31 January, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Old Liquor

I have a fairly well-stocked liquor cabinet. It's a consequence of having a curiosity about new flavors combined with a taste for alcohol and generous friends who bring occasional unusual gift bottles.

Yet another reason, however, is my taste for estate sales.

Most of the time, when the contents of an estate are offered for sale to the public, the liquor is excluded. It gets disposed of before the sale (many hired estate sale organizers just pour it down the sink and put the bottles in the recycling bin.) But sometimes, I'll find bottles stashed in a pantry or off in a corner of the cellar, and make an offer on them. I've gotten some good deals on some great booze that way - and it sometimes surprises me just how old some of it has been.

Take this bottle of Creme de Menthe, for example. I have no idea how old it actually is, but the ornate label is lithographed in an early 20th-century style. The only thing I know for sure is that it is from Cuba, pre-RevoluciĆ³n - the label says "The New York Store, Prado 406, Havana Cuba."

When I bought it, the original cork had broken off, leaving a small cork plug in the neck. I removed it and replaced it with that tighter, but wonky-looking, cork you see in the photo.

Despite its age and the poor condition of the cork, the creme de menthe inside aged well - rich-tasting and silky smooth, and such a dark shade of green that it almost looks black. I'm not a big fan of creme de menthe, but we've used it for making candy, and it always turns out great. It's an obviously high-quality product and I'm glad I found it.

Another great old find was this bottle of Frigolet Liqueur. Bottled in France at the Abbey of St. Michel de Frigolet, where it is distilled by the monks, it was imported once upon a time in the early 1960's by The Great Lakes Wine Company of Chicago. This is perhaps one of the most delicious liqueurs I have ever tasted. It was first made at the abbey in 1865 by Father Gaucher and is still made using the same recipe today: an infusion of thirty herbs, aged in oak and then flavored with sugar and honey. The result is a subtly sweet pale green liqueur with an herbal bouquet favoring thyme.

Unfortunately, Frigolet Liqueur doesn't appear in Great Lakes Wine Company's current online catalog, and an internet search brings up several French links (including a few pages in English for tourists planning to visit the abbey) but nothing about North American sales. Too bad - I'm really going to miss this one when it's gone.

Here's one I haven't even gotten around to opening yet: An extremely old bottle of Irish Mist, still sealed, with it's revenue tax band still intact across the cork, and a District Of Columbia 1/5 Gallon tax stamp on the body of the bottle (visible in the picture to the right of the label, just below the shoulder of the bottle.) I wish that there was some kind of guide to dating bottles by the tax stamps on the neck, because I have a number of other bottles for which I'd love to discover an approximate date.

I'm not in any hurry to crack this one yet so I can't tell you whether time has been kind to the contents. As you probably know, liquorous spirits don't continue to age once they have been bottled (unlike wine.) They can only remain stable or oxidize and go to hell. One time, I bought a box lot of various old whiskeys and found to my delight a bottle of Chivas Regal 21-year-old Royal Salute Scotch in the sapphire Wade decanter - a $200 Scotch Whisky. Awesome, right? Unfortunately, no. The bottle had been improperly stored for more than a decade, and it had gone thoroughly to rot; the precious old Scotch tasted like tobacco, mildew, and formaldehyde. It was quite a disappointment.

But there have been delightful surprises as well: A bottle of pre-war Gilbey's Gin that was so mellow and drinkable that friends and I killed the bottle by drinking it straight, like a sipping whiskey; or the bottle of Scotch which I was able to document as having been bottled in 1934 and still sealed, which I later sold to a collector because he made me an offer too rich for me to refuse. The good experiences have far outweighed the bad, and I still keep a sharp eye out for old liquor when I go to estate sales.


dale said...

[quote]generous friends who bring occasional unusual gift bottles.[/quote]
You mean things like a bottle of Yellow Jacket Cider:-}}

Fine Estate Sales said...

In California by law, we can't sell alcohol, so we have to dispose of the booze, to the loss of the greater community of imbibers such as yourself.

Oh well, at least you have found some great scores and have been spirited enough to write about your finds.

Thanks for the post...


Battle Park said...

I'd be wary of that Irish Mist. it's probably separated and beyond repair.

If you every happen to stumble upon an old Heublein cordial called "Hobo's Wife," I would love, love, love to try it.

I'm guessing it's in the Brass Monkey family - which is to say, it's horrible - but I have my reasons...

Dave said...

Fine Estate Sales: Perhaps the laws in Connecticut are different in that respect?

Steve: Are you sure you're not thinking of Bailey's Irish Cream? Irish Mist is Irish whisky infused with herbs and sweetened with honey.

I'll keep an eye open for Hobo's Wife. There's no way I would fail to buy that if ever I saw it.

Studio man said...

thanks for the great blog, always a treat to read about your finds, I came across this and wanted to share it, seemed like a bottle you would like.. http://www.ebay.com/itm/271012287735?ssPageName=STRK:MESELX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1558.l2649 Thanks again mate Cheers

Unknown said...

I have a bottle of Heublein's Hobo's Wife. I want to know the value of this bottle