Monday, January 8, 2018

My Vintage Spirits Wish List

There is something new to do when you visit Kentucky, drink vintage spirits. Kentucky's Vintage Spirits Law is just a few days old, but I've been working on my personal wish list. These are all whiskeys I have had at some point and would like to have again.

Where I have indicated a label, that wording identifies the distillery where the whiskey I tasted was made, to distinguish it from other versions of that brand made at other distilleries.

"What is vintage?" is still a wide-open question, until the Kentucky Alcoholic Beverage Control Department issues some regulations. All they have released so far is the following, elaborating on the new law's notice provision.

"Effective January 1, 2018, a retail licensee selling vintage distilled spirits purchased from a non-licensed person must give the Department prior written notice of the proposed retail drink or package sale, which includes the following information:  (1) name and address of seller; (2) the quantity and name of the alcohol product being sold; (3) the date of the sale; and (4) name and license number of retail licensee."

I will here express again my hope that Kentucky will be truly conservative and regulate this trade as little as possible. So far so good. Let's hope they continue to let the market work its magic so millions of bottles now gathering dust in attics and basements can soon be liberated, freed to fulfill their noble destiny, all nice and legal like.

Back to my list. I believe these qualify as 'vintage.'

Antique Bourbon, Athertonville label
Henry McKenna Bourbon, Fairfield label
Very Very Old Fitzgerald 12-year-old
Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond, DSP-16
A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon
Old Grand-Dad, Frankfort label
Parker's Heritage #6, a Blend of Mashbills
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, 1994

Before anyone contacts me with offers to sell any of the whiskeys on my list, don't bother. Transactions between non-licensed people are still illegal everywhere. If, however, you are a licensed Kentucky retailer engaged in vintage spirits reselling, and you have any of the above to sell, let me know.

Although the word 'vintage' suggests age, there is nothing in the new law that requires the bottle to be old. Mainly, the product cannot now be available in Kentucky through normal channels.

My main interest is American straight whiskey, but Kentucky's new law encompasses all distilled spirits, so scotch, cognac, rum, Chartreuse; it's all in the game.

So much remains to be seen. This isn't just bars, remember, selling by the drink. Package stores may buy and resell whole bottles. Not every retailer will participate. Many will wait until the rules are clearer, but some will jump right in. Most of the risk is on them.

If you have some vintage spirits you might want to sell, is now the best time to liquidate your collection? Maybe, but probably not. If the whole thing goes bust (a possibility), now might be your only chance. Otherwise, it probably makes sense to at least put a toe in the water, if only to find out who is buying and how much they might be willing to pay. Pick a few bottles you can part with easily. Keep your gems in reserve.

If you do, please remember that the buyers are businesspeople. They expect to make a profit, so they will price the bottle they bought from you at price higher than what they paid you, possibly a lot higher. That's how it works. I regret that it is necessary to explain this but from experience I know it is.

I can't emphasize enough what a big deal this is, potentially. It could be huge. It might even be the first wave in the ultimate legalization of the entire secondary market.


Rob K said...

You might want to have people contact you directly and arrange to meet at a retailer in KY that's willing to buy. The retailer could buy from the seller, then immediately resell to you, all nice and legal.

Donna said...

From your wish list, I only have the Old Granddad -- but it is Louisville/Wathen from 1934.

Anonymous said...


Your blog post on “vintage” spirits reminds me of a question I have had for some time, especially since I read the recent Tom Acitelli book, Whiskey Business. Acitelli argues that most bourbons available in the 1950s were bad. Then Makers Mark revolutionized the business with a much better product. Your Bourbon Straight book implies the same thing, calling bourbons of the era “rough and ready”.

Were most bourbons of the 1950s and 1960s inferior products? If so, why? Did Pappy Van Winkle and contemporaries not know how to make good whiskey? Or was it just the image of bourbon at that time as an ordinary drink, not an enthusiast’s tipple? Are modern collectors parting with large sums (illicitly, perhaps) to acquire inferior whiskey from decades ago?

Here’s my hypothesis, based on no actual facts. (We live in a post-fact world, after all.) Most bourbon of the 1950s (pre Makers) was perfectly good stuff. Some was even premium, extra aged product. And some was wheated. Then Makers came along, and the “bad bourbon” story arose as a part of the Makers foundation myth. Sure, the 1950s Makers was a bit different from many bourbons of that day, perhaps a bit milder. But bourbons today are also different from each other (e.g. Buffalo Trace vs. Wild Turkey). As always, what is best is what you like best.

Chuck, what do you think? Has bourbon quality changed significantly since the 1950s? Is the Makers story one of quality improvement or one of clever marketing? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Tom Troland
Lexington KY

Chuck Cowdery said...

Your analysis is on the money, Tom. In the 50s especially, because (like now) demand was outpacing supply, there were producers putting out product that wasn't so great. The 60s shakeout weeded a lot of them out. But there was plenty of good bourbon available too. Wild Turkey, for example, was always a premium brand. So was Old Grand-Dad. Maker's was original because it touted its premium price as evidence of its premium quality. It also took about 30 years for the brand to catch on and the Samuels family damn near went broke waiting for it to happen.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your prompt reply! So, some folks today could be shelling out serious cash for a bad bottle of bourbon from decades ago. But it won't be me since I only buy off the shelf. Still, if a collector is pleased with his expensive bottle of Old Jock Strap (a private label sold years ago by Cork 'n Bottle, Covington KY, I was once told), then who am I to object?

One more question, if I may. How do you make bad bourbon? Is it just short aging, like most of the "craft" distillers of today? Or are there corners you can cut with the mashbill or distillation?


Chuck Cowdery said...

There is no limit to the number of things that can go wrong, from grain acquisition to bottling. Excessive youth isn't a flaw per se. If actual flaws make it into the bottle, that's usually a failure of quality control. In the famous case cited by Maker's Mark, mash was burned and should have been discarded but was used anyway, producing some really bad liquid.

Anonymous said...


Again, thanks! Yes, I agree that short aging is not really a flaw; it just produces a different style that many folks dislike. I infer from your words that bad bourbon (i.e. bourbon with significant quality control issues) was rather rare in the 1950s. Back then, as you said, there was plenty of good bourbon available. According to Acitelli's Whiskey Business book, Marge Samuels held a dim view of bourbon available in those days. "That shit will blow your ears off!", she reportedly said. Sounds like someone was trying to promote a new brand. Or else her ears were very loosely attached to her head. Tom

mozilla said...

Chuck, what is it about the Athertonville juice that has your interest?

Chuck Cowdery said...

What I have had of the Athertonville Antique had a wintergreen note that I rather liked.

mozilla said...

I have always liked that Athertonville juice. Wasn't it a part of Seagrams at that time?
I think I will go dig out a bottle and remind myself. Next time you are in Austin...give me a shout and we'll enjoy some Antique.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Yes, Antique was a Seagrams brand.

Anonymous said...

Chuck Cowdery wrote: "Transactions between non-licensed people are still illegal everywhere." - I am not questioning the truth of this. But this means that all those stories about people buying Pappy and flipping it for thousands... are either empty lore or there's far fewer of these stories.

I am fully aware that illegality of something does not prevent it from occurring. I could see someone doing this. But for a person with a daytime job and good life it seems like a huge risk, even for a few grand. I certainly wouldn't trust some dude at the liquor store going "psst, wanna sell yer bottle of Pappy?".

Are there legitimate avenues for a collector to auction off some of his bottles in the US? Can friends/neighbors trade bottles from their collections?