I am a considerably more educated man today than I was a month ago, when I started doing research for this article. Since that time, I've sampled a 1950s Chartreuse, a few blended Scotches from the 1960s, a few gins from the 1940s and '50s, a Cognac from the '60s, a Creme de Menthe from the 1940s, Bourbons from the '60s, '70s and '80s and even an aged vermouth.
Conclusion of all this learning: the old saw that spirits don't change once bottled is nonsense. They grow softer, more rounded, more integrated. Even more untrue is the notion—put forth by nearly every liquor company on earth—that they have made the same product year in and year out. The assertion is not only improbable, but impossible. Improbable, because recipes alter with changing times and changing tastes, not to mention adjusted quality standards. Impossible because no company has consistent access to the exact same grains and botanicals.
We live in a time of great, across-the-board quality in spirits. Still, based on what I sipped, it does seem that some things were done better in the past. The creme de menthe did not taste chemical, as its counterparts of today do. It was fresh and clean. It tasted like something, well, you'd want to drink. I like Gordon's Gin. It's a fine workhorse London Dry gin. But the specimen from the '50s I had was fuller and much more interesting. And the '60s Hennessy I savored had a restraint and dignity that one no longer finds in the sugar-bomb, major-label Cognacs of today. I wish I could drink more of this stuff. But, at $150 a drink, it's a pricey habit.
Here's my article from the New York Times:
Some Bars Offer a Taste of Papa’s Gin
By ROBERT SIMONSON
AH, 1950: a very good year for Gordon’s gin.
What’s that? Gordon’s gin is Gordon’s gin, you say, whether from 1950 or 2012. Spirits aren’t like wines, which vary from vintage to vintage and evolve over time. Distilled liquor is made from the same formula year after year, and once put in the bottle, it’s done — preserved in amber.
That, at any rate, has been the conventional wisdom. And until recently, it didn’t matter much if it was true or not, because few people wanted to hunt down a 1950s bottle of Gordon’s and find out. Today, many do. Mixologists, and the liquor enthusiasts they enable, are curious how the spirits they love were made in the past, and whether they differ from those on shelves now. They would also like to know how those differences express themselves in classic cocktails.
To slake their interest, such questing souls have had to resort to eBay or raid their great-uncle’s liquor cabinet. But now there are a few select bars in New York and London where they can order up old elixirs, by the dram and in cocktails.
At Pouring Ribbons, in the East Village, it is possible to taste a 1950sChartreuse and compare it with the current version. Vintry Wine & Whiskey, in the financial district, can help customers understand what attracted Depression-era drinkers to Grant’s blended Scotch. At theExperimental Cocktail Club, on the Lower East Side, you can have that 1950s Gordon’s gin mixed into a martini and get a notion of how it might have tasted to Ernest Hemingway, a devoted Gordon’s man.
And at Salvatore at Playboy, in the Playboy Club London, the owner, Salvatore Calabrese, uses his own collection of antique liquors to make old-fashioneds with pre-Prohibition American whiskey and 1915 Angostura bitters.
“People from around the world come to my bar to taste history,” he said. “You can see history, read about it, touch it, so why not taste it?”
So, are they, in fact, tasting history? Does liquor (the juice or its formulas) change over time, or is it the same as it ever was?
The standard line at most spirits companies is that they have made an immutable product throughout the decades, if not centuries. (One even turned it into a slogan: “Dewar’s never varies.”)
Certainly, an effort to be consistent may be there. But the quality of grains used varies over time, as does the access that Scotch blenders have to particular single malts. If botanicals are in play, they may not be identical from season to season. Other changes are more deliberate. Certain liquors, it has widely been acknowledged, have altered their recipes in response to shifting consumer tastes. Perhaps most significant, alcohol levels fluctuate.
All this makes attempts to create cocktails using old recipes and new liquors a crapshoot at best. When Nicolas de Soto, the head bartender at the Experimental Cocktail Club, sees bartenders pore over the 1930 “Savoy Cocktail Book” as if it were the Bible, he shakes his head. “The ingredients aren’t the same anymore,” he said. “You can’t use the same recipe.”
The vintage stinger made at the club, however, may come closer to the target. It combines a 1960s-era Hennessy Cognac and a crème de menthe from the 1940s. Both are noticeably less sweet that their contemporary counterparts. The resulting drink is restrained and elegant. As for the Gordon’s gin, the club’s 1950s specimen is rounder and maltier than the product sold today. (Though only vintage cocktails are listed on the menu, individual spirits can be ordered on their own.)
All the same, making cocktails with older ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean getting exactly what your forebears drank. There’s the matter of what happens when that old spirit sits in a bottle for a generation or two.
“If there’s a primary thread to these old spirits and cocktails,” said Jacob Briars, director of trade advocacy for Bacardi, who has sampled his share of aged libations, “it’s that each of them has become more round. There is a softness. The sharp, bright notes have faded over time, and instead you have this wonderful integration of all the flavors.”
Troy Sidle, the partner at Pouring Ribbons who oversees the Chartreuse collection, has grown philosophical about the differing flavor profiles he finds in various bottles of the classic liqueur. “Chartreuse is always the same,” he said. “What changes is the expression of it. Chartreuse is really the collection of 130 herbs and spices, not so much the product sold that is the combination of all those flavors.”
These bars acquire their bottles, for the most part, through private collectors. The Experimental Cocktail Club drew its stock from two or three collections. Vintry’s whiskered whiskeys come from Harry Poulakakos, who used to own Harry’s at Hanover Square and began buying old whiskeys and brandies in the 1960s. “Once in a while Harry invites me to his cellar and says, ‘Maybe you see something else you like,’ ” said Ivan Mitankin, a partner at Vintry.
The private collector Pouring Ribbons tapped was Mr. Sidle himself, who has an abiding interest in Chartreuse. He came upon a few of his acquisitions in curious ways. He spotted bottles of 1980s yellow and green Chartreuse in a liquor store on Avenue C, where they had been gathering dust. “They clearly didn’t know what they had,” Mr. Sidle said.
These liquid history lessons cost. The most expensive Chartreuse at Pouring Ribbons, from the 1940s, is $125 an ounce. The vintage cocktails at the Experimental Cocktail Club run from $150 to $200. Most of Mr. Calabrese’s vintage cocktails go for a few hundred pounds.
“The demand is not super high,” Mr. de Soto said. “There are people who are very interested in spirits and want to try it. And then there are people who see it’s expensive and say, ‘I’ll take it.’ ”
But to him, sales are not the whole point. “It’s more like an experience,” he said. “If you can give something different to people, it makes me happy.”