There is a forum called "Straight Bourbon" I frequent often. I spend much time there reading up and talking with other bourbon imbibers, mostly reading than posting. It's a good community which on the Internet is rare. Luckily there aren't a lot of egos and jackasses giving their moronic opinions in the blunt form and justification of "you suck", which seems so ubiquitous on the Internet these days.
However, I discovered something that I hadn't heard before while reading the forum. Many bourbon fans were doing something called "dusty hunting". Dusty hunting? What is that I wondered? Suddenly my mind flashed back to Ted Haigh's Vintage cocktail book. That book was filled with numerous pictures of old bottles of liquor that he collected. They looked really neat I thought as he talked about ingredients made in classic cocktails that don't exist anymore. What if you could actually find these things?? and then it hit me... Old bottles in liquor stores are called "dusties" because they exist usually in old stores that have been around for decades, products that went on the shelf and never got sold. They went back in a box, or most of the time sat in a shelf somewhere never to be seen again... and normally... collected a lot of dust.
Before I get in to how I acquired these items, I will tell you about what I found first:
- A simple bottle of I.W. Harper bourbon 80 proof including old Maryland tax stamp
- small Hiram Walker bottle of Crème de Noyaux
- small Marie Brizard bottled in France, Crème de Cassis 40 proof
- small Marie Brizard bottled in France, Menthe (probably crème de Menthe) 60 proof
- small half bottle of yellow Chartreuse (I love Chartreuse MAKE ME A BIJOU!)
- Bottle of 20 year James Martin's Fine & Rare scotch whisky
- small bottle of Dekupyer Creme de Menthe (probably white but since turned to yellow)
- Large red ornate bottle of Trave cherry liquer a former Jim Beam product
These items were all found in a nearby liquor store in my area, sitting on a shelf, no joke... collecting a huge amount of dust (except the bourbon which is probably not even that old, and was in a packaged box to keep the dusties away).
I.W. Harper bourbon is no longer made anymore. This bottle is probably not that old and from talking to some bourbon hunters at 80 proof this is probably not their best product, since many hunters seem to prefer some of the higher proof Harper's that existed. However, that is up to personal tastes. It does have characteristics though of a typical dusty, particularly three things. One is that it has a paper seal on top. Two it contains a Maryland tax stamp. Three there is no "government warning" on the label.
Enjoy the bourbon? You mean people will drink this old product? The answer is yes.
Whiskey once taken out of the cask (barrel) and bottled never ages. Unless the bottle was maybe (and this is really stretching it...) sitting in the sun or perhaps exposed to extreme light and temperatures, the whiskey inside is unchanged and is drinkable. Whether it tastes any good is another story ;)
This is why dusty hunting is exciting for whiskey and particularly bourbon drinkers. This bottle of Harper is made (I think) from a distillery that used to belong to a company called Schenley. The label mentions Louisville Kentucky which notes that it came from the old Bernheim distillery, more than likely before it was acquired by United Distillers and Vintners (UDV) in 1987. To drink this whiskey (good or bad as it may be) is drinking a time capsule. Is it worth a lot of money? Probably not. Harper ironically in the day was a "gray market" bourbon, it was sold overseas in Japan for a high cost, but hardly distributed in the US and when it was it was not that expensive. Many people might recognize it, saying... that's what my DAD used to drink all the time...
Now you're thinking what about these other products? Well they are really more for the novelty but there is always the hope in my mind that you can find a product that is no longer made anymore that was used in vintage cocktails (such as bottle of obscure bitters). My mind flashed to being the Indian Jones of the cocktail world. I could find that bitter that no longer exists, or authentic Creme Yvette, resurrect it back from life to other fans and maybe someone could make it again by tasting it. My dreams were starting to get a little too big and grand, but one can still have joy and dreams right? Just for the record Creme Yvette is being made again...
So how was I going to find these things I thought? Well I did my research but also had a lot of misses. I started off... on the wrong foot
Finding dusties is a bit of a science, but mostly a lot of misses. I first tried it without thinking thoroughly first. To find these bottles you need to go to stores that have been around for some time. .
At first I didn't do this. I went off on my breaks in downtown DC usually during lunch hour to some of the downtown liquor stores. I went to one store that many times put overstocked items out on discount.
I saw the proprietor stacking bottles of wine, while I was eyeing the beer fridge. I figured this was a good time to ask him. I went up to him and said,
"Excuse me?" (he replied back yes? do you need help?) "Yes actually, I wondered if you had any old liqour bottles?"
He literally froze in his tracks as if the cooler went to liquid nitrogen and turned him into a block of ice. He stared at me (no joke) for about 3 seconds with icey eyes as if I was trying to score a bunch of drugs or something, then slowly opened his mouth saying...
"What....... do you.... Meeeeeann????"
I then explained that if he had anything in storage that had been around in the shop for a long time that he didn't sell. He then suddenly blurted out OH no naw we don't have any of that! Miss number one.
I realized that this store really wasn't a good candidate. As much as it put out old stock it couldn't sell, it was part of an office building. This didn't fit the profile but it never hurts to ask. I carried that same mantra to other stores in the area but stayed away from glass buildings. I had a feeling about some places near downtown in the gentrified neighborhood of Logan circle. Many of the old liquor stores still remain, but their original owners are gone, probably because they couldn't afford the property taxes as the areas real estate turned into condos and restaurants that now frequent the area. Logan circle used to be filled with prostitutes... those days vanished more than 10 years ago..
Trying my luck in these stores was no better, many of the stores were run by new immigrants who didn't have a clue what the heck I was talking about. I was beginning to give up... but I read that dusty hunters get LOTS of misses before they find anything.
My quest got more focused when I started thinking about my neighborhood. I bought a house 5 years ago, in a DC area that does not have a lot of the bells and whistles that many of the other gentrified areas of DC now have. There was a particular street not far from my house where a common characteristic of the businesses that adorned the sidewalk stood out. The sidewalk if you were to walk down it would repeat the same mantra every 3 blocks... it went... funeral home, check cashing place, box brick sized church, liquor store.. repeat.... There were lots of old liquor stores in my BACK YARD.
I'd occasionally walk to the closest liquor store from my house on the odd occasion out of necessity rather than desire. I would be disappointed knowing they'd never have craft beer, or decent wine stocked. I remember trying to talk to the Asian couple who ran the place who are nice people, but find myself repeating things too often. One time I was shouting numerous times at them behind bulletproof glass about beer they could get me. "FISH what you want a FISH BEER??" No I said "DOGFISH." "What's That! I got a Michelob Light.." To say talking and feeling customer appreciated was hard to accept.
Needless to say, a light-bulb went off when I immediately thought of one place in particular. A few blocks away though was another store I remember trying to go to in the past that was literally older than DIRT. I remember the first time I walked in to it with its wallpapered old posters barely hanging on of bikini clad girls selling weak ass beer, surrounded by glass and locked grated doors. It was a lot like the other places but I was amazed that the building was even standing. The remarkable characteristic of this place was that it contained the old phone number still on the building, and it had nearly NO lights turned on inside, it was like walking into a dungeon. The few bottles on the shelf sat behind in dark recesses, you could barely read the prices in the darkness surrounded by glass and stale air. It felt like a prison in reverse.
The place was run by a VERY old but polite man. I knew this place had to have something. I made my appearance after returning from work and asked him what he had inside.
He told me he'd look around. He went in the back and pulled out the Harper bottle and a few other things. I told him that I'd come back and to let me know if he found any old bottles of bourbon.
I returned again another day, and he let me back behind the glass wall that separated himself from his clientele, where it was easy to show off the dusty shelves. I bought the bourbon from the guy to give him some decent business (I felt like nicknaming him Gramps), but then inquired what my mind was telling me. You need to scope this place out...
"Do you mind if I look around for a bit!??!" I said enthusiastically.
"Naw sure, go ahead I got all night", Gramps replied, only seeming slightly annoyed.
I knew this place had buried treasure. I went looking around and found plenty of dusty things. What I told you about already was more than likely only HALF of what was there. I really got excited when I grabbed and saw the back label of what said "La Chartreuse est encore milleure si on la déguste très fraiche mème glacée".
I held this bottle in my hand shaking... then slowly... cocking my wrist dreaming of what I thought this bottle had to be. I was correct in my guess as I found a very old small half bottle of yellow Chartreuse.
There were others that I found. Marie Brizard products such as a Creme de Casis, and a Menthe product which I am guessing was creme de menthe which once was green but had now vanished and turned in to a gorgeouse blue color. The bottle contents resembled Windex glass cleaner, and I wanted to drink it RIGHT THERE.
There were some other finds, including an old Dekupyer bottle which I think once was clear but now was a yellow. I was stupidly in another world as I bought all these things, relishing and giving them new life and appreciation. My mind raced as to how long a bottle of James Martin's 20yr Scotch had been sitting on the shelf, its label browned and faded barely held on by scotch tape so old you could never get it off.
The other thing that struck me about the cocktail liquor ingredient bottles were how small they were. Back in the day cocktails were not the grand drinks that are served and shlepped in to peoples faces today. Back then cocktails were smaller, and for a reason. The drinks were small, they stayed cold, and you slowly savored them. You weren't served a 12oz martini and drinking its warm soupy contents for 20 minutes. You got probably a 4 1/2 oz glass at largest, and it was 3 wonderful sips to imbibe and finish with much joy.
I found a small bottle of what is Crème de Noyaux which at first got me real excited. For a moment I thought I found an ingredient that is no longer in production. Turns out I was wrong Hiram Walker still makes this product, but the bottle I had in my hand was not a pink/red color of its more recent sibling, it had turned to an almond brown. Or was it always this color to begin with???? The other thing about the bottles is that they had recipes on the back for cocktails. The Hiram Walker Crème de Noyaux was to be used back in the day for a classic cocktail known as... "The Pink Squirrel", an after dinner drink as for the few of us cocktail fans know about. I normally see this drink made with what is now called Creme de Almond.
I pulled the bottle out and showed it to Gramps. "Yeah Pink Squirrel" he bellowed out, "Yeah I remember back in the day when people use to make those all the time! At one point they were very popular" he mentioned while helping someone get a pack of Coors Light. The irony was not lost on me.
We sat and talked about classic ingredients as I pulled each one off the shelf. The irony is I could have been with Gramps all evening with the things he found in the store, but he wanted me out of there so he could do other things.
I paid the guy and took my first dusty collection home. I remarked about how I was excited to take the bourbon home. "So.. you going to stick that in Ebay!?!" he said.. "HELL NO" I said... "I am going to drink it if I can!!" I remarked enthusiastically... Who knows I like the bottle and its bronze hue so much I think I'll just keep it as is for when I stock my home bar again.
"Well yeah I remember that bourbon from times ago," Gramps remarked leaving with me some final words that will stay with me more poignant than ever.
"Nobody drinks bourbon anymore..."
Well Gramps I got news for you....
yes they do my friend.... yes they certainly do.