12 Oct 2015
The world of vintage spirits carries a mystique that gradually unfolds and reveals itself as you walk further into it. It is a world in which much has been consigned to oblivion but fascinating new discoveries are often being made. The difficulty is knowing quite how much we do not and will never know, but there are open windows to the past through photographs, films, the spirits themselves, adverts, and books that offer us invaluable insights.
A recent spike in interest in the history of cocktails and bartending has seen a growth in the awareness of early guides and recipe books. The first of its kind, Jerry Thomas’s Bar-Tender’s Guide (1862) is a staple on any barkeep’s bookshelf and an important reference for reconstructing the origins of mixed drinks, their spirits and brands. Similarly, a recent reprint of Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) has proved incredibly popular and the increasing appeal of vintage barware and paraphernalia in general suggests that our fascination with the past remains strong.
As we discover more about our past the perception of our present is shaped and we become aware of the invisible lines that connect the two. Cocktails such as the Martinez and the Negroni are considered timeless classics, but surprisingly W.J. Tarling’s Café Royale Cocktail Book (1937) confines the former to a supplementary list and neglects to mention the latter entirely. Our understanding of spirits – how they were made, used, seen, promoted, and perceived – is an ever-changing sphere as the body of knowledge grows through research, investigation and conversation. The more we discern how contemporary use differs from or resembles that of our predecessors the stronger our grasp of a spirit or drink’s evolution over time.
Usually, a bottle of spirits is bought for immediate or impending consumption. Certain bottles may have their premiere reserved for an auspicious occasion, but the opening ceremony is rarely too far into future. It is a wonder, therefore, that any survive at all. The state of remaining unopened is in defiance of intent. The Old Spirits Company – a London-based specialist in vintage spirits – for example, starts with bottles that have at least thirty years of bottle age and then goes back as far as possible. Their job is to search for survivors. A search and rescue mission, if you will, if rescuing them means to steer them back towards their original fate: that of being drunk.
Imagine the remaining bottles from a case of Gordon’s gin bought for a cocktail party in 1953. In my opinion there is no better way to celebrate their rediscovery than to begin to remove the foil seal for the first time in its long life, one that spans the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Its metal spring-loaded cap sits atop the iconic green, thickset and square-fronted glass bottle. The line By Appointment to the Late King George VI across its shoulder dates it to the era of monarchical transition from one Royal Warrant to the next. From the year in which Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale was published and James Bond’s Vesper first appears – which calls for Gordon’s by name – here is a survivor and it will make one of the finest martinis you’ve ever had.
And speaking of martinis… the Gordon’s Dry Martini Cocktail from its ‘Ready-to-Serve “Shaker” Cocktails’ range is a stunning piece. First introduced in 1924, the shown example dates from the 1950s.
Who thought pre-bottled cocktails were a modern invention…?
Note how the bottle resembles a classic three-piece cocktail shaker, then its similarity to the shape of a bottle of Tanqueray London Dry Gin. As one learns that the companies of Gordon & Co. and Charles Tanqueray & Co. amalgamated in 1898 to form Tanqueray Gordon & Co., the invisible lines that connect the past and present begin to reveal themselves.
One might also consider a 1930s cherry brandy, produced when Britain was home to 40,000 acres of cherry orchards. Today just a tenth of these orchards remain, but to taste a crop that never knew the Second World War is to taste resplendence. Maybe it’s the unopened bottle of Italian Triple Sec that was made when Mussolini was in power that piques interest, or the magnum of pre-Phylloxera cognac, or Churchill’s favourite brand of blended scotch whisky bottled in the 1940s. Perhaps the imperial gallon of Royal Navy rum captures one’s imagination; contained inside a ceramic flagon, housed within a wicker surround then paired and placed in a wooden case as was the traditional way in which rum was carried on ships in order to distribute to sailors their daily ration.
Whilst there is something truly exciting about unearthing an almost-archaeological find such as prising open a wooden case containing two rum flagons that have sat unseen for over seventy years, or dusting off an unopened case of pre-Prohibition American whisky, there is also something equally enthralling about happening upon a very familiar and unassuming bottle that has survived against the odds.
Sometimes these are products that have been discontinued, such as the Pimm’s Nos. 2 - 6 Cups; or an entire company that that became defunct, such as Booth’s, famous for its gin. We might see a bottle whose label or shape has since been markedly altered, revealing a previous incarnation of a product still found today.
The most refreshing occasions are those when there has been no change to a look whatsoever; a resistance to calls to reinvent in order to appeal to a new generation.
One such product that has not changed its design is… Luxardo’s Maraschino, of course. The instantly-recognisable tall, slim bottle in green glass and straw pictured here dates from the 1950s.
Although Luxardo was not the first company to turn Marasca cherries into Maraschino liqueur on the Dalmatian coast. This accolade goes to Drioli in 1759, and succeeding Luxardo was Vlahov in 1861. However, Luxardo has ultimately prevailed.
I often daydream about a blind taste challenge featuring vintage Drioli, Luxardo and Vlahov Maraschino liqueurs. Now, that would be a delight!
A historic Luxardo cocktail
This is taken from Booth’s Anthology of Cocktails (published in the late 1930s) and was their choice for American actress and singer, Frances Day.
¾ Booth’s Gin
¼ Lemon Juice
3 Dashes Maraschino
3 Springs Fresh Mint
Shake well and strain into cocktail glass
A personal Luxardo cocktail
A version of this cocktail was first made for me by Kevin Burke at Colt & Gray in Denver, Colorado. I had asked for a Martinez “as it comes” and have since been a strong advocate for the occasional substitution of sweet for white vermouth. It is a visually striking cocktail in that a very clear drink and one-dimensional as far as colour is concerned can contain and reveal so many wonderful flavours.
2 ½ ounces COLD (City of London Distillery) Old Tom Gin
¾ ounce Ferdinand’s Saar Dry Riesling Vermouth
¾ ounce Luxardo Maraschino
Stirred and strained into a chilled coupe rinsed with Green Chartreuse
Garnish with a washed Luxardo Maraschino Cherry
About the Author
As one half of the Old Spirits Company, Jono was drawn to vintage spirits from a background in history rather than from behind the stick. Based in London, the majority of spirits in the Old Spirits Company holdings date from between the 1930s and 1970s, but record finds include a 1795 cognac, mid-nineteenth century absinthe and an 1868 American Rye Whiskey. At home his tipple of choice is a Negroni using 1950s Campari, 1960s Gordon's Gin, and 1970s Martini & Rossi Red Vermouth; when propping up a bar he asks for the bartender's take on the Martinez.