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
Know Where to Look
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)
Look for Dates on the Bottle
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.
Snap up Discontinued Brands
“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.
Do Some Detective Work
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.”