Vintage & Older Liquors vs. today's versions
So I have this odd habit of buying old liquor from people. Strangely, I get a lot of it at garage sales and through my mother's network of older friends and I have been noticing some interesting stuff - even basic stuff is really pretty exceptional by today's standards. I have been trying to figure out why.
Right now, I am drinking a 1960's bottle of DeVille VSOP Brandy - not a great brandy by any standards. I think a new bottle retails for about $10 and it doesn't taste like much. This 1960's version has a light spice, a smooth middle and then a lightly alcoholic, lightly spicy finish. It has flavors I would expect from an XO.
I have had Dewars from the 1950's, Jack Daniels from the 50's and 60's and an assortment of Canadian Ryes from the 1960's. Even Black Velvet & V.O. have had much more complexity than their modern counterparts. I am trying to figure out why.
The best theory I have come up with, beside age and mellowing time in the bottle (is there such a thing with hard liquor?) is maybe the type of grapes and grains and smaller production batches. I think that a larger production is bound to make a less interesting product. Basic Ryes from the 1960's have more of a rye flavor. Scotches from the same period - even into the early and mid-1970's have more striking flavor than anything I have bought recently by the same companies. The difference is really night & day.
Has anyone out there been doing this? I have bought about a hundred older bottles of liquor like this and have noticed really striking differences in all of today's standards, from rum to whiskey, brandy to cordials (cordials have the lowest survival rate, incidentally). Sambuca & other anise-flavored liquors survive better than most and they always taste much mellower and more complex than their contemporary version.
I would love to hear what anyone else might think about this.
Several years ago, I salvaged about a dozen or more bottles of various whisky from a closet in my Grandparents basement. Each had tax stamps on them dating the bottles to the early 1960s. Included were Canadian Club, VO, Pinch, and Seagram's 7. I noted a distinct intensity in the flavors of each, as well as what appeared to be deeper color. I assumed that this was a consequence of some evaporation having occured thereby concentrating the flavors. Until now, I had never contemplated other causes. I am glad that you posted this and look forward to keeping your thoughts in mind when I try the remaining bottle!
You know, I thought that evaporation might have been a factor (and it might - I'm no pro, just a guy that buys ol alcohol), but I have had a bunch of bottles that showed no evaporation that I could tell. The seals were tight and they were right up to what I assumed to be a normal fill line. But side by side, these tasted completely different.
My prevailing theory is that the production of basic materials - grains, grapes, etc. was different 40 or so years ago. Even the grain might have been different. In the case, of rye, this is especially notable: it tastes like rye.
It really may be evaporation, but I've had a bunch now that have shown no evaporation at all. I have also noticed a lot more of a problem with evaporation and cordials, like Grand Mariner and such. For some reason, these go bad more often - it could be sugar content. The more sugary liquors seem to age badly.
While on a cruise there was a liquor lecture and tasting and the subject of longevity came up. The ships expert said that hard liquor will last indefinitely after opened but liqueurs or cordials will turn after six months of opening. This week I opened a 20 year old bottle of Grand Mariner. The brew survived but the cork had fallen apart when opening. BTW I had a taste of Johnnie Walker Blue on the cruise and found that I didn't like it.
So - does this mean that the recipe itself's been changed? It would have to if the alcohol content were changed, right?
I also hadn't thought of the wood - I'd been stuck on the grains, figuring that larger crops were making a difference.
THis makes some sense as the liquors with the most striking differences are whiskeys and brandies. Haven't noticed much with vodkas and an older gin had a more striking flavor, but I haven't had enough of those (only one old bottle of Boodles and another of Beefeater) to say anything with any confidence.
higher alcohol concentrates flavor more. english gins have stayed the same through out the years. vodkas, not that popular back then, smirnoff was tops and then they started importing stoli, had two bottlings 80 and 100 proof. i don't know if anyone above mentioned it but your old bottles are in quarts, not liters. and the equivelant of a 750 ml bottle was 4/5ths of a quart, ergo the name fifths.
I have had this same experience in the past few weeks. I hate to admit it but I drink Jack on a regular basis usually on the rocks and I have come to take it as my "usual" drink although I enjoy other bourbons (I know Jack is not really bourbon). I'm not an expert but if you do anything a lot.... well, you know.
Last week, I was with a buddy who I grew up with and he said he had some Jack at home so we retired there after an evening out to listen to old albums on the same old stereo we used in the early 80's while in college. He broke out this bottle of Jack. We poured it out and I had a sip - immediately knowing it was "special". I asked to see the bottle and I saw it was 90 proof, no warning labels and it had a paper seal. I turned it over and it was from 1986! It was just back in the cabinet all this time and had not been rotated with the new bottles consumed over the years. Amazing really.
The taste of this old Jack, Black Label, was much more deep, complex, rich and the color was more carmel. It was IMO FAR FAR superior to today's Jack.
I'm on a quest now to acquire more of it to determine if this was a fluke or if the old stuff is better. Apparently from your email there is something to this. I agree with you that the larger batches, inferior materials (probably the newer wood barrels, etc) is the reason. I'm pretty sure it can't age in the bottle.
According to "Bourbon, Straight", older wood (i.e., from older trees) contains more of some substance that makes whiskey (and other spirits) really tasty. Newer whiskey is all aged in barrels from trees that were planted more recently, whereas older stuff is more likely to have been aged in barrels harvested from old growth forests and the like... I wonder what the cutoff point was?
This may shed some more light on the subject as well:
I was reading some reviews of Whiskys in Whisky magazine. Occasionally they review the same Whiskey twice or more, by the same people, e.g. Michael Jackson or Jim Murray etc... and they will remark how a Whisky used to be better or how it improved since the last time they tried it.
I have also read in other places that it looks like for blends which have no age statements they are starting to use younger Whiskys.
Take for example these comments about Jameson's Original (NAS):
Whisky Reviewer Peter Mulryan on Jameson's original:
"Not as interesting as it used to be, this brand teetering on the brink of bland."
This is a comment made by: Aidan (scroll down to see it) in a forum discussing Jameson's.
"The whiskey in the Jameson NAS is getting younger and younger, apparently. Used to be 6 to 8 yrs old, now it's 4 to 6 yrs."
I have seen this being said in both whisky reviews and comments in other places
posted by "brockagh":
"Funnily enough, Irish Distillers don't have a huge amount of stock, so the whiskey that goes into the regular Jameson has gone from 6 to 8 years of age, to 5 to 7 years. I think they've slightly increased the amount of pot still in it.."
Same forum, page four last post on the page, "Gov" says:
"Actually, I think the NAS Jameson is younger whiskey these days, around 4 years old or so. I'll take the 12 year!"
in Whisky Mag Jim Murray's comments about Jameson's original:
"Five or six years back I panned this whiskey: it was lacking in pot still character. Not any more. Now genuinely impressive, charming and characterful"
So this could mean that the quality of drinks fluctuates depending on quality and availability of ingredients. They have their ups and downs, so to speak.
Anyway this is a very interesting point which was brought up.
I occasionally do the same thing. It got started when I got the contents of my grandfather's bar when he went to a retirement community in Florida. Ther were some real treasures in there. a couple of bottles of Bacardi Cuban rum from pre Castro times, a bottle of 30 y/o Ballentine's Scotch, a bottle of 18 y/o Pinch, a bottle of Chivas, 2 bottles of Crown with corks, and miscellaneous liquers and brandies. The rum was phenomenal. I don't share it except very favored friends. I'm down to 1/2 bottle, and am getting progressively more chary with it. the Ballentines is about as smooth as JW Blue, but with a more distinctive flavor. and the Pinch is just excellent sipping whiskey. The Crown is deinitely more pronounced flavor than the current iteration, and although I'm not much of a blended canadian drinker, I like this stuff just fine. I think that there is definitely something to your theory, especially where the product is a large production type.
Varieties of grain and grape *were* different then. #2 Hybrid corn has taken over all of the agribusiness corn, for example. There are other examples which are not quite so well documented.
All agribusiness products have been consistently refined and fiddled with in the past 40 years. Anyone can tell you that an heirloom tomato grown on your own land tastes better than a round red tennis ball grown 3000 miles away, picked before ripening, stored in a vast warehouse and shipped to your grocery store to wait a week before you buy it.
Anyway, the point is that modern grains and grapes are different, designed more for stability and disease resistance, etc, than for flavor or "differences" of any sort. No large corporation with multinational distribution wants their product to vary. And they want the flavor of it to appeal to as broad a base as possible, so things tend to get smoothed out in distinguishing characteristics over time.
What they consistently count on is that not enough of us will recognize the differences. Mostly they end up being justified in that belief, alas.
Ah- it fels really good to have my thoughts confirmed on this one. I had a 12 year old Macallan at my wedding and a friend brought a bottle of Oban 14 year. The Macallan had been bottled in the early 60's and was FAR superior. They really weren't comparable in any way. Unfortunately, we killed that bottle at the wedding (I know a lot of whiskey drinkers), but I had tasted this several times in smaller amounts and it is amazing.
Right now, I have an old bottle of Havana Club from the 70's that a friend brought up from Panama, 1 1970s bottle of dewars and another from the 1960's, an older bottle of JD that I have yet to sample (very interested in this one) and a bottle of american Brandy (don't remember the label at the moment) that is very, very nice. It might have been E&J - I remember being really surprised at the quality of it.
This makes me wonder - does anyone know of any micro distillers that might be addressing this? Anyone that produces with small batches and heirloom grains or something...?
This is a very interesting thread maybe it might have something to do with a reaction with the air in the ullage the gap between the cork and the liquor? Phenols or other chemicals evaporating out or the sugars changing somehow. I saw a bottle of cognac from the 1700's in a local museam and it had a deep brown color like well, poo. Maybe the cork failed or it had been stored near heat and cooked. There did not seem to be a huge loss in level about 3 inches maybe. It was unopened and dipped in wax. I know people have been digging up arctic expedition hooch, and a pre Crimean war schooner hauling champagne and cognac barrels to Russia has been salvaged. Maybe someday we will be able to scan these old treasures to figure out what is in them and not in them, and reproduce them using some aging technique to force the modern distillate to an antique state. That would be cool.
In the one formal wine course I ever took, I seem to recall stories of ancient Greek amphorae being brought up from shipwrecks, still sealed and full of wine. After MUCH anticipation.... the report from those who got to sample said wine? Absolutely tasteless. Whatever life may have been left in it escaped as soon as they cracked the seal and poured. There ARE limits to aging certain beverages. :)
This is a very interesting thread. I recently found some old bottles in my dad's basement that I'm very curious to try. There was a sealed Crown Royal from 1954, a sealed bottle of Schenley's Canadian whiskey from 1955, and an old but undated bottle of Venezuelan rum (Santa Teresa, I believe). My dad and stepmother are not whiskey drinkers; they have no idea where the bottles came from. I'm hoping that the next time I visit they'll let me adopt the mystery bottles. I'm very curious to try them (though I have to admit I'd have a hard time breaking a seal that's been intact for 56 years).
Was fortunate some years back to get a friend's liquor cabinet with 10 assorted Chartreuses and Absinthes , all from 19th C. They were and are still great. Always check house sales for liqueurs and get lucky sometimes. Never noted a lack of quality, generally the opposite. Only time product was without flavor was a Maraschino from the 40's, so now avoid fruit flavored older liqueurs