Now that bars, restaurants and liquor stores in Kentucky can legally sell vintage spirits — thanks to House Bill 100, which passed last March — it’s becoming a trending topic among bourbon experts, drinkers and even history buffs as more and more dusty bottles make their way to the shelves.
In January, Insider caught up with Silver Dollar and The Pearl co-owner Larry Rice as he rolled out a few vintage offerings, and Louisvillians can now find lengthy whiskey lists that include vintage spirits at most of our bourbon bars.
Last week, bourbon historian Michael Veach dedicated his first Bourbon Salon of the year to the subject of “Old Bottles and Collecting,” and his panel included vintage spirits royalty with Bill Thomas and Jared Hyman of the Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., and Jason Brauner of Louisville’s Bourbons Bistro.
The lively and informative discussion was held at Oxmoor Farm, which is where all Bourbon Salons are held, and included a tasting of four bourbons, one of which was a vintage spirit from the early 1960s.
Veach introduced Thomas as “the father of old bottles,” and explained that his D.C. restaurant was one of the first in the country to start offering vintage spirits, as D.C. doesn’t have to abide by state laws.
Thomas actually helped write Kentucky’s legislation, which he based on guidelines he used when writing up the D.C. regulations.
The Jack Rose Dining Saloon currently boasts more than 2,600 bottles of whiskey.
“Jack Rose is a testimonial to how sought after these whiskeys are and how people are willing to pay a premium for them,” said Thomas. “I think it’s a great thing for Kentucky, and I think more and more people will start to take advantage of it. The price point has to be affordable, though.”
Thomas noted that bourbon’s upswing has been interesting to watch and be a part of, and bourbon is now outselling scotch at his restaurant two to one.
“That shows you where bourbon’s trajectory is right now. I just hope you all don’t take all my business,” he joked.
Thomas and Hyman have collected vintage bottles for nearly 20 years, and they often travel the country meeting with people who have some to sell or stopping in small-town liquor stores hoping to stumble upon a gem. Those gems are becoming harder and harder to find.
Veach asked the panel what they look for in an old bottle and what exactly is considered vintage. For example, most would agree that a 1936 bottle of Old Overholt would be considered vintage, but what about the Van Winkle bourbons from 2017?
Hyman, who also runs The Bourbon Source, explained that it’s technically both, but he prefers to use the terminology “rare and vintage” instead of just “vintage.”
“Rare and vintage for me is anything I can’t go buy off a store shelf today,” he said. “That might put me in the minority, but that’s OK. If you can’t get it anymore, it’s instantly becoming vintage. Makes it a struggle to qualify things for sure.”
For Brauner, it’s a little bit different. He’s been an avid old-bottle collector for years and has been known to share some hard-to-find juice with his Bourbons Bistro regulars from time to time. Now that it’s legal to do so, the restaurant has a handful for sale, but pours aren’t flying off the shelf.
“It’s a little light, since it just started in January … people are on a holiday hangover,” he said. “Locals are hit or miss on old whiskey.”
He does believe once Derby season gears up and the convention center is completed, his inventory will sell more steadily. But his passion lies in bourbons and whiskeys that were made before 1980.
“For me, as far as collecting goes, it’s anything before 1980. Anything with a tax stamp on it, I’m a sucker for,” said Brauner.
At the end of the day, Thomas said, the vintage spirits legislation is a way to put bottles in the hands of those most passionate about it — making bourbon and its sordid history more accessible to those who geek out on it.
The attendees of the Bourbon Salon asked questions, sipped bourbon and chatted with the panelists during the event. The most anticipated part of the evening, however, came when Veach opened the dusty bottle of Rare Old Sippin’ Whiskey, bottled in the early 1960s by the now-defunct Double Springs Distillers, which was actually located in eastern Jefferson County.
The bottle came from the private collection of the Bullitt family, which runs the historical Oxmoor Farm estate.
(Fun fact: Evan Williams — yes the Evan Williams — helped build some of the farm’s original house and cemetery, as he also worked as a master stone mason.)
Once samples of Rare Old were poured out for attendees, Veach led a quick toast and everyone took a sip. A collective “Wow!” rose from the room. The thick, dark bourbon was robust for being only 86 proof, and Veach noted hints of chocolate, caramel and tobacco.
These remarkable flavors that were hidden away in a bottle since the ’60s are why vintage spirits will soon help bring more and more tourists and aficionados to Kentucky.
The next Bourbon Salon will be held on Wednesday, April 4, on the topic “Bourbon in Food.”
Vintage spirits hub opens in Lexington
In other vintage spirits news, Justins’ House of Bourbon opened in Lexington on Feb. 10, offering a sort of liquor store/museum hybrid with current bourbons and whiskeys for sale, as well as a huge inventory of vintage bottles.
The concept comes from Justin Sloan and Justin Thompson of The Bourbon Review, who also are avid collectors.
The store currently has about 600 vintage bottles, including an Old Grand-Dad from 1913, a W.L. Weller 7 Year from 1943, and an Old Fitzgerald gallon from the 1970s. There’s also about 150 offerings of products made today.
Sloan tells Insider that most of the collection comes from his and his business partners’ private stocks, and they’ve been toying with the idea for the House of Bourbon since there were rumblings of the vintage spirits legislation getting passed last year.
He believes people are intrigued with vintage spirits because of the history each bottle contains.
“Every time you look at a vintage bottle, it’s a look back in time to really what was being done in the industry at that time,” he says.
Justins’ House of Bourbon is located at 601 W. Main St. in Lexington. They also welcome customers who are interested in selling old bottles and/or learning more about them.