Whether you’re looking for an unusual gift for a favorite spirits-lover or just want a literal taste of the past, join the growing number of “dusty hunters.” These are people who scour liquor stores, antiques auctions and estate sales for old, long-forgotten liquor bottles and other collectible spirits. Some are quite valuable; others are intriguing or eye-catching oddities, gathering dust (hence the nickname) while newer models get snatched off the shelves.
Edgar Harden, founder and director of the London-based Old Spirits Company, which sells collectible bottlings from around the world (anything from Andy Warhol-era Absolut Vodka bottles to a 1795 Cognac), offers some pointers for hitting the dusty trail.
How to Find Collectible Spirits
For those who value “the brick-and-mortar” experience, Harden points toward Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City, Flask Fine Wine & Whisky in Los Angeles and The Whisky Exchange in London for old and/or rare bottles. He notes that liquor stores in rural areas might have older stock, too. “For those with a bit more sense of adventure and a sense of risk, there’s the yard sale or garage sale.” He also advises a Google search for vintage spirits: “amateur groups may come up, who trade amongst themselves.” (You can also sign up for alerts at Harden’s venue)
To figure out how old that funky-looking bottle might be, peer at the label and then flip the bottle upside down, where dates are often stamped on the glass.
“Some brands were only made during a certain period,” Harden explains. For example, Campari Cordial raspberry liqueur (1892-1992) might be a score; or advocaat (a traditional Dutch beverage made from eggs, sugar and brandy) is rarely seen in the U.S., so any brand would be a find.
Found an intriguing-looking bottle? A number of clues can help in figuring out what you have, Harden says. Look for U.S. tax stamps, which appear on bottles starting in the 1930s; Scotch, gin or other products imported from the U.K. might include a Royal Warrant, signifying which monarch reigned when that bottle was made; look for importer names and addresses on the label, and run a search to find when that importer was working with the producer in question.
It’s impossible to make a specific bottle magically appear, but you may find something special anyway. “I think of finding bottles as a gift,” Harden says, “rescuing survivors and setting them back on their course to being drunk.”