Feel like traveling back in time but don’t have a way-back machine? Your taste buds may get there before the rest of you. Using impossibly rare vintage spirits and essentially the most cutting-edge scientific means at their disposal, distillers and historians are working in tandem to enable us to drink the past. Finding a Cognac from 1840, or a Scotch whisky from the early 1900s, is no longer restricted to eBay obsessives and auction-goers who can afford a couple of months’ salary for a bottle of booze. Long-gone spirits from centuries gone by at the moment are resurfacing in your local liquor emporium, and they won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Listed below are three of my favorites, sure to please readers of both “The Art Of The Cocktail” and “Time And Again.”
BOLS BARREL-AGED GENEVER (42% alcohol by volume, aged 18 months, $49.99 suggested retail price). At the dawn of the cocktail era within the early 19th century, gin was not yet London Dry, and most Americans didn’t even drink the stuff. Instead, they drank its Dutch forebear, genever. Even as recently because the early 20th century, many gin cocktail recipes called for the stuff, also known as “Holland gin.” Genever, along with using the neutral spirits and juniper-based botanicals known in today’s gin, also employs maltwine, a mixture of corn, rye and wheat which provides it a smooth, malty, slightly sweet flavor. Genever has made a comeback within the U.S. in recent times, led by the aggressive marketing campaign of Lucas Bols, a company that’s been distilling since 1575.
Bols Genever is not generally considered one of the best by individuals who know their genever. I am no expert, and I am not crazy about it either. But their new Barrel-Aged Genever — or old, rather, for the reason that recipe dates back to the 19th century — is a completely gorgeous spirit. The genever is aged in American oak barrels for about 18 months, transforming it into something resembling a young bourbon more than a gin, both in appearance and flavor. The corn within the maltwine involves the fore and mixes beautifully with the botanicals and the wood, without the burn you can get from young whiskeys. In a cocktail like a Manhattan or a Martinez, it is light and smooth but with loads of flavor and complexity. If you’re a genever novice, this is a superb place to start though the wood aging places it aside from other brands. And if you live outside the USA, you might find getting hold of a bottle a bit of a challenge — for now, it’s an American exclusive.
PIERRE-FERRAND COGNAC 1840 ORIGINAL FORMULA (45% ABV, age not stated, $45). The place, New Orleans. The time, mid-1800s, pre-Civil War. You stroll right into a tavern and order a mint julep — one of the oldest cocktails still consumed today. But instead of the bourbon-based cocktail we all know today, you are served a drink made with Cognac. Now, once you think Cognac, the very first thing that probably involves mind is the dense, heavy, woody after-dinner sipping spirit that is marketed today by Remy Martin or Courvoisier, to name just two.
‘Twasn’t always the case. Back in the days of top hats, spittoons and the Missouri Compromise, quite a lot of Cognacs were lighter and fruitier than their 21st century descendants, and like whiskeys, were meant to be mixed in addition to sipped. Unless you’ve got found some really old bottles in your basement, you probably have not had a Cognac like 1840 Original Formula. It’s modeled, in keeping with Pierre-Ferrand, “on an impossibly rare and impossibly well-preserved bottle of Pinet-Castillon Cognac from the year 1840.” Assisting their cellar-master in creating this Frankenstein of brandies was the legendary cocktail historian, author and all-around bon vivant, David Wondrich. Having his name attached to any spirit is, to my mind, the ultimate seal of approval.
What impressed me most about 1840 Original Formula is that it’s more alcoholic than most well-known Cognacs (90 proof in comparison with 80 proof), but it is far more vibrant and flavorful, but with much less of an alcoholic burn on the finish. As intended, it really works beautifully in cocktails — try it instead of whiskey in a julep or Sazerac, or in a lesser-known vintage cocktail like a Chanticleer. Or sip it straight and change your eager about what Cognac is imagined to taste like.
MACKINLAY’S “SHACKLETON” RARE OLD HIGHLAND MALT WHISKY (47.3% ABV, aged 8-30 years, $180). The Scotch of choice for history buffs and would-be time travelers is also a damn fine whisky for many who simply wish to drink the stuff as well. I wrote about Shackleton’s Scotch a couple of months ago at length, but now that it is available Stateside (in very limited quantities), it is worth mentioning again. Few spirits have captured the general public’s imagination the way in which this one has, and with good reason. It isn’t often, after all, that a “new” whisky is a painstaking recreation, from flavor all the way down to the label design, of a whisky that was buried in ice for a full century by the good Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton.
In a nutshell, the Shackleton team’s hut was abandoned after a failed attempt to succeed in the South Pole in 1909. Among the many items left behind — and preserved in the dry and frigid Antarctic climate — were crates of Mackinlay’s Scotch, which lay undisturbed and undiscovered until 2006. The brand had been discontinued by the point distillers Whyte & Mackay bankrolled the crates’ excavation and recovery (and, once they were done testing, sampling and replicating the whisky, their return). But like a phoenix rising from the ashes (or perhaps the snowdrifts), Shackleton’s Scotch has returned, to be enjoyed by explorers and shut-ins alike.
Even without the backstory, Shackleton’s Scotch is well worth a taste. A blend of Highland and Speyside malts of assorted ages (including the now-defunct Glen Mohr from its final year of distillation, 1983), it’s light and quite dry with a slight mineral edge, redolent of earth and grass, with numerous pepper and only a hint of smoke. Adding a pair drops of water opens it up and softens it considerably, bringing notes of lemon, vanilla and honey. It is beautifully complex — each sip reveals something new. Only 50,000 bottles were made for worldwide sale, and only a fraction of those are available in the U.S. And once they’re gone, they’re gone, barring a trip within the time machine back to when there have been still bottles to be had.