectors (aside from pre-prohibition Cuban) tend to be old Rhum Agricole; and appropriately, the most interesting contemporary rums tend to be the same. Rhum J.M. has some ridiculously divine vintage released bottlings going back to the '90s, which are more approachable than Rhum Agricole from the '30s. And who can forget the madness over those last few cases of the original Lemonhart 151. It was as if the very fate of humankind was in jeopardy, as opposed to a $20 bottle of rum with a nondescript label that you couldn't give away before the recent Tiki resurgence.
There's no better time than the present to hold on to what will soon become the past; my new bottle of Campo de Encanto Distiller's Reserve Single Vineyard Quebranta won't be opened any time soon, if ever.
And what came from the past will never again be made like the present, so on your next trip to visit the grandparents you might find a gem in their liquor cabinet. Or next time you're kicking back in your favorite dive, take a look at their back bar. You may be surprised at what's collecting dust.