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May 3, 2008 10:20 PM

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.

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  1. 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!

    8 Replies
    1. re: MGZ

      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.

      1. re: luckycat

        I will admit the seals were tight as well and I could not notice an obvious decrease in the level of the liquid in the bottle.

        1. re: luckycat

          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.

        2. re: MGZ

          Back then in most instances the proofs were higher, now everything is 80 proof. All the bourbons had 86 proof and "bottled in bond" 100 proof. CC, VO, Seagrams were all 86. Jack Daniels was 90 proof now it's 80 proof. The magic number for Dewars was 86.8.

          1. re: byrd

            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.

            1. re: luckycat

              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.

              1. re: byrd

                A fifth was called that because it is 1/5 of a gallon, not 4/5 of a quart... BUT, they are actually the same amount. 25.6 oz. When they switched too 750 ml all the companies charged the same price, or even increased it, but 750 ml is slightly less than a fifth, 25.36 oz.

              2. re: luckycat

                The recipe does not have to change for different proof. The bottler simply has to add more water. I believe most whiskey is distilled out at something in the 140-proof range, so there is plenty of room between there and 80 in which to play.

          2. Hi Luckycat,
            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.

            1 Reply
            1. re: jbmbspa

              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?

            2. 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

              another forum:
              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.

              1. 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.

                1. 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.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: fussycouple

                    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...?

                    1. re: luckycat

                      I'm not sure if the age has anything to do with it in this case. At least in my book, today's Macallan 12 is far superior to Oban 14. Give me a bottle from the '60s, and it will still be far superior!