Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Guide to Vintage Spirits with Edgar Harden of Old Spirits Company

I met Edgar Harden of the London based Old Spirits Company at this years Manhattan Cocktail Classic.  He brought an impressive collection of vintage bottles to share - all in magnificent condition.  I oogled over the vintage bottles, the shapes of the bottles, the quality of the glass, and the handsome vintage labels for what seemed to be hours.  But then, he offered me a Vintage Negroni - made from 1960's vintage Beefeater gin, 1970's Martini Rossi sweet vermouth, and 1960's vintage Campari.  The vintage variation of the classic was all things that a modern Negroni promises to be; sweet, bitter, and strong - but there was something a little bit more subtle and mellow about this tipple - it was - transcendent


I wanted to know more about this vintage spirits world - a trend that has the potential to not only challenge what we drink at our favorite watering hole, but also says a lot about how spirits have changed over time, and how the industry can continue to improve.  I recently sat down with Edgar Harden to pick his brain on all things Vintage Spirits.

Mr Edgar Harden at MCC

Without further ado:

Gastronomista: How did you start collecting and selling vintage spirits?

Edgar Harden: It happened by chance.  I was advising a client on the sale of some old wine, and he had me do a cellar clear out; for him this meant, sell the '82 Mouton and just get rid of the cases of 60s Gordons.  So I did, right into my own cellar.  I was pleasantly surprised by how smooth and citrussy it was.  As a patron of bars it was easy to sell them the remaining bottles, and the rest as they say is history.  Now I don;t do nearly as much work with old wine as I do with vintage spirits.

G: Where do you acquire said vintage spirits?

EH: I buy private collections.

G: What makes modern spirits different from their ancestors?

EH:  Chilled-filtration and the fact that modern spirits are made in much larger quantities than their ancestors were.  In many instances, the recipe is different for the modern version of a product of which we have vintage bottles.  The difference in taste is marked.  Southern Comfort is an case in point; the old version had Irish whiskey and no artificial colouring.

G:  What is the difference between a vintage spirit (aged in the bottle) and a vintage (aged in the barrel) ?  Can one taste the aging process in the bottle?  Or are we mostly tasting the difference in production over the years?

EH:  Vintage spirits are seldom dominated by wood flavors the way vintage spirits can be because of the time since they were in contact with the wood.  The wood is often superbly integrated in vintage spirits, such as Booth's gin or Prohibition and earlier Bourbons and Ryes.  You can definitely taste that a vintage spirit has aged in the bottle, and the taste of almost always pleasing, which is I assume why they have caught on.  As mentioned in question [prior], some of what you are tasting is the difference in recipe or production, but the old receipts and methods of production were almost always better.

G:  Why drink vintage spirits?

EH:  ...Bottle-aging is real and the taste of a transformed vintage spirit is almost always magnificent; alcohol levels drop slightly, distillate and plant flavors mellow and color because more seductive.  Often also the vintage bottles and labels are much more attractive than current versions, although some boutique products, like Dodd's gin, have gorgeous packaging.

G:  Who are your buyers?  Collectors?  Bartenders?

EH:  Private individuals both for drinking and to hold bottles as collectors; bartenders for themselves; bars, restaurants, clubs, members clubs; the brands buying back old product, which is I think a pretty big statement.

G:  Best cocktail to make with vintage spirits?

EH:  The simpler and purer the better so that the individual taste of the base spirit shines through with as little distraction as possible.  Vintage spirits do not take well to over-use of citrus; one must treat them gently and with patience, as one would a person who has been asleep and not conversed for 30, 50, 70 years or more.  All of this said Martini, Negroni, Manhattan.  There is certainly room to use vintage spirits in imaginative ways, but they must first be reevaluated, almost like a new ingredient and their application altered slightly.  White Vermouth is a perfect example; if you normally use it 6-1 in a dry Martini then you would want to use an oxidized vintage one maybe 12-1.  In a way it is to be likened more to Sherry and used in a new way and not as Vermouth.

G:  We've seen vintage chartreuse at pouring ribbons here in NYC, where else are you seeing this trend take off?  What cities/and or bars are your favorites?  Favorite cocktail served?

EH:  Vintage Cocktails are being made mostly in London (Experimental Cocktail Club, Lanesborough, Night Jar, Ritz, Savoy to name just a few).  The trend is catching on more slowly in the US, but bars like ECC, Pouring Ribbons in NYC, and Canon in Seattle are taking the lead.  I'm told that vintage spirits are served neat as drams as often as they are used in drinks, which is a testament their deliciousness.

G:  White whale bottle (ie the one you keep looking for, and have never acquired?)
EH:  Kina Lillet for the Vesper!

G:  I assume you have a great collection for yourself - what is in your personal vintage spirit bar?

EH:  1200 bottles and counting.  My personal vintage spirit bar is totally random.  It is generally quite large, but consists of a completely bizarre selection based on what I bought a lot of and could afford to sacrifice one bottle of or if one bottle in a group didn't have a great level or was missing its labels and couldn't be sold.

G:  Favorite bottle / year ?

EH:  Old Campari, the older the better, like 30s or 40s, please.

If you have further interest in vintage spirits - join the Old Spirits Company mailing list - for your daily dose of gorgeous vintage finds.

Many thanks to Mr. Harden - now off to find some vintage potations! 


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