New vintage spirits law is a boon to consumers, retailers and Kentucky tourism
As of Jan. 1, 2018, bars, restaurants and liquor stores in Kentucky can now legally add vintage spirits to their inventories, a move that benefits both bourbon aficionados and retailers, and also puts just one more notch in the state’s bourbon tourism belt.
Indeed, according to bourbon author and expert Fred Minnick, it’s a game-changer.
“This law, while it won’t make the commonwealth a boatload of money, it does capture an important hobby market,” Minnick tells Insider. “More importantly, it makes Kentucky the end-all, be-all American whiskey tourist destination.”
“It’s an opportunity for Kentucky retailers to do something most other places can’t do,” he tells Insider. “Because it’s Kentucky, and it already has an association with whiskey and whiskey enthusiasts, you can just build on that and make Kentucky special for another reason. Why not add in one more box on the checklist as to why people want to come to Kentucky?”
The law is actually a revision of existing legislation that now states: “A person holding a license to sell distilled spirits by the drink or by the package at retail may sell vintage distilled spirits purchased from a nonlicensed person upon written notice to the department in accordance with administrative regulations promulgated by the department.”
The spirit also has to be in its original container, cannot be open, cannot be owned by a distillery and cannot be a product that is currently for sale. This could mean anything from a pre-Prohibition Belmont Straight Bourbon Whiskey to Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon from, say, 2007.
Only a handful of states have similar vintage spirits statutes, and some prestigious whiskey bars throughout the country often skirt the law if their state doesn’t allow it. The Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., boasts more than 2,600 bottles of whiskey and is renowned for its collection of vintage offerings.
The rules and regulations of the law will be managed by Kentucky’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) cabinet, and so far, little has been stipulated other than the information required from a retailer who purchases a bottle from a private citizen. And even then, it’s fairly basic stuff like name, address, and quantity of bottles being sold, the date, and the license number of the retailer.
ABC did not respond to an interview request from Insider.
Old Whiskey by the Drink
Larry Rice with his personal vintage spirits collection at Silver Dollar | Photo by Sara Havens
Larry Rice, co-owner of Silver Dollar and The Pearl, is one of the first in Louisville to start offering vintage spirits, and while the law is pretty open to interpretation at the moment, he expects that to change throughout the next few months.
ABC is taking suggestions from distilleries, distributors and retailers, but as of now, Rice says, if you have a license to buy and sell alcohol, then you can buy and sell vintage spirits.
Rice says he has been an avid vintage spirit collector for more than a decade, and this legislation allows him to legally share his collection with his patrons.
In fact, Rice already has four shelves of vintage bottles on display at Silver Dollar, of which he’ll open about six at a time for people to purchase tastes from.
Rice says true vintage, to him, means bottles with tax stamps — which dates to 1984 or before. However, he will stock a few bottles from the ’90s, including one he has for sale, the Hiram Walker Ten High, for $15 a pour.
To Rice, it’s all about quality, and he wants to be sure that if customers are spending decent money for a pour of old whiskey, it tastes like it ought to taste. Each bottle he opens will be tested, he says, and each will have its own tasting notes documented on a rotating list.
“I want to make sure everything we open is quality, and we want to keep it that way, so we’ll test it a few times while it is open,” he says. “That’s the only thing I’m afraid of, if too many people get into it and they have zero experience with vintage bourbons, they’re not going to know if something has gone bad.”
Oxidation is bourbon’s biggest enemy, and sometimes bottle seals just don’t hold up through time. Bourbons sold in decorative decanters often evaporate or go bad, and you’ll see slight evaporation in pre-Prohibition-era bottles as well.
Belle of Marion Whiskey was bottled in 1927. Even though the tax stamp is still on, you can see slight evaporation. | Photo by Sara Havens
“They weren’t meant to sit around for 100 years,” Rice points out.
The vintage spirit offerings at Silver Dollar will range from semi-affordable to super-premium — the current list features an Old Taylor from 1974 for $25/pour to an Old Hermitage Rye B.I.B. 5 Year from 1941 for $320/pour — and will continue to rotate as bottles empty.
Rice has quite a home collection of vintage bottles himself, and he’s always in the market for rare finds.
He says people already have been reaching out with bottles they found in their grandparents’ attic or at estate sales, and he welcomes the opportunity to purchase them.
“I’m always looking, so bring those bottles in,” he says, noting that he prices his offers on recent online auctions and also cost/profit margin analysis. In other words, if you’re hoping to get $3,000 for a 2015 bottle of Pappy, he’s not your buyer.
“It doesn’t make sense from a business perspective to buy those bottles,” he explains. “I’d have to charge an exorbitant amount just for one shot.”
In the end, Rice believes the new legislation is good for the state.
“We’re not competing with each other in this, we’re not competing with distilleries, we’re not competing with distributors — we’re competing with other states for tourist dollars,” he says. “That’s the whole idea behind this — to draw people to Kentucky.”
‘Taste the Past’
Jason Brauner, co-owner of Bourbons Bistro, also is an avid vintage spirits collector, and he’s been passionately hoarding bottles for more than 15 years — long before this vintage spirit law was even a possibility.
“I’ve got a pretty good-sized collection, I just don’t know if I can part with some of them,” Brauner says. “I’ve drank a king’s ransom of vintage juice … kinda wish I had some of it back now!”
All joking aside, Brauner confirms that Bourbons Bistro will sell vintage spirits, and it’ll probably be one or two selections at a time. “It also depends what treasures I find down the road as the market opens up a bit,” he adds.
Meanwhile, some retailers, like Westport Whiskey & Wine, are going to tiptoe into the vintage spirits pool.
“With the regulations not having been finalized, I am exercising caution,” says WW&W co-owner Chris Zaborowski. “Many people believe they are going to get ‘rich’ by trying to sell their ‘vintage’ bottles. So I am in no rush. If I find something interesting at a reasonable price, then yes, I will wade into the water.”
Author Fred Minnick | Courtesy of Fred Minnick
At the end of the day, Minnick says vintage whiskey is often a crapshoot, but it’s one he’s excited to legally enjoy.
“Brands are always saying they haven’t changed their recipe. Well then, let’s go taste a 1970s Maker’s Mark or Wild Turkey and see how they hold up to today’s product,” he says. “I think in some cases, today’s whiskey will be better, and in some it will be worse.”
Minnick says he is hoping to find some juice made by National Distillers between 1950-69, and also anything from Louisville’s Stitzel-Weller Distillery pre-1972 — “so pretty much everything,” he jokes.
And while Cowdery wouldn’t say exactly what he’d like to sample — although he did publish his Vintage Spirits Wish List on Monday — he did tell us he’s been a fan of bourbon for more than 25 years and has tasted many things he’d love to revisit.
“It’s so easy, when you can’t have something, to mythologize it,” Cowdery says. “I remember when I was growing up, you couldn’t get Coors in the East — it was only sold out West. It was legendary. I was just coming into drinking age, and it was considered the nectar of the gods. But it was never anything other than just another beer. So I think there’s that — people will have an opportunity to taste the past.”