Why Do Bartenders Collect Discontinued Bottles?

Crguk-Wine

When you walk up to the compact bar at Nightmoves and peer at its middle shelf, you probably won’t recognize any of the bottles.

This isn’t a flex or a putdown of your spirits knowledge. It’s a testament to the bevy of discontinued, rare, and one-off bottles of spirits that stand front and center at the Williamsburg, Brooklyn establishment’s shelves. It’s the bar equivalent of a vintage Dennis Miller rant: obscure, esoteric, and nearly impenetrable. When you discover the juice inside these mysterious bottles, however, they can turn into vessels of joy. According to bar director Orlando Franklin McCrary, that’s been the entire point of the collection from day one.

“On the day we opened, I got a card from my wife,” he says. “It read, ‘nothing to prove, everything to share.’ That’s what we do. If I have a bottle, it’s because I want to share it. If someone wants it to look like a trophy and not share what they have, they’re in the wrong business.”

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Fortunately, bartenders who collect discontinued bottles tend not to be greedy hoarders. When a long-gone label or a dusty bottle altered by time lands in their possession, most are happy to distribute pours of their good fortune with those who are curious, either at their bar for an appropriate price or breaking bread at home with friends. What these bottles are, and how they landed in their clutches, naturally becomes part of the story.

Discovering Bottles

When it comes to collecting discontinued bottles, time and place are everything. These metrics can give bartenders distinct advantage over the public when it comes to nabbing inscrutable beauties, given their obvious ties to the industry. “I don’t do a lot of searching. I tend to lean on my distributors,” explains Javelle Taft, head bartender at Death & Co.’s flagship New York City location. “It’s not exactly insider trading, but when a distributor tells me, ‘You may not be getting this bottle again,’ it sparks lots of inspiration to pick up a few bottles for myself.”

“We get a lot of bottles through our brokers,” McCrary adds. “The wine director at [Nightmoves’ sister property] The Four Horsemen is also a good connection. We are very fortunate that we can find the stuff that we can.”

For some industry professionals, using shortcuts is no match for walking into the unassuming corner liquor store and spotting a defunct bottle of booze, covered in dust and cobwebs thick enough to entangle vermin. However, those who revel in the thrill of the chase admit that hunting down the ghosts of spirits past is more challenging than ever, particularly when personal budgets come into play. Part of the difficulty stems from liquor store owners becoming increasingly savvy about their inventories. “Back in 2014, you’d be able to find great offers on rare bottles and aged spirits,” explains Josh Lucas, Woodford Reserve’s Southwestern U.S. ambassador. “These days, it’s rare to find a liquor store that doesn’t know exactly what they have.”

Once these bottles are acquired and displayed, they aren’t necessarily meant to be the source of bragging rights like an arbitrarily decided-upon and suddenly allocated unicorn. Rather, seeing a discontinued or advanced-aged bottle in the wild can spark a unique dialogue about its context and providence. Yet such chatter only goes so far — as with any bottle of booze, it’s what’s inside that ultimately counts. “A discontinued bottle can be a great conversation piece,” Taft says. “But it still has to taste good.”

A Moment in Time

Any brand that’s ceased production is a discontinued bottle, but not all discontinued bottles are brands that have ceased production. This confusing if not seemingly contradictory statement aptly explains why bartenders and industry pros tend to bring out old bottles of liquor and liqueurs when conversations about lost labels occur.

Unlike wine, spirits do not age in bottle. A distilled spirit does require proper storage conditions to prevent degradation, such as keeping it at room temperature and out of direct sunlight, but it’s not going to evolve like a prized bottle of Bordeaux. Yet this does not mean age doesn’t matter. An older version of a contemporary bourbon or gin can provide the collector a tasty snapshot of the juice’s providence from a certain point in time. In other words, any differences in flavor between a bottle of Plymouth Gin from the 1940s and the bottle of Plymouth Gin you picked up last week can be attributed to how it was made back in the day. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi from “Return of the Jedi,” calling an aged spirit a discontinued spirit is true — from a certain point of view.

Herbal and botanical liqueurs made without excess sugars, flavorings, or similar additives are their own animal. An unopened bottle of amaro or green Chartreuse will evolve over time, providing different flavor experiences over the years — something that also gives bar pros an excuse to mourn the loss of the aged Chartreuse collection housed by NYC’s dearly departed Pouring Ribbons. This makes collecting old bottles of specific liqueurs a high priority for the collection-minded bar pros seeking bottles with flavor profiles that don’t quite exist in today’s marketplace. “An old bottle of Galliano from before the 1960s tastes just like Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” Lucas says. “That makes it very fun to put behind a bar.”

Another factor that’s boosted interest in these bottles is the resurgence of cocktails from the “disco drink” era of the 1970s through the 1990s, particularly since some of the liqueurs that fall into the category have been saddled with not-so-great reputations. “It depends on the product,” Taft says. “But when you see what a spot like Katana Kitten is doing with Midori, it gets you excited about exploring them a little more.”

Old Bottle, New Idea

Not all discontinued bottles are worth tasting. Liqueurs imbued with added sugars, fruit juice, or cream aren’t shelf-stable in the long term and will go bad after a certain timeframe. One of the more obscure yet nonetheless infamous examples of this is Chartreuse Orange, a failed concoction from the 1970s consisting of Green Chartreuse and orange juice. “The bottle is the best thing about it,” McCrary states. “If you find a bottle, you shouldn’t be drinking it. You might get sick if you do.”

Despite this warning, trying a Chartreuse-branded liqueur that disappeared from the market five decades ago does intrigue. So much so, it compelled McCrary to create his own version of Chartreuse Orange, tweaking the recipe by clarifying the juice and lowering the proof from its original 17 percent to 14 percent. “It sounded like it could be good, so I wanted to make it myself,” he said. “I never tasted the original, so I made it based on what I think it should taste like.”

The result of McCrary’s experimentation is another offering that you may not recognize when you belly up to the compact bar at Nightmoves and peer into its middle shelf. Even though it’s technically a riff, it fits in with the rest of the collection. And like any proper discontinued spirit obtained and displayed by a bartender, it’s ready to deliver joy to the inquisitive drinker.